He was brilliant. He was arrogant. He was accomplished in his field.
He openly and jokingly referred to himself as a “pompous ass.”
He wasted no time in criticizing my writing, often aggressively, but because of his critiques, I got my first piece of writing published in a national publication.
He was hilarious. He was a handful. He was my friend.
But when I spent time with my friend, something peculiar happened.
I would find myself getting annoyed at him… but it was a level of annoyance that went far beyond the point of reason.
It wasn’t just a fleeting moment of irritation. (“Hmm. I didn’t appreciate that comment.”)
I’d find myself wanting to run away, cry or explode. (“I CAN’T STAND YOU!!!”)
After many months of friendship with this man, I found myself wondering:
“What IS it about this guy? Why am I feeling such intense emotion around him? He really hasn’t done anything that bad. What is UP with me?”
I didn’t grasp it fully, then, but today… I know the answer. (Over two decades of experience as a therapist, plus lots of personal growth work, has made me wiser about these kinds of things.:)
When we feel a level of anger that is out of proportion to the situation at hand — a kind of anger that lasts for more than ten to fifteen seconds and grips our whole being — this usually indicates that we’ve got some unresolved emotions about something that happened in the past.
It could be something that happened involving the person right in front of us. And / or something that happened involving somebody… else.
My annoyance at my friend persisted — in a way that was “over the top” or “irrational,” so I did some exploring.
I tried to identify the deeper source of my anger — so that I could resolve it. For real.
I started with these three questions:
1. “I feel intensely annoyed right now. When have I felt this angry before?”
When my “pompous ass” friend would harshly criticize my writing, it took me right back to my childhood.
I could practically hear my mother’s voice coming out of his mouth. Nothing I ever did was “perfect” enough for her impossible standards (or that’s how it felt to me.)
All of the “old anger” I still felt towards my mother got swirled together with the “fresh anger” that I felt towards my friend. The result? A double-wallop of annoyance that would burn and hover around me, long after the writing critique was over.
By thinking about when we’ve felt such intense anger before, we can start to track down the source of the unresolved emotions that are making us feel… a bit crazy.
2. “What’s the lesson that I need to learn, here?”
My lesson? Simple. My friend’s arrogance was triggering unresolved emotions in me for which I needed to take responsibility. I needed to resolve the anger I was still carrying around about my mother and how I felt she raised me.
3. “What’s one positive step I can take?”
There are lots of ways to release negative emotions, but what really worked for me was to thwack a pillow with a towel that I’d knotted on one end, repeatedly, in private, while vocalizing my feelings out loud (example: “I am SO MAD!”).
I thwacked out my angry feelings about my friend. I thwacked out my old, hardened anger about the past. I punched until I felt a “letting go”… a sense of relief.
It’s not necessary to thwack so hard that we break a sweat or build up our biceps… nor do we need to yell — just hard enough and loud enough to create a release. (I’ve been using this method with clients in my practice for over twenty years. It’s the most effective process I’ve ever found. Believe me. It works.)
The next time I got together with my friend, things were different — in a really good way. He was still arrogant… but my annoyance was fleeting, instead of all-consuming.
I was no longer harboring all that underlying anger, which had caused me to overreact.
I actually found myself feeling grateful to that relationship for being such an important teacher, for bringing to my attention that reactive pattern which I needed to break.
Think about someone who makes you feel annoyed… beyond the point of reason.
Consider taking yourself through the trio of questions, above.
See if you can get a little more clarity about why you’re feeling so “triggered.”
See if you can let some of the old anger… go.
And then, the next time you face off with the person who (usually) drives you crazy, you might find yourself responding a bit differently.
You might even feel grateful.
And if you’re feeling brave, you might even want to say:
“Thanks to you, I learned something about myself. Thanks to you, I am lighter and less burdened than ever before. Seriously… thank you.”
Dr. Suzanne Gelb is a psychologist, life coach and family law attorney who believes that Love is the answer to every question. Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 100 TV interviews and online at The Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, The Muse, Tiny Buddha, and more. Step into her virtual office at DrSuzanneGelb.com and sign up to receive a soothing meditation and her weekly writings on health, happiness and self-respect. You can also follow her on Twitter and FB.
Learn about Suzanne’s new digital guidebook, The Life Guide On How to Deal With People Who Drive You Absolutely Nuts.
Image courtesy of Viktor Hanacek.