This week I had someone throw anger at me. The anger was verbal but felt physically startling, like a slap in the face. It came abruptly, as if a wild animal were springing forth from a suddenly opened cage. The cause of the anger was a decision I’d been involved with over a year ago, although I’d never interacted with this person about that event.
What did I do when the anger came at me? I defended myself. I started explaining and justifying. I felt my own anger rising, my sense of being unjustly accused. I heard the irritation in my voice, and I recognized my desire to clear my name.
What do I wish I’d done? I wish I’d said calmly and quietly, “I’m sorry you’re still so upset about [this decision].” I wish I could have acknowledged her feelings and felt a modicum of compassion. After all, for her to feel that anger a year later spoke to a deeper meaning for her. I suspect she felt a loss, felt that something had been taken from her. Seeing me may have reminded her of that loss, and then the pain leapt out of her and came at me.
When I am working with families of clients, I am alert to this kind of anger. I shore up my boundaries—my psychological separateness—and prepare myself for waves of anger, sadness, and fear. I create mental layers of protection so that others’ emotions won’t penetrate so deeply into my psyche and trigger emotional reactions. When I work with people, I know that their emotional responses are about them, not me, and I strive to listen to their story rather than writing my own.
But in the heat of a surprise attack on an ordinary day, in an ordinary environment, I am less prepared. The emotion that comes at me hits an undefended target and cuts through to my own vulnerabilities. I lose my balance and get into an escalated exchange that is distasteful and incomplete (and also embarrassing when witnesses are present).
Within a few minutes of this incident I recognized my defensive reaction and began returning to some emotional balance. I then wanted to say “the right words” to this person and repair the conversation, but she was gone.
Why does this interaction stick with me? Does it matter that I felt attacked, or that I defended myself? I have no fears that I did harm (my self-defense was content driven, not a reverse attack on her). Most likely she’s already forgotten the incident. This is now just about me.
So I use the incident as an emotional check, a boundary tune-up. I do this not because I want to be a saint-like paragon who never reacts personally but because so many emotional moments simply don’t matter and aren’t about me. If I’m going to feel anger, I want it to be my own—not dumped on me by someone else—and I want it to matter. Anything else is a waste of good energy.
Questions for Reflection: How do you react when you feel attacked? What experiences come to mind in which your emotional boundaries were challenged? What helps you return to emotional balance after a difficult interaction?
Writing Prompts: “I know my boundaries are failing when ______” (then keep writing); “I remember getting very defensive when ______” (then keep writing); “I can tell I’m coming back into balance when ______” (then keep writing); “My best strategy for staying calm in a tough interaction is ______” (then keep writing).