When Anger masks Embarrassment

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My bonus kid is living with us doing virtual school this fall. Our house rules are different from what she’s used to. One rule is no phones until AFTER all of your schoolwork is done for the day, you’ve finished your chores, gotten 30 minutes of exercise, and spent at least 30 minutes being creative without the help of any sort of electronic device. THEN you can have your phone for a while.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with those rules, they’re ours, and she agreed to them when we collectively made the decision for her to live here and do school this fall. On Friday, I passed through the room where she was working, and found her on her phone, as well as watching music videos on YouTube. I reminded her of the rules and asked her to put the phone away and close the tab. She was unhappy and immediately got defensive and angry, claiming she was doing nothing wrong. It escalated from there.

Getting caught doing something wrong is embarrassing. Pride and self-preservation cause us to reach for the defenses and protect ourselves from attack. I’ve yet to meet another human who enjoys being called out, no matter how gently it’s done.

But what do you do from there? If you are emotionally intelligent enough to realize quickly what’s happening, you might be able to immediately accept responsibility for your mistake. You might apologize if you’ve offended or upset someone. You might acknowledge that you weren’t doing what you were supposed to do, and ask to offer an explanation about why you chose to do it anyway. In all cases, some level of acceptance that you’ve made a mistake is appropriate and usually expected.

When anger is the response to being embarrassed, things get dicey. You may say things you regret or escalate the situation way beyond what it was at the outset. Emotions that live right under the surface may come out, turning a simple situation into a complex one with lasting consequences.

Response to an incident is situational, taking into account the relationship you have with the person who has pointed out your error, your frame of mind at the time, your ability and willingness to accept responsibility for your choices, and even your ability to recognize all actions as choices.

Speaking from the perspective of someone who did the calling out and induced an unpleasant response on this particular occasion, I’ve come to realize the best thing I can do is not take responsibility for that response. It’s not about me. It’s about the other person’s inability to accept that a mistake was made. Unfortunately, the situation in our house has grown quite tense due to the escalation that ensued. As I struggle through my Monday morning, I have come to this understanding.

The reaction wasn’t about me.

It was about the other person and what she is going through right now. It was about her circumstances, emotional state, and other very complicated things that I do not control. What I can model for her is how you come back from that once you’ve taken it too far. It happens to me all the time.

So how do you come back from it? One step at a time, to be cliché. It must start with a willingness to accept that a mistake was made. To apologize for lashing out because of embarrassment. To ask how you might earn back trust/respect/affection. Then begin taking those steps to do just that.

Where can you help someone else learn and grow from their mistakes, rather than leaving them isolated to “pay” for them? How can you model empathy instead of reacting to anger with more anger? Last week was the 19th anniversary of 9/11. While that was an incredibly difficult and painful time in our nation’s history, what I miss about it is the way in which we all came together, regardless of things that traditionally divide us. We could use a whole lot of that right now. Let it start with each of us in the smallest ways possible in our own lives. Maybe in our own living rooms.

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