- Michael Thompson
Three exercises to help you choose thoughtfulness over rage
My son and I were having breakfast, and he did something two-year-olds often do: He spilled his milk. Before the liquid even flowed off the table and dripped onto the floor, I verbally lost my temper in a way I’m ashamed of. And my reaction petrified him.
Our words hold power, both good and bad. Every time you yell at someone or demean them, you are hurting them. Because the world forces people to stuff their emotions away, you may never see the results of your outbursts. With kids, though, it’s different. My son’s wet cheeks and shaking hands told me everything I needed to know.
While I wish I could hit rewind on that moment at the breakfast table, something good did come out of it. My son motivated me to get better. These three exercises help me to keep cool when other people test my patience.
Journal from the perspective of the people you’ve hurt
I told my wife about how I’d lost my temper and scared our son. I blamed my actions on the stress I was under at work and my lack of sleep. She didn’t get angry, nor did she give me a speech about the importance of demonstrating restraint. Instead, she reminded me of the universal truth: Excuses never solve problems.
She encouraged me to sit down and write about the experience from the perspective of my son: How would I have felt if someone twice my size had reamed me out for a small mistake? How did I feel when my own father reacted in the same way? Did I pull back the next time he tried to hug me? An exercise like this can be painful, but it can help you bandage old wounds — and prevent new ones.
Ask for help from trusted advisors
Earlier this year, a reader reacted strongly to my article “Stop Thinking Having Kids Will Kill Your Dreams.” She questioned how empathetic I was toward women. My initial instinct was to fight back: I felt that she had misunderstood the point of my piece, and I was eager to justify my actions.
However, following the advice of a friend, instead of pouring gas on a small fire, I first reached out to a number of women to get their opinions. I wanted to know if the critique held weight. It didn’t take me long to learn that it did. Those women not only helped me to see this; they also offered to work with me on the response I drafted. I learned a valuable lesson: Trust isn’t only built by getting things right. It’s also built by opening ourselves up to learn how to act when we do something wrong.
Take a moment to breathe
On the way to work one day, my wife and I were arguing about a situation that I refused to drop. When we parted ways, I said some version of the words no one deserves to hear: “I’m right and you’re wrong.” That evening, our warm bed was cold.
But because I’ve been working on controlling my temper, my reactions have changed. My wife and I recently got into another argument. This time, I recalled my mother’s advice: “Insisting on getting in the last word is the fastest way to lose an argument.” I took a few deep breaths, looked my wife in her eyes, apologized, and we moved on to a happier subject. Later that afternoon, I received a three-word text message: “I love you.”
A great deal of our happiness comes down to the quality of our day-to-day interactions with others. When a conversation begins to turn south, pause and ask yourself these questions: Is this really worth it? Even if the other person admits defeat, will I have actually won? Is this the best way to spend time with the people I care about?
People are going to do things that annoy us — infuriate us, even. However, by experimenting with ways to develop self-control when little things go wrong, you’ll be better equipped to handle the big ones when life sends them your way.
Nowadays, whenever my son spills his milk, I grab a towel and joke: “I told you to stop feeding our imaginary cat from the table.” Then we clean up the mess together.