Wow! Sometimes I shock even myself with my behavior. A few days before Christmas was one of those times. If mistakes are opportunities to learn (and I truly believe they are), then this was a BIG opportunity.
The holidays can often bring up extra emotion and stress, but this year, I thought I had a handle on it. I consciously tried to keep things simple, not overcommit, and create space and time to relax and be with my family.
And yet, a few days before Christmas, upon pulling myself out of bed, I just felt “off . . .”
The dirty dishes in the living room and scattered shoes in the hallway that I could normally brush off seemed bigger and more personal. An argument with my daughter fueled the irritation even more. Seeing my kids sit around playing computer games and watching YouTube didn’t help my mood. A misunderstanding about evening plans with my husband followed, all while I made plans and ran errands to create a memorable Christmas day for my family. (Yes, you are indeed hearing martyrdom there! Sigh.)
At the end of the day, absolutely blazing with resentment, irritation, and anger about EVERYTHING that had and had not happened that day, I went up to my room to re-center. But my lid was sooooo flipped at this point that the anger took over, and it pushed me right back downstairs.
(Watch this short video from interpersonal neurobiology expert, Daniel Siegel, about Flipped Lids.)
I kneeled down next to my son as he played his computer game, looked him right in the eye, and said quite calmly, “If you don’t turn that *F-ing* thing off right now, I’m going to throw it out the window.” I stood up and walked away. Boom!
For some of you, this particular expletive pushes serious buttons. For others, it’s simply one of many useful adjectives you can use to emphasize a point. My F-bombs rarely drop at home, so when they do, eyes widen. My son did abruptly end his game.
The moment I got back to my room, I regretted it. I knew immediately that I had completely lost it and poured my hot, slimy anger all over my son, who had done nothing wrong.
Yes, he had been on his computer all day… but we had not agreed on any screen time limits for the holiday break in advance. This was my problem, not his.
I re-learned a lesson I’ve learned many times before: When your lid is flipped, RESIST the urge to speak!
Shortly after, he came to my room to ask what was going on. I relayed a list of the injustices I had experienced all day (including menopause!) to explain my behavior, followed by a quick “I’m sorry.”
He replied, “I don’t appreciate you speaking to me that way,” and left.
It was a rough night. One of those times when you beat yourself up, over and over, for your pathetic behavior. At times like this, self-compassion is hard to find, but it’s exactly what we need in order to feel hope and move forward. It took me a while to find mine. (Read why self compassion works better than self esteem. Read about self-efficacy, a related term, here.)
The next morning, I was still wallowing and slept late. But after silently whining for an hour in bed, I remembered a concept I share with coaching clients all the time: wallowing in the past is not helpful, because we have absolutely no control over it.
And thus came the second lesson I learned: There’s nothing I can do to change the past. Worrying about it will only push me deeper into despair. All I can do is focus on the present, and on what I can do here and now to learn from my mistakes: to make amends the best I can, and try hard to be the kind of person I want to be going forward.
(Here’s a short video explaining this concept: The Circles of Influence, originated by Steven Covey.)
With that thought, I got up, showered, and journaled about what had happened the day before. Then I wrote out an apology for my son. I felt so much better. I said what I needed to say, even if it was just to a piece of paper.
My lid was down now. Although still a bit fragile, I truly felt calm and grounded, so I gave myself permission to approach my son. “I’ve thought a lot about what happened last night,” I said, “and I’d like to apologize, when you’re ready.”
“I’m not ready yet,” he said.
Later in the day, I asked again, and he agreed to listen. I basically recited the letter I had written to him. I actually felt proud of myself for modeling it, because it had all the earmarks of a meaningful apology:
- I took responsibility for my behavior. Real apologies start with, “I’m sorry I . . . spoke to you so disrespectfully last night.” Fake apologies begin with, “I’m sorry you . . . were hurt / took it the wrong way / didn’t like what I said, etc.”
- I shared my epiphany with him: that I couldn’t do anything about the past, even though I wished I could. That all I could do was own my mistakes, reflect on them, apologize, and learn from them for the future.
- I shared my learning with him: when I feel “off,” I really need to slow down and just take care of myself, and even maybe keep to myself. This understanding helped me to feel confident that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake again. So I was able to promise him that I would never say that word to him again.
This didn’t undo the damage I’d done, but it helped me find self-compassion, hope, and self-respect.
It also allowed me to model an incredibly valuable life skill: a real apology, which includes all 3 R’s of the Recovery from Mistakes Positive Discipline tool:
- Recognize your mistake (notice and take responsibility),
- Reconcile (apologize), and
- Resolve to do better next time (focus on solutions for the future).
I was proud of my apology, and that pride replaced much of the shame I had felt the night before.
The healing power of a real and thoughtful apology was the last lesson I learned.
This whole experience sucked the life out of me, but I can honestly say that I learned immensely from it. My mistake became an incredible opportunity to learn. I hope that in reading about it, you’ve learned something too. Please share your insights, comments, or anything else below!
Hi Marcilie, thanks for sharing your story. I have lost my temper like this before, and although I’m working on preventing it I am sure it will happen again. The 3Rs of recovering from mistakes is a useful tool. Keep up the good work!
Dawn, Thanks for your comment! I’m working on prevention, too ( :
We’ve all been there! Thanks for sharing!
I especially like “Real apologies start with, “I’m sorry I . . . ” Fake apologies begin with, “I’m sorry you . . . “
Thanks for piping in, Helena!
It takes a lot to own up to and then be public about a mistake. In doing so you help all of us realize that we are human and that compassion (for ourselves and others) is the only way forward. Also, thank you for the reminder that at times the problem we react to (like the computer time) is often of our own making and not the fault of our unsuspecting kids. It is a good reminder that we cannot expect them to rise to an expectation we have not communicated. Our children cannot learn from “perfection” …they will learn a lot from our striving. Sharing this mis-step allows all of us who read your work to learn so much more by seeing the common struggle that led to its writing. Otherwise we only see the goal and not the process. This article is so appreciated. Thank you for your candor and willingness to share vulnerabilities.
Lisa I so appreciate your comments. It’s all about the process, no?! Like Brene Brown says, shame likes to stay hidden so it can grow and fester. But when we shine a light on it and talk about it, it dies. Three cheers for imperfection!
So good of you to share this with us! Thank you! Oh man, if I had to lock myself in my room for every time I’ve used the F word with my daughter, I’d never get out! 😉 She is the one who charges me a “point” every time I swear! I wish I had your restraint and guilt when it comes to swearing! 🙂
THanks, Holly, for your comment! Here’s the thing, I don’t think swearing is always something to feel bad about — it’s all about context. Some families use more expletives but it’s not necessarily a scary thing, it’s just part of the way they talk to each other. So I don’t think everyone should necessarily feel the guilt I did when I F-bombed my son. This was a worry I had in writing this piece — would it be discouraging to parents who’ve said this or much worse and more frequently. For example, we use the word, “crap” in my house and it’s not a big deal. But I know that some people consider it swearing. Context matters!
That last comment re swearing was from me – Holly.
Love, love, love and you’re so candid and honest. Reading this was so validating. I think so many moms can relate to this story. I know I can. I recently heard someone say, “If you’re going to laugh about it in 10-years than you might as well laugh about it now.” Thanks for sharing your “imperfect” parenting moment. So encouraging that we’re not alone.
Thank you for your comment! It took some courage for me to write about it and I’m grateful that you found it encouraging!
I got a good laugh when I read what I have felt like saying to my son on the games! Be proud that your son calmy expressed his observation about what you said. That shows he has mirrored you when you have been calm 99% of the time! Funny how that 1% looms so much larger in our trash talk than the other 99%
Moms are human too!
Louann, thanks for your comment! So great to remember the 99% (or maybe something a bit lower, but I take and agree with your point!) ( ;