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My tale of emotional dysregulation and re-regulation happened earlier this month when I was enjoying myself at picnic given by a group I belong to. As I was leaving, I was introduced to a man loosely in the field of psychology and started talking to him—and the fun stopped. I share this experience to help you consider what you want to do and not do when you run into a very difficult person (see my blog Difficult People).
He had been talking with a therapist friend of mine on a psychology-related topic and I gave my opinion. He pounced on me immediately, calling me prejudiced and demanding evidence to support my comment. I offered none, but explained my thinking. He verbally attacked once more and moved aggressively into my physical space. I made another point he tried to demolish, his voice rising in pitch. I was not afraid of him, but was insulted and angry and finally (after 10-15 minutes) told him I had no desire to speak with him any longer, walked away, and left the picnic with my husband. I was so emotionally dysregulated, I was practically shaking as I drove home.
Here is what I did to help myself. I talked with my husband on the ride home to get his perspective which validated me. I did conscious deep breathing (while driving, mind you), told myself to file the incident in my mind under Insignificant and Inconsequential (see http://eatingdisordersblogs.com/what-if-anxious-eating-is-about-things-insignificant-and-inconsequential/), and drove to a bookstore to buy a book I was dying to read. When I got home I contacted the woman who had introduced me to the man I’d talked to and received validation from her. I also thought long and hard to see if I was in the wrong, and concluded I had acted appropriately and he had not.
Knowing that if I kept thinking about this incident, the more deeply I’d be ingraining it into memory—the last thing I wanted to do—when thoughts about it arose, I watched them go by like a bus that wasn’t going my way. I did, however, start wondering what kind of sad history would make someone act so aggressively and inappropriately (It turns out this man was a guest at the picnic who had more or less invited himself!). Then, suddenly, out of the blue, I felt enormous compassion for him, which grew deeper as I thought about what kind of troubled upbringing or life he would need to have had to turn out as he did. And my compassion for him washed away all my anger and desire to be angry at him.
I wish I’d been paying attention to my feelings and thinking like a therapist while talking to this man, in which case, after only a few minutes, I would have seen that our discussion was only going to end badly and excused myself. Had I registered the dynamics going on and the big picture—that I was talking to an irrational, disturbed person—that is what I would have done. Yet, I don’t begrudge myself for not having done so. I saw my mistake and learned from what happened.
To summarize, so that you can use what happened to me as instructive, when you become emotionally dysregulated, do the following as soon as possible: express your feelings, get validation (as much as you can), reflect on your part in creating or generating the dynamics, file the incident under “unimportant” to tell your brain what meaning to make of it, find a pleasant distraction, and seek compassion for the other person and for yourself. You’ll feel better and it sure beats mindless eating!
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