You have that terrible day when your car had a flat tire, you missed a deadline at work, and your child is sick and has just been sent home. You lose it when your kid starts complaining in the backseat about leaving their stuffed animal at school. It happens to all of us.
But for some people, it’s not that rare perfect storm, but a larger pattern that’s been going on for years. Periodically they explode, seemingly out of the blue on something seemingly small, shocking people around them. They are deeply sorry, apologize, but start again. Here are the four most common causes of periodic but regular outbursts:
Jake seems like an easy-going guy, never complains, but was recently nearly fired from his job because he had a physical altercation with a co-worker. Six months earlier, he had attacked his children by leaving toys in the living room. What’s going on? Jake avoids conflict; if something bothers him, he drops it. But the problems are not solved, and eventually, it catches up with him; he leaves, feels bad, sweeps the problem under the rug and starts the process all over again.
to be a martyr
Cindy is the first to volunteer for anything – committees at work, projects for her church. She still does the heavy lifting, does what she thinks she should, but periodically blows up – against her husband, her children, her someone in church. It’s built from resentment about doing everything, resentment that others are more like her, and resentment that she doesn’t get the appreciation she feels she deserves.
Problem with transitions
James knows on Monday what he plans to do on Saturday, but God forbid his wife suggests on Friday that her mother come over for dinner on Saturday. He explodes and laughs at the fact that his mother always comes. Although it seems like James is a control freak, the real problem is that he can’t handle sudden changes. He’s a planner, and he gets anxious and shaken when his plans go awry. The only reason he doesn’t explode at this woman more often is that she’s learned to walk on eggshells almost all the time.
Sharice’s father died suddenly four months ago. His mother collapsed; she, as an only child, had to step in and plan the funeral, deal with the estate, and basically just moved on, never taking time to grieve. Now it was coming back to her: she had an episode of road rage that nearly got her arrested.
What these people have in common is that they internalize, that is, they hold on to emotions and issues that build up pressure until they explode. If you’re having any of these issues, here’s what you should do:
Say what you feel
If you avoid conflict, you probably learned early on that conflict and strong emotions in others can be frightening. So instead of talking, you don’t. It’s time to do now what you couldn’t do as a child and learn to tolerate strong emotions. Here you can take baby steps: even if it takes you a few days to work up the courage to say something to your colleague, partner or children about something they are doing that is bothering you, it is good. Or if saying it is difficult, write it down.
The main thing is not to hold it back but to let others know how you feel. You need to get out of your comfort zone, approach rather than avoid, so both of you can figure out that what you think is going to happen isn’t happening and you can fix the problem.
Stop being too responsible
The message is the same for the martyr: It is time to stop. Stop raising your hand and being too responsible. It’s time to sort out “should” and what you “want”. Take the same small steps – even if it takes three days to realize that you don’t have time for this church project or don’t want to do it – speak up. You will feel guilty, but that’s okay. You are rewiring your brain, learning to live your life, not the one you think other people want.
Share your projects
If you’re having trouble with transitions, what you clearly want to do is let others know what you’re thinking and planning when you’re thinking and planning. By headbutting them, they can headbutt you. James’ wife would have known to ask on Thursday if her mother could come over the weekend. He would have had time to think about it. Even better, you should experiment to be less rigid by following your wants and emotions rather than your needs and finding ways to reduce your overall anxiety.
look for closure
If you have unresolved grief, it’s time to grieve and move on. Here, Sharice might want to write a letter to her dad, have some kind of closing ceremony, or just talk to others about how the loss has affected her. Actively try to find your own way to say goodbye.
Periodic explosions are not a problem but the result of a problem or a combination of problems. Like so many places where we can struggle, the underlying problem is that the way we learned to manage our lives made sense then but no longer works – it’s time to move on to the adult world – and / or there are issues that we are not dealing with head on that continue to build. The solution is to be aware and take those small steps to do it differently.