What the hell just happened?
Questions Without Answers
Each month, Olivia Scher chooses a personal question to ask herself, discussing her ideas, thoughts and feelings about life and the world around us. In exploring a range of topics she dares herself to be brutally honest in the pursuit of insight acquired through questions without answers.
I am going to fucking kill you.
I had this repeatedly screamed at me once. It was the most bizarre and intense interaction I have ever shared with anybody. Now I can laugh at how the situation came about – it involved a pair of hair clippers on a very hot day – but I won’t get into that. I’ve thought about this interaction many times, if you can even call it an ‘interaction’ when one person is just screaming at the other. Although the words were not a real threat, but a very unfortunate figure of speech, it left a huge impression on me. In fact, these words changed my life.
Looking back now, to my regret, I didn’t respond strongly enough, either in what I said or in my overall reaction. However, at the core of this exchange were not the words that were said – they were fairly incidental – but what the words revealed to me. What was truly important was how I was made to feel. This horrifying exchange was sudden and explosive. To reject how I was being spoken to and to assert my individuality felt like an uphill battle that I would never win. So, on that day, in the face of such intensity, I tried my best to neutralise the situation and remain outwardly calm.
But actually, I felt small. I felt scared. And I felt powerless.
When somebody overreacts, the volatility is what leaves us dumbstruck. Our balance is thrown off, normality has been hijacked, and we find ourselves flailing about trying to recover our centre. Often, it takes longer than we think to just stand up, dust ourselves off and ask ourselves ‘what the hell just happened?’
Similarly, underreactions are equally as disorientating. It’s disconcerting to open up a part of your life to someone who subsequently doesn’t share your enthusiasm or empathise with your pain. Over time you notice something isn’t right and realise that you have been reaching outwards, trying to get a purchase, only to find an absence. So yet again, we close up, because somewhere within us we understand that the ones we reach out to do not share our excitement or our fears.
Although it is in the nature of these reactions to be jarring, sometimes we should just shrug them off – we are all guilty after all. Who hasn’t overreacted or underreacted to various people at various times? However, there’s a big difference between someone who overreacted, and someone who overreacts. Whether it’s easy for you to shrug these interactions off or not, our reactions are crucial. They reveal important information about our characters. It’s fairly straightforward really; if you get the impression that someone is usually sweet and kind, that’s because they are sweet and kind, similarly, if you get the impression that somebody has a tendency to be rude, that’s because they can be rude. So, when we consciously tune into people’s dispositions, we become empowered to make better decisions about who we want to share our lives with, whether it be sharing a meal, a house, a bed, some kids, or simply just a conversation.
And if we attune ourselves carefully and trust our instincts, when we think about other people’s behaviour, we may find that we already know exactly what we need to know; whether someone is kind and considerate – most of the time, whether someone is sharp or mean – some of the time, whether they respect what we have to say or actually whether they’d prefer us to be silent.
As useful as this information is, we can’t force other people to change, as much as we might want to. Other people’s actions – good or bad – should serve merely as an indicator of whether we want to spend time with them or not. The most important thing to focus on is our own reactions. When I am conscious of the power of my initial feelings, I can become a better communicator. I can catch my reactions if I need to and consider how they might affect the other person. In doing so, I can aim to live according to my values and choose my reactions with integrity. And I’ll always remember the importance of how I choose to speak to people, and how I let others speak to me. And in so doing, I try to leave any potentially difficult situation with dignity.
On that long hot summer’s day, a good while ago, of course we both knew that no one was going to get killed. Just a few hours later, we sat in the park laughing with our friends. However, I’ll always remember that day.
Whilst writing this piece, some painful memories came to mind. However, more importantly, so many great people and positive memories came to mind too; it really matters how we speak to each other. So, if there’s someone in your life that has come to mind whilst reading this, whatever actual words were said, how do they make you feel?
‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ – The Amazing Maya Angelou
Olivia Scher, Columnist
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