We have a safe word at my house. The word is “flooded.” If someone declares themselves to be flooded or we suspect someone is flooded, the expectations for the moment must shift. Flooded means someone is totally overwhelmed, melting down, has lost their rational faculties and therefore is at great risk to say or do something regrettable. “I’m flooded” or “she’s flooded” means: get clear, slow down, stop speaking, do not provoke and DO NOT CORNER.
Understand the state you’re in.
An overwhelmed person is capable of behaving like a wild animal complete with scratching and biting. An overwhelmed person who feels attacked or cornered can quickly become violent – hitting, pushing, slamming, or throwing objects or people. The majority of us lash out with our words. Words are our modern day domestic weapons, always within reach. Our stressed brains are masters at bypassing our rational common sense and hurling the sharpest words they can find. Obscenities, put downs, “you always!!,” “you never!!,” “I hate!!” And once the heat of the moment passes, the heavy sludge of regret and sorrow descends. “Mommy’s sorry baby.”
“That’s OK mama.” Ugh, I did it again … when will I stop for good?
Rage is tunnel vision, it only wants to fight or flee, and those two reactions are far too simplistic for the complex and nuanced roles of mother, wife, friend, sister or daughter. When we vent our words in the moment we destroy the very thing we value when we are in our right minds. Namely, being a steady safe place for our crazy, vulnerable and often dysregulated children or spouses to lean on, and draw strength and sanity from. The nugget of advice here is: When you’re furious, literally bite your tongue. I am always thankful when I do, and I always regret it when I don’t.
Rage is a state of pretty serious emotional dysregulation. When we are dysregulated, job #1 is to get grounded again. Back to ground zero, back to yourself, centered back inside of your values, loving heart and intelligence. This is done by slowing your body down, breathing, exiting the heated situation, walk/run/yoga-ing it off – even for just 60 seconds. Optimally it takes about 20 minutes for the rage feelings to dissipate, but moms of littles don’t often have that kind of time. Even 1 or 2 minutes of breathing, stretching, crying or texting in the bathroom can help us round the corner back to sanity. I’ve put myself in timeout on the stairs when I felt I couldn’t be in control. The girls stared at me like a zoo animal, but I don’t care because it helped all of us.
But what about speaking my truth? When we are “flooded” is not the time to speak our truth. Weapon words are not true, or not entirely true and tend to leave more collateral damage than they do good. Once the hot moment has passed, wise people reflect on what triggered their rage. At that point, with a settled mind, through the lens of their values, they can intentionally decide their next move. Determine what needs to be addressed and do so only from a steady place.
In order to minimize future episodes we must go further upstream from the angry event to learn what caused it. Notice what triggered you. You probably have three or four repeating triggers. Not feeling heard, feeling disrespected or feeling out of control are very common. Spend some time exploring these triggers. What does it mean to you when you don’t feel heard? (I don’t matter.) What other times in your life have you felt that way? (When I was little.) What do you need to do to repair the wound? (Talk it through as often as necessary with your spouse or shrink, and explore the lie that fuels your anger and work to accept the truth.)
Negative beliefs live way below the surface of all of us. They are the product of life experiences we have translated into assumptions about ourselves. Experiences in our own families of origin, past relationships, or unhealed trauma or neglect lie buried, waiting to be triggered like land mines. If you take the time to visit the minefield you can dig out the explosives, and in the future the ground doesn’t feel as tenuous. Making a habit of doing this work gives us a much better shot at staying present and patient in the difficult moments downstream with our families who usually aren’t the cause of our wounds, just the unlucky triggers of them.
Make sure your spouse and close friends know your triggers. This enables them to mobilize quickly to help ground and comfort you when you’re spinning out; a quick text to the right person in a hard moment can bring a dose of relief.
What doesn’t help moms get calmer or more patient is beating ourselves up, demanding patience from ourselves when we have none to give or never exploring our triggers and just hoping they don’t come back again.
Kelley Gray has been a private practice psychotherapist in the Denver area for 14 years. She is passionate about promoting growth, healing and making messes with her daughters.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Hello, Dearest. If you didn’t get a copy and would like your own, you can subscribe to get Hello, Dearest in your mailbox every season. If you subscribe, forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll shoot a copy of the current issue in the mail to you for free … just because we like you.