Our Inner Toddlers
I recently got angry about an email I received in which someone explained something they did which annoyed me. My first reaction was anger and judgment: “Why would they do this? What were they thinking?!” Then, my Perfect-Mindfulness-Person part chimed in with a falsely sweet voice, “Oh, it’s OK, everybody makes mistakes. You shouldn’t be angry, you’re a mindfulness practitioner. Breathe!”
Like the twins peering out from under the gown of the Ghost of Christmas Present, I have my own raggedy childlike parts: Anger and Perfect, who act like toddlers and can kick up quite a noisy inner debate.
Rather than taking time to digest the email and be with my feelings, I unwisely decided to reply immediately. And, as you might imagine, my highest self was not at the keyboard. Instead, when I sat down at my computer, Anger and Perfect, started typing. What they wrote came out just as conflicted as their relationship. It sounded something like this:
I am writing this using sweet and mindful words in hopes that you not notice that I am judging and shaming you. The tone is very sweet and I’m saying I’m not upset and yet when you read it you feel horribly embarrassed and very small. Do you understand? Or do you need some help understanding?
This isn’t the first time I’ve let these two parts do my communicating. And i have had enough feedback to know that the person on the receiving end of such a missive gets very confused.
I normally try to practice not replying to email until I have had enough time to be with Anger, to sit with it, to listen to it, to embrace it, and to understand it. Words written from my grown-up presence are quite different from those written when still in the grips of Anger and Perfect.
Anger-emailing is a lot like drunk-dialing (now drunk-texting,) and it works just about as well. It’s been several decades since I’ve experienced this first hand, but I remember it well. When I was drunk I had a part that was always trying to look like I wasn’t drunk, trying to talk without slurring and walk without stumbling. That part truly believed people wouldn’t notice I was drunk, but of course, they did.
It’s the same when anger-emailing. The Perfect part tries to pretend that there’s no anger here, just sweet compassion and love and helpfulness. Eventually, the message of anger shines through, and the reader is left wounded. The morning after the email goes out, just like the morning after the drunk, I feel embarrassed and my relationships are in need of repair.
This is why I generally avoid emailing until I can feel, in my body, that my anger has been transformed. That requires time and attention to find out what is was that caused me to be so reactive. And why. It requires authentically and respectfully connecting with Anger, and reaching a point where I can understand and empathize with it. When I can honestly say, “No wonder” I got angry, without justifying my actions, I know I am making progress.
Transforming my anger also requires that I find out what need of mine was not being met by the offending email. And to find a way to meet that need. It may be a need to resist injustice or just be heard. In the case of my story, what the sender of the original email wrote to me didn’t meet my need to feel like I mattered. So I recognized that and had a choice. I could ask for clarification on the email and find out whether my assumptions were right, I could decide I don’t want to interact with this person anymore, and/or I could let myself know that I mattered to me. Once I could recognize the two toddlers inside of me, I would have had some hope of taking a skillful action.
I also needed to see how easy it was for me to dump a slightly abusive email on someone. After decades of mindfulness practice, there’s still a good possibility I will react when I am triggered. All my conditioning as a human being for the last 56 years and even into previous generations, primes me to be reactive when I think that I don’t matter. It feels like survival to some part of me. I don’t like that I am capable of this, but I am.
So why should it be any easier for the person who wrote the original email? Why should I hold them to such a high standard? They also have causes and conditions that prompt them to act out of anger or simple lack of awareness. This email was grounded in all of the past moments in the their life. It really doesn’t have much to do with me personally. Even if they had consciously wanted to make me suffer, it would still be a result of all that is inside of them, not me.
After sitting with myself and my feelings, I eventually wrote a new and much clearer, email, and all is well. One friend of mine practices being with her inner toddlers by letting the angry one get it all out. She writes a full-on angry email, but she doesn’t send it. She waits until she has taken good care of her anger, and then she goes back to the email. By the time she sends it, the email is clear, direct, and compassionate. I’ll consider that practice next time my toddlers gets control of the keyboard.
There is so much joy in being present and clear enough to make a wise decision. The only way to get there is to develop the ability to be present. Present for ourselves, for the other person, and for email writing. To know what we are doing in each moment, and choose to do it in the best way that we can. We take care of those inner toddlers - our feelings - with attention and loving kindness (try Focusing as a mindfulness-based technique to practice this). And we never let them drive our lives or write our emails.