I was sent to my room during dinner one evening for the way I spoke to one of my brothers. “But he started it,” I defended. It wasn’t but 10 minutes later when dinner was done that my mother came to visit me in solitary confinement, as I liked to call it (this wasn’t the first time this happened).
She sat on my brother’s bed across from me as I started to defend my actions. She simply held up her hand indicating she had heard enough. I stopped my defense. She said, “Jay, it starts with you. To be in this family, in your school and in this world, you must be able to regulate your emotions. You must know when your brother’s comments are triggering you, so ignore them. That is on you.”
As any kid who found himself punished for being instigated, I took a deep breath, ready to start my defense over again. But my mother was prepared for that.
“Yes, I am going to talk to your brother about starting with himself because he can instigate, and he needs to manage that. But right now, we are talking about you. Self-management and self-regulation is key. Once you learn this, life will be your friend. If you don’t learn it, you will find you will spend your days getting triggered and reacting to every little thing. You will vent instead of solve and life will never be great.”
Though this conversation happened many years ago, I remember it vividly for two reasons. First, it just makes sense. If I am going to survive in a family with five siblings and, ultimately, in a world with 7 billion people, I better learn to know and manage myself.
Second, she delivered this big lesson with such love and care that I listened and made a commitment to change. She acted in the exact way she was encouraging me to act. She could have lost her cool (and sometimes she did) and ranted or yelled, but instead, she took a breath, created some space, managed her own emotions then addressed the situation wisely and kindly with me. Brilliant.
So, in today’s world with frequent moments of tense social challenges, remember it starts with you. Know yourself to manage yourself. Gaining clarity to your triggers is eye-opening because it forces you to be aware of what inspires you to want to act – and what emotions are involved.
Many times, your triggers are the result of others doing something against what you value. You may value respect, so when someone is disrespectful, you get triggered; without self-regulation, you react. You may value fairness, so when you perceive something to be unfair, you get triggered; without self-regulation, you react.
In each of those situations, what would the outcome be if you react on your triggers? How productive would it be?
If the goal is to do something about the thing that triggered you, then reacting and losing your cool is (at least in a civilized world) not likely to bring about the change or behaviors you want. Instead, notice the trigger, focus on a calming breath and start to undo the emotions rushing to the surface.
What I realized from my lessons in my big Italian family is that when I react, I use all my energy to be upset. That means I don’t have much energy left to solve – to figure things out – to make wise decisions and actually deal with the situation that triggered me. I noticed that when I vent and complain, I end up doing things that can be the very opposite of what I want to have happen. Like change. Like respect. Like fairness. Like honesty. Like integrity. These don’t happen when we lose our cool, react, push, shove and scream.
You have to be in charge of you. You have to learn to notice when your emotional temperature is rising, what brought it there and, most importantly, how to calm it down. It starts with you. You own you and your responses and reactions. Self-awareness leads to self-regulation and self-management. When we start with ourselves – when we know and manage ourselves – we improve our ability to relate to others, solve challenges and co-exist.
If not, we are destined to react through our days, making life miserable for ourselves and for those around us.