I wish I hadn’t taken my husband’s coffeepot and smashed it in the sink. I knew it the moment I steadied my shaking hands against the metal basin filled with jagged slivers of glass.
I wish I hadn’t squealed my tires in the gravel parking lot simply because things weren’t going according to plan. I knew it the moment my baby in the backseat began to cry.
I wish I hadn’t run through the pouring rain, cussing and screaming about not being able to find my vehicle in a lot of thousands. I knew it the moment my daughter looked up at me with fearful eyes, asking if I was OK.
I could go on. My list of overreactions is long, and it is shameful. I’d always liked to have things go just right, but during my highly distracted, stretched-too-thin, over-committed and under-rested years, overreaction became my middle name. And regret was right there beside it. Regret follows on the heels of overreaction every single time.
These unbecoming incidents — the coffeepot, the tire squealing, and the parking lot confusion — have resurfaced in my mind lately. Although they happened years ago, I can remember them clearly now, more clearly than ever.
I remember being so upset that I was unable to think straight. I remember coming so undone that I couldn’t get myself back together. I remember detesting myself in those moments. I remember wanting to run away. But most of all, I remember not wanting to be that volatile person anymore. Regret can be a powerful motivator.
How did I begin to choose calm over crazed, reasonable over senseless, composed over fuming? One of my strategies was making a conscious effort to spot the “flowers” instead of the “weeds” in situations and in people. Another tactic was adopting a mantra to silence my inner bully. Whenever a critical thought came to mind, I immediately interrupted it with the phrase, “Only Love Today.” Another tactic was to envision my angry words like a car crash, damaging the person on the receiving end. But it wasn’t until one week ago, after thinking about several embarrassing outbursts from my past, that I realized there is something else I do. I give myself a three-second preview of how a situation could play out if I choose controlling hostility over peaceful compassion.
It was my children’s first day back to school after a two-week holiday break. The school bus was due to pull up to the corner in four minutes. My daughters were doing their last-minute gathering of shoes, coats, water bottles and lunches.
“Don’t forget it’s Tuesday,” I called to my 8-year-old daughter as she headed for the boots lying next to the door. “Tennis shoes for P.E.,” I added.
My child stopped dead in her tracks. She turned to face me, gripping her right arm with her left. “Mama, my arm hurts today. Could you write me a note that says my arm is sore?”
You want me to write a note now? You should have thought of it sooner.
Sore arm? Let me guess — too much Wii? I am not writing a note for that.
You will be fine. Come on, we need to go. The bus is coming.
I thought those responses. I thought them all.
But I didn’t say them.
Because as I was thinking about all the things I wanted to say, I gave myself a three-second preview of what those responses would do. From past experience, I knew those particular words would not help the situation — they would only cause it to deteriorate.
But here’s where the real beauty happened:
While taking that three-second pause, I noticed something. I noticed there were real tears welling in my daughter’s eyes… real tears she didn’t want to fall… real tears she was actually pushing back with her fingers.
That three-second pause was just long enough for me to realize this sadness, this pain, this worry of my child’s was real. And a note to the P.E. teacher was very important to her that day.
Grabbing a notepad out of the junk drawer, I scribbled a quick note to the P.E. teacher and handed it to my child.
I never knew I had the power to hand someone a little bit of peace… a tiny corner of comfort… a permission slip to regain composure… but now I do. My compassionate reaction to my child’s situation held the power to save a morning, to save a heart from worry.
“Thank you, Mama,” she said quietly. I actually saw the color coming back to her face.
I thought of my child’s sore arm throughout the day. I knew our conversation could have easily gone another way. And although I don’t always make the right choice with my words, I knew I had that time. Regret was not my companion that day.
“How did P.E. go?” I asked my daughter when she got home from school.
“Well, when I got to P.E., I saw they were doing something I could do, even with a sore arm. So I tucked the note in my pocket and played,” she told me.
There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have given my child that note. My response to her 6:55 a.m. request would have been underlined with control, exasperation, anger and insensitivity. We probably wouldn’t have made it to the bus, and, most likely, we would have parted on bad terms. She probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make her own good choice in P.E. that day. There would have been no winners in that battle.
By the grace of God, things are different now. I now know every challenging situation does not have to be a contest to be right… to “win”… to have things go the way I want them to go. The goal of each situation is to speak in a way I can be heard… to listen in a way that lets the other person be heard… and to walk away feeling at peace with the way the situation was handled. Regret, it’s nice to see you go.
My list of overreactions is long and it is ugly, but today matters more than yesterday. I’ve started a new list — a list of compassionate responses that I’ve offered. This list inspired me to write a hopeful reminder — a reminder that three-second pauses have the power to save a morning, spare some pain and prevent regret from being a lifelong companion. May it bring someone else hope, too.
I Am My Response
I am my response to my child’s mismatched outfit and the crumpled report card at the bottom of her backpack.
I am my response to my spouse who returned from the store without toilet paper but remembered the tailgate snacks.
I am my response to my anxious parent who repeats the same worries and insists on giving me coupons I do not need.
I am my response to my colleague with sad eyes and frequent absences.
I am my response to my 15-minutes-late hairdresser with a sick child.
I am my response to my neighbor with heart-heavy problems and little family support.
I am my response to the irate driver who cut me off and made an obscene gesture in
front of my children.
I am my response to the waitress who got my order wrong.
I am my response to myself when I forgot the one thing I most needed to do today.
I am my response to spilled coffee, long lines and middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
My responses are not perfect… they are not always ideal… I am human, after all.
But if I strive to offer responses underlined with
That is something.
That is something.
Because my responses are more than just words.
who I am,
who I want to be,
and how I will someday be remembered.
Today I will not respond perfectly. I know.
But if I strive to communicate with hints of kindness and traces of love,
That will be something
That will be something
That could mean more than words.
This post originally appeared on www.handsfreemama.com.
Rachel Macy Stafford is the New York Times bestselling author of Hands Free Mamaand Hands Free Life. Her latest national bestseller, ONLY LOVE TODAY, offers soulful, bite-size encouragement for busy individuals yearning to anchor themselves in love and connection despite everyday distractions, pressures, and societal discord. “Only Love Today” began as a mantra to overcome her inner bully, but it is now the practice of Rachel Macy Stafford’s life. It can be a practice for all of us with Only Love Today. Join this certified special education teacher, author, and speaker and her supportive community, The Hands Free Revolution, for more inspiration.