Breathing, in Baby Steps
A woman in our music class has a tattoo across her foot, where a flip-flop strap would go:
I have been told variations of that phrase since I was a kid whose emotions steamrolled me.
When my kids have those visceral, caveman reactions of pushing people or throwing things or inarticulate yelling, I get it. I have also experienced that sensation of being suffocated by the avalanche of my anger or frustration or disappointment.
It was terrifying. To feel that out of control.
My mom used to tell me to “take a deep breath,” or “punch a pillow.” I never even wanted to try those tactics. My emotions were so strong, I needed to do something physical to get them out. If it couldn’t be physical, verbal destruction would have to suffice.
I have said many things in my lifetime that I wish I could take back.
When I was first teaching, one of the veteran teachers–an infinitely calm art instructor who also trained students in peer mediation–talked to us about coping with stress. “In a stressful situation,” she told us, “take a step back and breathe.”
Yeah, right, I thought.
When I get agitated, due to hormones or constant stress or whatever, what comes out of my mouth completely bypasses my conscious ability to control it. The toxic words emerge even as the small rational voice in my head tells me, “Don’t say it.” I could not ever make the “take a breath” part happen before I acted on my emotions.
I spent almost my whole life believing that this behavior is just me sometimes, that I can’t control it no matter how hard I try.
In it, she talks about the need to build shame-resilience in order to allow us to be fully vulnerable, and vulnerability is what enables us to be most connected, to live what she calls a “wholehearted life.” She describes shame as that negative self-narrative, the inner voice that tells you (me): “You’re no good. You’re not ___ enough. You don’t deserve anything.”
She also talks about this instinctual need to lash out when confronted with shame. That others have talked to her during her research interviews about feeling so bad about themselves that they wanted to make someone else feel worse.
It’s not just me?
Then, I discovered that the door to the basement was locked. This lock has been getting stuck periodically since the construction ended, but we just avoided locking the door…until Jamie figured out how to jiggle the doorknob on this very old door just enough to open it whenever he wanted. So, lockdown it was for us.
And tonight, the lock was stuck.
I had laundry in the basement I wanted to get folded. I had three kids, two of whom hadn’t napped, who desperately needed a change of venue but a) the weather wasn’t good enough to be worth the fight to get outside, and b) it was too close to dinnertime to go anywhere.
I wiggled the lock’s knob. I lifted the door up and down and pushed and pulled. No go.
Audrey and Theresa stood watching me.
I grumbled aloud that the lock was stuck, that it wouldn’t open, that somebody (I carefully avoided naming blame) had locked it earlier that day. Interior monologue: Stupid door; I TOLD Alan to fix it but he must have locked it this morning even though I told him not to and now my hands hurt from this stupid knob and I can’t believe Alan did that to me.
I whipped my phone out of my pocket to text Alan some accusatory sarcasm.
Somehow, as my phone sat in my hand, I put the brakes on the raging-emotion train.
I took a deep breath. Put the phone back in my pocket. Audrey and Theresa asked what I was doing.
“You know how sometimes you get frustrated when you’re trying to get something to work and you can’t do it? I was trying to unlock the door, and it wasn’t working, and I was getting frustrated. So I’m going to step back and take some deep breaths and then try again.”
I took some deep breaths. I felt my heartrate slow down a bit. I tried again.
But the intensity had passed. It still didn’t work, but I wasn’t angry about it anymore–and, more importantly, I had not sent an angry text or said snarky things about doors or people in front of my kids.
It’s not the first time I’ve ever caught myself before yelling or getting sarcastic or slamming doors. But it is a good reminder that breathing is possible.