This is an excerpt of an essay from my twelve-essay short series on Grace and Gratitude. Each day, I send a story with a nugget, an idea, and a practice — everything from losing your temper, to finding small happiness, to practicing meditation. The program is here; or just enjoy the essay below as a window into our world.
The other day I lost my temper.
I’d been holding on tightly to so many projects, and I was carrying both loss and love in my heart. An email came in and I swore softly under my breath. (Edit: perhaps not so softly). I stomped into the kitchen and started muttering.
This person, I thought angrily, had no right to be so demanding about the project we were working on. I proceeded to launch into a tirade, ranting about the terrors of this person, sending grenades of vicious language into our living room from the kitchen table. My honey raised an eyebrow from his chair in our office and turned around, listening. He hadn’t seen me like this too often.
My mind and tongue got swept up into a spew of vitriol. Getting angrier seemed to somehow make me... angrier.
And in the middle of, around the third or fourth paragraph, my body started to sag. I felt energy fall out of my body, and somehow I felt even worse. The crazy yelling wasn’t helping at all. I was just working myself up into a funk and I was horrified at the things that were coming out of me. It was like anger spewed out of me and I had lost myself in a tirade of feelings just because I could. For a brief second, I saw myself from across the room—this human body standing in the kitchen, frothing anger at the mouth.
And in that realization,
I took a breath.
I stopped talking for one second.
And changed my mind.
“Oh noooo.” I said to my partner, my face scrunching up into a mash-up of worry and frustration, gasping breath in,
“I don’t like what’s happening. I don’t like talking like this. I need to watch my tongue. What’s happening?”
I exhaled completely, shakily. I called a time-out on myself. (I think my partner thinks I’m comical when I do stuff like this). Marched myself into the other room and sat down on the bed, steaming mad, huffing and puffing, shaking and stomping, still angry, but with enough of a fraction of awareness to take my piping-mad self into the other room and give her a little time out.
“You know what?" I yelled from the other room.
"I’m going to go shower and stop talking and see if I can figure out some of these feelings. I’m sorry about losing my temper.”
It came out "I'M SOR-RY I LOST MY TEMPER. HUMPH."
I walked (stomped) out and headed to the shower. Not the classiest apology, but.
That was a moment of grace.
It’s not about being perfect and never making mistakes (Please! Who are we kidding?).
It’s about giving your self the grace to become aware in the present and to shift your thoughts or your behavior.
You’re allowed to be imperfect, and you’re allowed to change your mind. You’re allowed to edit yourself, reflect, and improve. It’s about owning where you are at this exact moment. It’s about being honest and brave. And it’s about being able to say,
“Oh gosh, that just isn’t what I meant to do. That’s not what I want to be. I am so sorry, and I’m going to shift. Right now, now that I’m aware, I’m going to change my mind.”
I have permission to do it another way.
As a husband or a wife, you can pivot. When you make a mistake and you yell at your child, you’re allowed to go in and say to your partner, “I think I goofed. I think I did that wrong. Can you help? I’d like to find a better way."
"That didn’t feel good. I want to do it better next time.”
This is a moment of grace. Of presence. Of foundation.
Here’s the interesting thing about grace: grace can happen anytime. Grace can happen anywhere. It’s a softening, a releasing, and a letting go. It’s permission that you maybe don’t have everything right. And you can pivot in a minute. You are allowed to be you.
Words of wisdom: you’re allowed to make mistakes. And have feelings.
As humans, part of our job is allowing ourselves to make mistakes, acknowledge them, own up to them, and reaching out if we need to. You’ll know the feeling. You have a pang, a little emotional signal shooting up at you when you think that maybe you’ve over done it, but you stubbornly don’t want to admit it.
Feelings are our body's way of talking to us. Most people tend to ignore their feelings or cover them up by stuffing them under a rug or trying to forget what happened and move on. We puff up and change our behavior largely because we just aren't sure what to do with that firestorm of feelings brewing beneath the surface. It's not entirely our fault, either: we don't have great language (or cultural norms) for talking about and identifying all those feelings we have inside.
When you start to analyze what the feelings are behind the emotions and reactions, it will become easier to understand your reaction to different people and events and learn from it.
The more awareness and emotional intelligence you have around your feelings, the less you become a reaction fuse, and the more you’re able to look inwards and say, “Huh, that really made me angry. She pushed a nerve—she triggered this insecurity within me. I now have a choice in how I react.” (The alternative is a blind "nerve-pushed! nerve-pushed!" reaction).
The more you can take a look at the deeper feelings behind every action, and how each feeling connects to an action, the easier it gets to connect the feeling to the action in real time. To be fair, however, sometimes it takes me months to figure out what the real feelings are behind something that happens; other times the connections become more and more apparent.
Forgiveness—of both ourselves and of others—isn’t about forgetting or surrendering to other people. Forgiveness is seeing things as they really are. It’s about seeing yourself as you really are (and the inner stories you have, the feelings you’re feeling, and the work that you’re holding); and it’s about seeing other people as who they are, in real time. It’s about realizing that everyone has their own body of work to do.
“Forgiveness is the choice to see people as they are now.” —Marianne Williamson
The more you practice, the easier it gets.
There’s a really important point about this exercise that’s worth pointing out: the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
In life, there are examples of small-but-tangible practices. Have you ever dropped litter on the ground? Some people stop to pick it up and don’t even think about it. Pretend that you accidentally dropped a wrapper on the floor and you don’t notice for a few steps. When you turn around, you see the trash behind you.
What do you do?
For many of us, it depends. If it’s far away, we might continue walking—even though there’s a ping in our hearts that says, “I really should go get that.”
Actually, the biggest and most opportune time to practice a behavior is when it’s so small it’s easy to do.
Whether or not you pick up the trash is incredibly important for the neurons and habits in your brain. If you practice picking up the trash every time, you begin to tell yourself a story about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. You commit to taking action when you notice something that’s wrong.
“The most opportune time to practice a behavior is when it’s so small it’s easy to do."
It initiates a cascade effect of good behavior. The next day, if you see someone leave their tablet out on a table and forget it, it will be a smidgeon easier to walk over to them and say, “hey, I think you left this behind!” The behavior chain and habit pattern continues. Then, when you get to a moment and you’re in a heated fight or angry outburst, this neuron—this behavior pattern that lets you pivot, that lets you initiate, that knows that you trust it to do something right—it will speak up. It will nudge you, and it’ll say,
Hey, maybe not this way.
Let’s do it this other way we’ve been training.
Let's look at ourselves, imperfect, fallible, strange, growing, and remember that it's okay to learn. To grow. To adapt.
We're allowed to make mistakes. We're allowed to breathe. And we're allowed to say, hey,
I'm going to try to make this a little bit better.