I have a bad temper and I’m trying to change. Now when I’m mad, I leave the room to compose myself. Recently my boyfriend said something that really upset me. Taking a break allowed me to calmly explain that he’d hurt my feelings. He apologized, and I could tell he truly felt bad – much worse than if I had raged on him. Can you explain this? – Formerly Volcanic
It’s really smart to “take 10” when you’re angry – and not just because it takes that long to get the gasoline, pour it all over your boyfriend’s Xbox and light it on fire.
As I explained recently, screaming at a guy – a verbal attack – launches the same fight-or-flight defense system as trying to use the guy’s face as a bar rag. And once a person’s adrenaline gets let out of the gate, there’s no coaxing it back. That’s why Braveheart would be a Monty Python movie if the Scots, upon doing their battle cry, stopped, looked at one another and then called to the English: “Say, luvvies … on second thought … shall we all put down these silly battle-axes, wash our faces and chat out our differences o’er a cup o’ tea?”
As for why your emotional makeover led your boyfriend to go more Mother Teresa than angry motherfucker, social psychologist C. Daniel Batson explains that we have two distinct emotional responses to perceiving another person in need. The first, “personal distress,” leads us to have an “egoistic” motivation – to focus on ourselves and how we can escape our own uncomfortable feelings. The other response is empathy – or really, “empathic concern,” which leads to an altruistic motivation: wanting to comfort the other person. You’re more likely to elicit the empathic response when your boyfriend doesn’t need to mount a defense – that is, when you approach him with quiet hurt and disappointment instead of like a hornet with boobs and a purse.
Kudos to you for recognizing that having a feeling isn’t reason to hop on it and ride it like a hoverboard. But in light of how gnarly-hard impulse control can be, what’s most impressive are your adult timeouts – putting space between having a feeling and acting on it. It is good for your boyfriend to believe he can always count on you – but not to explode and take his hand off like black-market fireworks you bought with the possum jerky out of the trunk of some guy’s car.