“Neurotic people think that life is like Hamlet, where they are Hamlet and everyone is looking at them and judging their psyche in a good or a bad way . . . . In fact, everyone is his own Hamlet and views other people as minor characters in his personal drama.”
There are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-Of-Age Story by Pamela Druckerman
I Am The Star of My Drama, Now What?
I am unquestionably the star of my own drama, sharing the stage with the minor characters of the world. Every decision I make is fraught with dramatic implications. After confronting a woman with a baseball bat, I bought books on anger and anger management, but the decision was filled with doubts: does it mean that I’m not accepting my anger? Not accepting that this explosive expression is just a part of who Jennifer is? Shouldn’t I just accept myself the way I am? Man! I really just want to love myself.
Being the Hero Is a High
Maybe swearing at people and kicking cars is not the best way to solve problems, but it releases the hissing snake that otherwise binds me up, imagining that I am the superhero conquering villains in the drama of my life. Unlike my efforts to mitigate environmental degradation by buying non-chlorinated, 80% post-consumer recycled toilet paper, which barely registers a ding on my feel-good meter, if I keep that driver from cutting in front of me, I may have solved the problems of the human race.
But if I can’t control the rest of the world, (and how frustrating is it that I can’t? Don’t all those people know that I’m right?) I’d like at least to be a bit better at controlling myself.
Learning a New Way To Be the Hero
So read the books and work the workbook* I did. I’ve learned concepts like trigger thoughts and coping words. I kept a log every time I got angry. Not surprisingly, most times it was towards my nephew for not doing what I asked. But at least once a week, I believed someone else’s behavior to be inconsiderate or rude because they didn’t act the way I thought they should and I felt compelled to set them straight.
According to the list of common trigger thoughts in the workbook, I am not unique. A deflating discovery since I thought I was the only superhero. Except for that guy in the car I just walked past who’s been laying on his horn for several minutes because there’s a traffic jam. Nothing clears up a traffic jam faster than someone making a lot of noise!! Misguided though we may be, we are both doing our best.
We Are All Doing Our Best – Really?
The belief that we are all doing our best in any given moment is a tough sell for me.** First and foremost, obviously I’m not doing my best or I would be loving and compassionate and ever-patient. Never mind that I am not sure what that looks like. I imagine the all-wise Yoda, so present he can move things with his mind. Or Jesus who I’m told had all the answers. Disturbingly, I’m only now learning these ideals are unrealistic.
Learning the Meaning of We’re Doing Our Best at the Pool
One of the first entries onto my anger log arose when I took my three-year-old niece, six-year-old nephew, and my friends’ two kids, ages 11 and 15 to the DC public pool to swim. Some months ago, the DC government instituted an inane system to enter the public pool. I appreciate the beautiful pools we have free access to as D.C. residents. But under the new system, you can’t just show your i.d. to get in, but your five-year-old nephew needs to have an i.d. too. And, you can’t just pay for your non-resident friends to join you at the pool, you have to log into a system, set up an account and then buy passes online. When I first learned the new rule after waiting in line for fifteen minutes, the slow-down due to the new system, a nice manager showed me the process. I set up my account, and once I had done that, I clicked on “buy non-resident swim passes,” and obtained passes for my friends’ kids. Except the system didn’t charged me. I didn’t know why. I thought maybe I got a certain number of passes free every month. But this was the process he showed me so I kept following it.
This problem caught up to me a month later when the woman at the counter was not satisfied by my passes and asked to see my receipt, which showed $0.
“You didn’t pay for these,” She snarled (I might or might not be dramatizing her tone of voice).
“I clicked on buy non-resident swim passes. I’m happy to pay for them, but the system didn’t charge me,” I insisted, believing these facts should resolve the problem.
“You can’t buy a non-resident swim pass if you have a resident account.”
“Then why is there a button for buying non-resident swim passes in my account?”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work.”
“How is that my fault? The manager showed me how to buy them and I’m following his instructions. I’ve been doing it this way for the last month and it hasn’t been a problem.”
“I don’t know. A manager.”
“So then your guests have been swimming free for the past month. They should have paid $4 each.”
“I’m happy to pay it, but I’m clicking on buy a non-resident pass and it’s not charging me. That’s not my fault.” Technically she is correct, my friends’ kids have been swimming free, but all I hear is that she thinks I’m lying about the manager giving me the instructions and that I’m trying to cheat and avoid paying. My anger control workbook calls this my “screen” in which I lay assumptions on top of someone else’s words and actions. Whatever its name, I don’t want her thinking these thoughts about me.
“You need to set up a non-resident account.”
“That’s ridiculous. So every time I bring in someone from out of town, they have to set up a whole new account. Why do they have the button on my account if I can’t buy one?”
I have two squirrely kids running all over the place and I need to get them into the pool. I could just follow her instructions and go in. Except my brain is now entirely focused on convincing this woman to admit that I’m not a liar or a cheat and that the system is frustrating and ridiculous. Nothing. Else. Matters.
So we continue to repeat ourselves while the line of people waiting to check-in grows. I’m sure they don’t mind the wait, however, recognizing my heroism in protesting this outrageous system. Actually, I feel awful, but I still can’t help myself.
Finally, I ask for the manager, hoping that he will give me what this woman can’t. I have the same repetitive argument with the manager until he says, “you can’t come in the pool.”
His words stopped my mouth immediately. I turned on the charm and convinced him to show me how to buy the passes without having to set up a new account every time I brought a guest. Except as it turned out, he was wrong. He semi-admitted the system was unreasonable when he said that the city was working on fixing it (which they haven’t six months later). I took his statement as a win. So I called the older daughter over who set up an account for her and her brother and we made our way into the pool.
And that’s when I started understanding the phrase that everyone is doing their best. Because doing our best is not the same as doing well or everyone, including myself, behaving as I’d like. Had I been able to recognize the reality of the situation, I would have had an additional forty-five minutes in the pool. The woman at the desk and the manager had no ability to give me the empathy I was seeking either because of their personalities, their jobs or who knows what. And I, as Hamlet, did nothing to convince anyone I wasn’t a liar and a cheat, but instead took it a step further and demonstrated that I was a maniac.
Job well done by me, I mentally flagellated myself for hours after. I even called my friend, the parent of the kids who had gone to the pool with me, because I was so embarrassed. I had been a horrible role model for all the kids. She told me that it was an understandable situation. Had she been there, she probably would have reacted the same way. But I am deaf to other people’s empathy. The only ones that mattered were that woman at the counter and her manager and I was never going to be able to redeem myself. So I was a horrible, horrible person and they knew it.
Learning New Ways To Do My Best
But with the aid of my trusty workbook and daily practice visualizing scenarios like this one, doing relaxation techniques, recognizing my trigger thoughts, and then instituting coping mechanisms, I saw myself change. For the better? Who can say what’s better? I wouldn’t call it loving really, it’s more practical. Because after I acknowledge that me and the minor characters in my drama are doing the best we can, I ask myself what it is that I really want to accomplish and how I can do that. 99%, if not 100%, of the time the answer is not by yelling or obsessing about someone thinking about me or acting the way I want them to.
Learning the Meaning of Doing Our Best at Best Buy
Soon enough I gave myself the opportunity to practice in real life when I spilled coffee on my fancy, new laptop not two weeks after I bought it. But no worries. Because when I purchased the laptop, I made the wise decision to buy it from Best Buy rather than HP and bought the service plan that covered spills. Even better, I thought, I could just bring it in to the store and have it repaired immediately rather than having to mail it to a service center and be without a laptop for several weeks. I patted myself on the back the whole way to Best Buy.
“We’ll have to send the laptop off to have it checked out. It’ll take about two weeks.” The woman at the counter told me. Wrong answer. Every nerve in my body rang the alarm.
“But can’t you just open it up and dry it off? Maybe it doesn’t even have a problem.”
“Nope. We have to send it off.”
“That’s not what the salesperson told me when I bought the plan.” I was still outwardly calm, but struggling to keep my voice from reaching wine-glass-breaking pitch.
“We have to send it off.” She stared, probably at the smoke coming out of my ears.
Fortunately, unlike at the pool, I could see my trajectory with this conversation. And while what I really wanted was for her to admit that I had been misled, I reminded myself – she’s just doing her best. They can’t fix it here regardless of what another salesperson might or might not have said. Now what?
I poured water on the smoke in my head. “I really can’t be without my laptop for two weeks. Is there anything you can do to help me?”
She went to get the manager who told me I could buy one of the discounted open box laptops and return it after they fixed mine. She gave me her card in case I had any problems.
My repaired laptop arrived earlier than expected and I returned the temporary one before I had to pay for it on my credit card. So, I ended in roughly the same place I would have had they serviced it in the store. Triumph. I applauded my newfound skills.
Loving Myself – Is This What It Looks Like?
I’m not going to lie. I still fail like many an addict. And then I start over again. A friend asked if all this learning helped with family issues. No. It has not. I had many opportunities to practice over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and failed almost every time. But family is a tree with deeper roots and I’m continuing to work on it.
The whole loving myself and others thing does not look like what I imagined – I am not a Zen master acting equanimous in every situation; I don’t usually see God in people, I just see humans; and I haven’t developed x-ray vision allowing me to peek under people’s armor and react every time with perfect compassion. But I do a lot more deep belly breathing, the crazy look of which is offset by my no longer yelling at people in traffic now that I realize it is not going to save the world or get me anywhere faster.
* For others wanting to learn these skills, I highly recommend The Anger Control Workbook by Matthew McKay and Peter Rogers. I also read Rage: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Explosive Anger by Ronald T. Potter-Efron. The latter book I did not find as useful for learning skills to control my anger reactions, but rather it helped me understand the underlying reasons for them – especially feeling powerless and shame – giving me more compassion for the drivers of my behavior.
** I first learned the concept that we are all doing our best in Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, which is another book I highly recommend.
Also published on Medium.