Staying Calm When the Person Across from You Is Anything But

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My client walked in the door spewing anger like a broken fire hydrant. I went into a panic. It was about midway through my clinic semester in massage school and I was still nervous about working in strangers, let alone someone who looked like an extra from The Exorcist. I was certain that this would be the hardest and the worst massage in the history of massages. (My self-doubt is a bit of a drama queen, but I’m sure you wouldn’t know anything about that. Right?)

I ran into my cubicle to pull myself together while she filled out her paperwork. I realized that the only thing that was in my power was to offer the very best massage that I could. If she hated it, then I would know that it wasn’t because I had given less than my very best. I took a few deep breaths and walked out to greet her.

It was a tense exchange. I did my best to stay cheery in spite of her glowering expression and monosyllabic grunts. Once she was on the table, I focused all of my energy on releasing the suspension bridge cables locking her neck and shoulders into rictus. I continued to breathe, reminding myself that I was outside of her anger, that I didn’t have to let it affect me.

I spent the entire massage thinking of nothing but staying calm and doing the best job I possibly could. I thanked her and left her to get dressed

When she came out into the lobby, she was an entirely different person. She was smiling. She was radiant. She thanked me profusely, telling me her day had been wretched, but that she felt amazing now.

I was stunned. By staying outside of the anger and focusing on being of service, I was able to offer her a way out of her anger. This opportunity is all around us, every day. We choose how we respond to anger. Most of the time, we default to the unconscious choice to raise our hackles and hiss back, but we can learn to make a more conscious, more equanimous choice.

Viktor E Frankl said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

As my client walked away, I imagined the path she took to get to me. Maybe she yelled at an employee or cut someone off in traffic (and then flipped them off for being in the way). And maybe those people became angry and passed it one to others, who passed it further along.

As she leaves, maybe she will smile and make room for someone to pull out ahead of her, maybe she will offer someone a hand or give someone a touching compliment. Maybe their day will feel a bit brighter and they will pass that along to others, who in turn, pass it to someone else.

We have no way of knowing what ripples we send out into the world. All we can do is take control of our own feelings and actions and release the rest.

Have you turned a tense situation around? How did it feel? Have you reacted in a way you regret? What would you do differently if you could go back? Let me know in the comments. I love to hear your stories!

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2 Responses

  1. Caroline Sandford
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    This is something I struggle with, very much. My partner is a bit like a summer storm – everything seems fine, then the rain crashes down, then the sun comes out again. I’m not so mutable. His short sharp rainfall can leave me waterlogged for a couple of days! I imagine the ripples and smiles that spread out from that encounter in your story. It is worth the effort to stay grounded.

  2. Kim Forman
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    Oh, I understand where you are coming from, Caroline. My partner has Aspbergers and can be like that sometimes, too, though he has made a stunning amount of progress in the past few years on controlling it.

    It had taught me a great deal about the space between stimulus and response. I am by no means saying I don’t still snap back occasionally or take it personally. (not by a long shot.) But most of the time, I manage to see it for what it is and respond accordingly.

    If this helps you in any way, I am thrilled to the bones. ❤

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