Agency and Anger

What happens in the space where the way that we are accustomed to “do life” is disrupted? We have a sense of how things are supposed to go based on what we are accustomed to and based on what we have experienced under similar circumstances. We anticipate outcomes. ALL of the time. Going through the drive through? You order, pay, and voila, food! In line at the bank? The little cartridge will whiz through the pneumatic tube system and your deposit will be made and receipt returned.

Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to the map that we have in our heads. There are six cars in the fast food line AND they’re out of ice cream. Or we get to the bank AFTER the drive through has closed on a Saturday. We’ve had a disruption. Sometimes, it’s irritating. If we’re short on time, sleep, options, money or energy, we’re short on patience. Maybe we needed that ice cream for our kid and don’t want to deal with their disappointment. Or we’re overdrawn at the bank and needed to get that deposit in.

Now we have to come up with another plan or accept the delay. Energy and time that we didn’t plan to expend are going to resolve something that should have worked with minimal effort. Small scale disruptions in mundane matters can create larger felt impacts when we are stressed. An anticipated outcome failed to materialize, or it was harder to attain, and now we’re anxious, aroused and angry. The pathway to the outcome was altered and attaining the result that we wanted has just gotten more expensive in terms of energy, focus and time.

Daily disruptions of our routines are one thing, but there are also dire disruptions such as an auto accident, the death of someone close to us or loss of a job. These are disruptions that are much larger in scale and they break our engagement with the normal operation of our lives in a major way. While we understand intellectually that events of this type happen at some points in everyone’s life, managing the impact and recovering from them can pose not only strategic challenges, but also emotional and energetic ones.

Sleep may elude us in these seasons, stress may be a constant companion and strife may show up in our connections both with the self and with others. So often, there is a desire to just get back to the way things were before the crisis, an often impossible prospect. Recovery in the form of a new car or a new job are possible. In the case of a death or severe medical episode, however, we aren’t going back to “before”. The difficulty of adjusting to life as it is now and working out a new normal taxes all of our resources. These are huge expenditures of energy and engagement that must be focused on the repair and restoration of a good quality of life. Short on resources? In all likelihood, there’s anger to deal with too.

Loss of energy, focus and flow also occurs for us when there are disruptions in high intensity environments where we are fully engaged and fully committed to attaining the outcome we desire. Entrepreneurs who are building a business, athletes on the basketball or tennis courts, Michelin starred chefs in their kitchens- anyplace where a combination of specialized skills are going to determine the outcome is a place of great risk and potential loss.

There is a singular intensity in these settings and a huge concentration of engaged energy every time a deal is afoot, a game is on or dinner service is in progress. A failure of skill or another unanticipated disruption would jeopardize the end goal. Some businessmen, athletes and chefs respond by trying to control outcomes. They practice more, prepare more mentally and try to anticipate possible disruptions and plan for them.

But- when a disruption occurs- a client doesn’t pay the invoice, a team mate doesn’t make the shot or some aspect of the cuisine failed- all of that engaged energy is bottlenecked. The process is derailed. The disruption now leaves all of the energy flow that was expected to go towards achieving the desired outcome piling up in waves behind the circumstantial obstacle.

Agency has been frustrated, at least for now. And reaction to that, especially in very intense dynamics, may be intense anger. Yelling, venting, reacting badly- in the boardroom, on the courts or in the kitchen, we’ve all seen it. Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, Gordon Ramsey…

So, how about people in care roles? We all know that you’re not supposed to yell at your students, patients, clients or children. We also know that it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Why? It’s a two fold problem. Often, the goal that a parent or caring professional desires to attain isn’t feasible. People with sensory issues aren’t suddenly going to realize that noise is normal or decide that the water drops in the shower don’t feel like pins and needles. People with memory issues aren’t going to suddenly have a system that ensures that they don’t lose their car keys or that they don’t have to be told for the hundredth time how to boot up their laptop and get on Facebook.

But there’s often a script running in the background with parents and caring professionals that the right intervention or combination of therapies and medications will make someone not have essential features of their condition. Yes, it’s illogical. No, we don’t talk about that stuff much. But it’s important that we stick with managing conditions and not slide into the “miracle cure mindset”. Management of concerns should be the issue and interventions should be designed to mitigate their impact in those instances where they negatively affectt the felt quality of life of the client.

But- when we’re busily trying to extinguish part of who a client is or how they show up in the name of “therapy”, we’ve moved from management to manipulation. A downward spiral of anger and frustration will result, as we engage more with the effort to eradicate whatever symptom, dynamic or behavior that we’ve fixated on. People with Autism, ADHD, TBI or any other condition need acceptance, accommodation and adjustment.

This posture of trying to “fix” the problem as we perceive it is compounded by the fatigue that often comes into play when serving in roles with higher demands for clinical, educational or parenting skills. Lack of margin compounds the problem: judgement is compromised when both fatigue and stress are high. What might have been a small or medium sized irritant on a good day now feels like an emergency. Feeling compelled to “do something” has gotten many families, schools and support entities into serious ethical and legal difficulties.

Anticipating and preparing to respond to disruptions will help us to be in an optimum space to manage them. Mindset work and personal practices restore the flow of energy and enhance a felt sense of agency, resolving the block or bottleneck and consequent anger. Our bad days are only as good as the quality of our default or habitual response (or our autopilot, if you will).

Building the habit of responding to behaviors, dynamics and symptoms in the space of relating to children, clients and students with well defined, rationally based interventions and supports is done one interaction and one iteration at a time. Being consciously aware of what our inner map says is supposed to happen in these interactions will let us evaluate whether we’re focused on the right outcome. The object of our focus determines how competent we feel in using our skills and resources to attain it. So- a “fix it” goal is always going to bring about frustration; its pursuit is fruitless and a needless drain on our resources.

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