If you’re a TBI survivor, you may be very familiar with the flares of temper that can sneak up on us unawares. It is very disconcerting, if you’re a pretty even-keel sort of person, or if you really don’t want to pitch a fit, but find yourself flying off the handle against your own will.
This has happened to me as long as I can remember — temper flares that come out of nowhere and decimate not only my relationships with people around me, but my self-esteem and self-confidence, as well.
I recently wrote a post called One Potato, Two Potato… that talks in greater detail about my experience of an intense temper flare that builds up over time.
I actually have identified a number of different kinds of flares I experience:
- Flares that originate inside me – and come up suddenly without any warning
- Flares that originate inside me, but percolate and develop over time, till I boil over. (That’s what One Potato, Two Potato… is about)
- Flares whose source originates very suddenly outside me – they’re knee-jerk reactions to external conditions that actively provoke me.
- Flares whose source comes from outside me that percolate slowly until I boil over.
There are other ones, as well, and I’m devoting a fair amount of my time, these days, to thinking about them. Of all the cognitive-behavioral issues I have, my temper flares are some of the most challenging. And since so many people reach this blog by searching for info on TBI and temper, I know I’m not the only one.
For the uninitiated, here’s a general description what happens in one of my TBI temper flares, how I deal with it, and how I pull out of it:
- I have a goal in mind — it can be as simple as picking up a pencil, or as complicated as making a three-course dinner.
- I turn my attention to the thing I want to do… think about doing it… think about not doing it… and then I decide to do it.
- I shift into gear — I reach for the pencil… or I start peeling vegetables for cooking.
- Suddenly, something stops me — I drop the pencil, or a potato slips out of my hand and skitters across the floor.
- A sudden wave of violent emotion sweeps through me, like a wildfire through dry California underbrush. My eyesight dims briefly, as my heart pounds and adrenaline floods through my veins. I want to strike out, lash out, hurt whatever is getting in my way. I curse the pencil… or I feel a sharp stab of rage directed at the potato. If I were able to kinesthetically direct energy at will — and if my temper had its way — the pencil or the potato would be a smoking little pile of ashes.
- In the back of my head, the calm, collected voice reminds me that it’s just a pencil or a potato, and that no one was harmed by this thing slipping out of my hand. I don’t need to strike out and harm anyone, just because I lost my grip.
- The part of me that doesn’t care for these temper flares is mortified at my intense reaction. It’s deeply ashamed that I would get so worked up over such a little thing. So what, if the pencil or the potato got away from me? What’s the big deal? The wild animal part of me that flared intensely is cowed and tries to defend its reaction, but when the logical, sensible, even-keeled part of me prevails in its reason, that little animal part of me slinks away to a corner to lick its wounds and chastise itself for being bad… again.
- In an attempt to de-escalate my just-add-water instantaneous rage, I pause and take a measured breath. I turn my focus back to the basics — the simple act of picking up the pencil… retrieving the potato from the other side of the kitchen. I focus on the most basic aspects of the moment, waiting till the rage subsides and I can get back to doing what I started out doing.
- If all goes well, I can continue with my task and not suffer too much at the hands of my self-recrimination. If things aren’t going well, like if I’m stressed or fatigued or scattered, I may throw something or curse or hit something or lash out… with the consequence of not achieving what I intended to achieve, and descending into a downward spiral of shame and blame and guilt and embarrassment. If I’m lucky, no one is around to see this. If I’m out of luck, someone I love and care for is nearby and is strongly impacted — and quite negatively so — by my sudden rage.
Now, I’ve noticed that if I have built up a lot of momentum around Step 2, my rage response is much more intense, than if I proceed with measured pace, taking things one at a time. I also need to be careful not to indulge every reaction that comes to mind.
It’s helpful if I can sit back and just observe myself, not participate 100% in the whole unfolding drama. But observation doesn’t always work. Especially if I’m tired.
Over the coming weeks (early 2009), I’ll be writing more on this. It may be helpful to others who are dealing with the challenges of TBI temper flares… with greater or lesser success. In fact, some folks have said that what I’ve written so far, is very helpful to them, so it’s my hope that I can help more.
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