It was the type of conversation we’ve all heard, and then thought, “I’d never do that!” In a small restaurant north of San Francisco, I heard a woman loudly complaining to a friend about the ingratitude of a relative. “I just don’t understand it,” the woman said. “I tried to be helpful. You know, her husband is in critical condition, and she just about bit my head off when I offered to help. You’d think she’d be more appreciative.”
Often the term “shock” is used to describe changes in a person’s behavior because of a traumatic event. Nineteen physiological symptoms have been identified, but very little is written about the effect an emotional shock has on words and actions. And when they are noted, most people identify them as aberrations of the person’s usual character. That’s so unlike him, or Yes, I know she can be self-centered at times, but this is ridiculous, are the types of statements I often hear when someone is describing a strange or hurtful behavior by a good friend or loved one.
In many cases, these “bizarre” behaviors begin shortly after a traumatic event and often linger. I think one reason they are misunderstood is that what’s traumatic for one person may be of little consequence to another. The loss of a pet may be just as traumatic, or even more so, than the loss of a spouse. The inability to run competitively for a professional athletic may produce more emotional shock than the loss of a leg of someone who was always been physically inactive. It’s the consequences of losses that are of significance, rather than where they should fall on an abstract list of things that are “important.”
I witnessed an interaction between two friends that followed an emotionally traumatic event. In individual conversations with me, each said the other was uncaring and each looked to me to verify their own, unique interpretation of what occurred. I felt I was in the middle of the wonderful 1950’s movie. Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, where three characters each describe a terrible event. But the description of each differs according to each person’s needs. And so it did for my friends. Each filtered what had occurred through the pain each was experiencing.
For more than thirty years in various capacities, I witnessed the effects of emotional shock. As a communications counselor I’ve seen “hostility” in clients who realize that their ability to communicate in a certain way is gone. As a speech-language pathologist I watched the “unexplainable” reactions of parents when they accepted that the dreams they had for their child would never be fulfilled. As a hospice caregiver I’ve witnessed the transformation of emotional shock into the “abusive” reactions of family members as the death of a loved one approached. As a change consultant, I’ve listened to supervisors describe the sudden “bizarre” changes in an otherwise model employee. And as a university professor, I’ve been the recipient of “hostile” personal invectives by a graduate student when I gave him a B+ instead of an A- for a term paper.
WHAT TO DO
Despite understanding that traumatic events effect relationships, my patients and clients felt unable to change their behaviors and words in the midst of an emotional shock. They looked back and couldn’t believe the hurtful words and behaviors that came from them. Even with hindsight, few believed they could have done or said anything other than what they did. If reactions to traumatic events are more irrational than rational—and I believe they are—then the focus on how to minimize their destructive effects falls on the person who is receiving the abuse.
As a hospice bedside volunteer for eight years, I’ve learned to park my ego outside the doors of my patients. There are instances when I’m just collateral damage for my patient’s anger at what is physically happening to them or the family’s frustration at a loved one’s discomfort. Just as the experience of dying is not about me, the emotional shock that translates into unskillful acts and words of a friend or loved one is not about you.
But understanding the unskillful acts of others, doesn’t mean “turning the other cheek.” A more appropriate response is the type found in the marshal art of Aikido, where you defend yourself while protecting your attacker. Defending yourself involves understanding that the invectives thrown out against you are probably more a reflection of your attacker’s unresolved problems then anything about you. Protecting him or her requires the type of restraint you might use when a drunk who can barely stand picks a fight with you, or a devastated loved one accuses you of unimaginable behaviors.
Arguing rationally with someone in emotional shock rarely changes their view, and more likely will result in building an even higher defensive wall. Although you may believe that counter-attacking is a way of disputing a delusional belief and protecting yourself, it can be destructive to a valued relationship. Learn from the Aikido Masters. Listen, don’t confront, and gently turn away your attacker’s anger by being supportive.