After going postal over a pretzel in Waitrose, one writer realised she had to find a new way to handle living with her anger towards her ex-boyfriend.
Harsh words, long sulks or full-on tantrums – we all express our anger differently. Of course, the adult approach to dealing with something that irks us is to sit down and “talk things through” with the person doing the irking. But how many of us possess such maturity?
If you’re anything like me, the minute something doesn’t go your way you’re inclined to throw yourself on the floor and kick and scream like a child denied her favourite toy. The last time I did that was when they ran out of my favourite pretzels in Waitrose. The poor security man thought I was having an epileptic fit.
Of course, I wouldn’t ordinarily overreact to such a trivial nuisance this way. But my temper had been tested in recent weeks. The cause? My ex-boyfriend Adam – the once darling of my life who’d dumped me unceremoniously earlier this year.
In truth, I’d seen the break-up coming. Our laughter-filled conversations on the sofa had dissolved into one-word exchanges in the hallway. We’d grown apart. But still, when he came home and announced that he wanted to end our eight-year relationship in February, it was a huge blow.
The second wallop came when he told me he’d continue to live with me in our two-bedroom Victorian conversion flat until it sold. “What, you mean we’re going to be … flatmates?” I asked disbelievingly.
“Yes,” he smiled. “Why not?”
It was absurd. None of my friends had lived with their exes after having their hearts broken. And mine needed to heal without him there. I considered renting but couldn’t afford that and half the mortgage. And he point-blank refused to go. So I was stuck with my ex. Miserable.
At first I dealt with his rejection by sulking. For three weeks I didn’t utter a word. Then came the tears, followed by what I was really feeling – anger. I was deeply hurt by the way he’d treated me and furious that he’d given up on us.
So I began bashing plates as he tried to cook in the kitchen and slamming doors. Everything he did made me seethe. We argued almost daily and I was sick with anxiety. I snapped at friends for simply asking how I was. By June, enough was enough. I needed to find some inner peace before I went bonkers.
Then, as if by magic, I was typing away on my laptop one morning when an email about a special anger management retreat in Spain popped up. It was run by psychotherapist Mike Fisher, the head of the British Association of Anger Management, and taught people how to manage their anger better by using mindfulness. Excited, I flew out on June 8.
The retreat was at a villa situated in Andalucia’s stunning Sierra de las Nieves nature reserve. The brightly coloured rooms, exotic flowers and cosy meditation caves inside the building were a far cry from the clinical setting I was expecting.
The other people at the retreat weren’t what I’d envisaged, either. Three were couples and two singles. They all appeared relaxed and friendly, certainly not the angry type. But as the days unfolded, so did our issues. Our work began the following morning with a talk on the different types of angry people – aggressors and passive aggressors. Aggressors yell when they lose it, whereas passive aggressors let their rage bubble away quietly until one day, it erupts.
I thought back to my supermarket meltdown, which culminated in me chucking a pain au chocolat down the aisle. I was definitely an aggressor. But I often sulked too.
“We can be one or a combination of both,” Mike explained. “It depends on the circumstances.”
It was all starting to make sense. But why did I get so angry? And in particular, with Adam? The answer came on our third day during a workshop on anger triggers.
“Anger is often caused by our primary needs not being met – the need to be loved, appreciated, respected, or valued, for example,” said Mike. “The mistake we often make is looking to others to fulfil those needs, instead of ourselves.”
It was an epiphany moment. I realised I wasn’t just angry because Adam didn’t love me anymore, I also didn’t love myself enough. I’d always battered my ego down with negative self-talk whenever anything went wrong. Missed a train? I was “hopeless”. Lost something? I was “useless”. God forbid I should ever miss a work deadline. I’d probably beat myself up with a baseball bat.
So when my relationship broke down, instead of reasoning that we’d both simply changed, I blamed myself. I told myself I should have tried harder, demanded less of him, even climbed a mountain butt naked if that’s what it took. Because my relationship had failed I believed that I was a failure.
“This is where your anger stems from,” Mike said calmly as I revealed my light-bulb moment to the group. “That makes me feel sad,” I quivered. “Sit with that feeling,” Mike urged.
It was something we were told to do often throughout the week. Normally, if I felt upset about something, I’d keep myself busy as a distraction. Especially lately. I’d go running at 11pm, or dance around the living room to the Bee Gees whenever I felt tearful. In actual fact, what I really needed to do was allow myself to grieve.
“The more you don’t give yourself permission to feel your feelings the more anxious, sad, or angry you become,” explained Mike. “You need to be present with them without judging yourself.”
We did this daily by checking “in” and “out”. We’d introduce ourselves by name, then tell everyone how we were feeling. It was a bit like an AA meeting at first – “Hello, I’m Nilufer and I feel like setting my ex-boyfriend’s underwear on fire” – but powerful. It made me aware that I wasn’t OK. But it was OK not to be OK.
At its root, that’s exactly what mindfulness is – awareness. Not only of who we are and what we feel, but our surroundings in the present moment. So that when we are brushing our teeth, we focus on the brush, instead of worrying about the gas bill. This “slowing down” reduces stress, and therefore anger.
Another way to become more mindful is through meditation, which was also taught at the retreat, sometimes incorporating visualisation exercises. By the end of the week I felt calmer, more self-accepting, and ready to face any challenge.
In fact, the experience had such a profound effect on me that when I arrived home to discover Adam had accidentally spilt white spirit all over my bedroom floor, I didn’t bat an eyelid. I simply shrugged and said, “Accidents happen.” The shock on his face was priceless. I think the security chap at Waitrose will be surprised by the new me too.
A guide to staying calm
Get as present as you can in everything you say, do, feel and experience. Be aware of how you are feeling all the time.
Make a commitment to yourself that you will do what you can to live in the here and now.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings without trying to brush them aside. Remember, all feelings contribute to your general health and wellbeing, even sadness and anger.
See the bigger picture, not just your perspective but other people’s too.
Try not to take things personally. Remember, it isn’t always all about you.