How I’ve Learned to Manage Emotional Reaction

Reaction. This word carries more weight than its placid eight letters demonstrate. It is the last straw that turns a tranquil mother into a raging lunatic. It is the crossed line which surges forth the amicable pup, now frothing and growling his well-placed warning. Since I was old enough to know what it meant, it was the word that I feared most of all.

Emotional reaction, I figured early on, was a loss of control. It suggested I no longer decided how things would happen around me. I simply couldn’t live with that, so I invented a method not to react at all. I still engaged in conversations and laughed at jokes, but I learned not to allow my vulnerability to present itself.

The first time I remember this show of force happening was at the tender age of ten years, upon hearing that my father had just passed away. It would be a lie to say it didn’t affect me. After thirty-two years, I still remember the moment playing in my head like a well-watched film. There exists the familiar sensation of seizing in my gut, like someone had dropped rocks down my throat. When I saw my mother and sister embracing as they shared their despair, I turned away. In my young mind was only one thought: I have to be the strong one. So, I didn’t cry, even though I felt the sting of tears trapped behind determined eyelids. I heard the adults talking, the words they said—that I was too young to understand. A false presumption. At ten years old, I understood far more than any child should. I think their view may have saved me from a far bigger struggle in a silver-lining kind of way. People didn’t try to comfort me through my grief—a grief they didn’t know I had. I felt this was good. I didn’t think I had the strength to hold my chin up if people showed concern. Better that they simply ignored the little girl with no tears.

The ability to prevent reaction grew stronger with the years. It helped me laugh off hurt feelings caused by fair-weather friends and dismiss cheating boyfriends with little more than a shrug. It gave me the tenacity to bear three children without screaming once because, even then, my control was indispensable. I would die before anyone heard me scream.

Little did I realize that it was nothing more than a coping mechanism. Eventually, I discovered I was highly sensitive and, as my empathy grew more potent, my resolve began to waver. Being in a crowd of people was torture. Every emotion felt by every person oozed from their core and stuck to me like tar. I felt it all at once—the joy, the anger, the sorrow. It was unbearable. The grief became the worst emotion of all—perhaps because I had been denied my own as a child. The death of a friend or family member still sends me into a state of terror, as I know what to expect; sitting in a room with dozens of people wrapped up in their own lament…each one compounding my own raw feelings. I often avoid funerals, expecting that people will wonder why I wasn’t there. Wishing I could make them see.

I built a protective wall around me, withdrawing from a once vivacious and outgoing girl to someone shy and pensive—an introvert through and through. Despite all, I still fight to keep my control—to avoid a reaction. I’m not perfect, and I’m certainly not a soldier…some days I lose the battle and serenity gives way to madness, but I recover and repair my wall, brick by brick.

I created a harmonious refuge with green grass and gardens in bloom, but people keep knocking down my walls and stepping on my flowers. They haven’t learned to control their reactions, so I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am still in command of my own.

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