“I thought you were angry.” It’s a phrase I’ve become used to hearing.
“Why are you angry?” I guess it’s a fair enough assumption. My voice was raised. My words were strong. My body language was not calm.
You see, there is so much going on inside that I can’t explain in the moment. I can sometimes manage to say things like “I don’t like that”, “it’s too much”, “it’s too hard”, and “stop”.
Sometimes I can’t say anything and I just go quiet. I know my jaw is clenched and my shoulders are hunched. I might walk away, or sit in stony silence.
Lots of people do look like that when they are angry.
When you reacted as though I was angry, when you told me “don’t be angry”, I thought that maybe I was angry. I thought you were right. I believed you for a while. But when I thought about it later, when I had the strength to deal with my discomfort and think about what was really happening for me, I realised you were wrong.
To a small degree I was angry. And frustrated. And a bit annoyed. But mostly? Mostly I was scared.
I am experiencing lots of things you can’t see:
sensory overload– the way the sounds hurt my body, the way the light makes it hard to think, the way the smells are distracting me.
language processing difficulty- the way my brain is unable to put the words you are saying into sentences I can understand, the feeling of knowing what I want to say but not being able to find the right words to use.
anxious thoughts– past experiences of stress and other peoples reactions to me when I am stressed, knowing that if I push myself too hard or am pushed too much by someone else I will become overloaded, the recurring thoughts of not being good enough strong enough capable enough.
These things all combine so that when I am in a situation that is unexpected, surprising, stressful or unsettling, I get scared.
I am scared that I won’t know what to do. Scared that I will do the wrong thing. Scared that you will think I am silly, incapable, over-reacting, under-reacting, or any number of other things I don’t want you to think. I’m scared that if I can’t quickly get control over myself, my body and how I feel, that I am going to cry or yell or curse, or worse… have a meltdown in front of you.
I am scared that you’ve noticed I am stressed and you are going to want me to explain why. You might ask if you can help, and then I will have to choose between appearing cold or making myself more vulnerable to you, and I don’t know you well enough to know if I can trust you. Or if I do know you and trust you I am sacred that if I do tell you what’s happening you won’t know what to do and you will be uncomfortable and then I’ll feel like I have to comfort you when I can’t even look after myself just now.
You might think I look angry, but I’m really not. I am scared.
So often I see people assigning and imposing interpretations onto other peoples behaviour. If they speak directly, they are rude. If they don’t make eye contact they are suspicious (or rude). If they lash out physically, they are aggressive. If they don’t do as they are requested immediately they are disrespectful and non-compliant. So many assumptions. Maybe not all assumptions we make based on what we think we know are correct. Maybe not everyone communicates their emotions in ways you are familiar with. Maybe they are just scared too.