People Acting Badly

Is it just me? Or have any of you had the out-of-body experience of severely overreacting to something said to you at just the wrong time, in just the wrong way, in just the wrong circumstance, with just the wrong words and intonation, and (BAM!) suddenly you feel your face peeling off, your fangs popping out, and Cujo exploding from your body? I’m neither exaggerating nor proud to say that when it happened, I left nothing but shreds in the aftermath.

Fortunately, these have been rare, but they have happened. And I’ve also been on the receiving end of similar bad behavior outbursts from other people. When I look back, it seems like I was a different person entirely. But why? I know I’m a good person, and most of the people I know are also good people. So why the occasional bad behavior and overreactions? I can almost always connect the dots for myself–exhaustion, hunger, built-up resentment that has reached a tipping point, or one too many glasses of wine. Individually, any one of these can be fuel for the fire. Collectively, it’s like a can of gasoline, waiting for a spark.

People behave badly for a variety of reasons, but they are usually sparked by their amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped group of neurons located in the temporal lobe of the human brain. It’s responsible for encoding and filtering memories and for processing emotions, particularly fear. And it’s not just humans. Even a puppy, when backed into a corner, will feel threatened and lash out. When your cat has had enough, you will get scratched. And when you, as a human, have had your identity threatened, your integrity questioned, or your heart betrayed or attacked, your amygdala senses fear, potential loss, or pain and puts you into the fight, flight, or freeze mode.

You may have heard of the acronym H.A.L.T. This is an easy way to remember that your strong reaction, or a strong reaction from another person, could be due to feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. When you experience bad behavior from yourself or someone you’re engaging with, remember it likely has less to do with you and much more to do with one of these. It’s almost always more about how they are processing what’s happening around them. They are seeking safety internally. And sometimes that looks like outward anger.

What can we do to mitigate bad behavior within us or others? Here are a few suggestions that have helped me:

  • Separate the person from the behavior.
  • Think about what you or they (imperfect humans that we are) might want or need.
    • Is it space or love, or better yet… loving space? Is it guidance, support, or patience?
  • Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Clear your head.
  • Look for any common threads like alcohol, hunger, exhaustion, etc. that always seem to play a role in these bouts of bad behavior. If you can identify them, then you can manage them.
  • Apologize and find a time and space to revisit the issue when you are at your best.

Remind yourself that you are a good human at your core. So is the other person. Remember this as you navigate your day-to-day life on the road, at work, or at home. There’s no excuse for bad behavior from us or anyone else, but we can do a better job understanding it, working to correct it and make it right, and showing grace wherever possible.

“Don’t hold to anger, hurt or pain. They steal your energy and keep you from love.”

~ Leo Buscaglia

“Anger is a brief madness.”

~ Horace, Epistles (Book 1)

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