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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Your Problem Is Not My Problem

March 2024

Half a life ago, I learned one of life’s great lessons from my then 16-year-old niece. I remain forever grateful. She came from her room yelling at me. My shoulders hunched up and my hands clenched as she yelled about something. Suddenly, in the same tone of voice and without pause, she yelled, “…and-furthermore-I’m-not-mad-at-you-I’m-mad-at-me-but-since-I-can’t-yell-at-me-I’m-going-to-yell-at-you.” My shoulders and hands immediately relaxed. I heard her anger, but those other words were not important to me. I stood, the vehicle for her to release her frustration. Around the same time, I’d come home from work frustrated and hear my nephew tell me repeatedly “Your problem is not my problem.”

It was shortly after that I was angry at someone or situation. None of the family was home at the time. I went in the bathroom and began to yell in front of the mirror. I couldn’t. I saw how ridiculous, and really unattractive I looked and burst out laughing. I don’t think I’ve been angry at anyone since. Her words remain so true.

Yes, occasionally someone may do something that makes me angry. I don’t remember the last time that happened. I know what can make me angry. Don’t mess with my money. Don’t mess with my kids—only now my son and niece are in their fifties, so it’s don’t mess with my grandchildren. Don’t steal my writing. None of those three things have happened in the past forty years.

My anger at situations that I had no part in dissolved after that day. When my husband yelled and directed it at me, I knew it was not me, but probably a leftover from Vietnam or a present work situation.

Sometimes, I called my friend, Onecia, also a Vietnam wife. “Onecia, Robert just did such and such.”

“Yes,” she replied, “Ed does that too.”

“Okay. Thank you. Bye.”

That confirmation let me know his anger had nothing to do with me. I was just the vehicle there to receive it because his time in Vietnam was a long time ago. As I taught the children at the elementary school where I was principal, “Brush it off your shoulders” was my statement to some child angry after recess or lunch. My favorite was a child coming down the hall towards me. He was a seven-year-old. When he saw me, he brushed off his shoulders. Wonderful, I thought, he has learned self-control.

I don’t remember whether I’d been on anti-seizure medications for two or fourteen months, but I remember it was 3 September. A weight lifted from my shoulders and whole body. My lifetime of a low level of constant anxiety, which sometimes triggered angry statements or feelings, vanished. I no longer had to watch my behavior and be ever so cautious about where I was and what I did when some seizure event was about to occur. I was on medication that kept my seizures and pre-seizure moments under control. For the first time, I relaxed. I felt calm. A Quaker sense of calm.

One week later, I told my husband of fifty years and he said he noticed. It felt wonderful that he saw that change in me without my telling him.

People who experience or have experienced trauma display anger at some point. Some exude anger as if it comes out of their pores. I’ve watched it in veterans of war zones—a temper tantrum or rage about something that is a small thing, or perhaps a large one. I’ve watched it in people, including children, who are or have been abused whether that be physical, verbal, sexual, or psychological. I’ve known parents who hit their children. That’s physical abuse, even if it’s the way they grew up. I remember teaching an eight-week class to parents who yelled at their children a lot or hit them as punishment. They had not learned a different way to respond to a misbehaving child or to their own anger at a situation. It was my job to teach them.

One of my favorite examples of a poor way to deal with anger occurred years ago in a grocery store. This parent yelled at the crying child that if she didn’t stop crying, he was going to spank her. Think about that for a moment. Spanking hurts, and will probably produce more tears in a three- or four-year-old. Her father’s statement reflected two things to me—he was frustrated and also did not know how to control his own anger. Around the same time, I had a three-year-old child crying loudly in the carrier of the grocery cart. He wanted something and I passed by.

Yes, I was frustrated and embarrassed by his loud crying but not angry. I did what I had learned. I could have walked away, except you can’t leave a child unattended in a grocery cart. I picked him up, carried him out to the car, put him inside, and locked the doors. As I walked back to the grocery store, I thought how senseless that was. No one could get in, but he could get out. I went back in the store and watched out the window almost fully blocked by the usual displays. He couldn’t see me, but I could see him. When he stopped crying, I went back to the car, unlocked it, and we finished shopping. I hadn’t moved the cart so it was still in the candy aisle, but he didn’t utter a sound. I was lucky I had learned to deal with his frustration without losing my temper. My embarrassment and red face, my problem not his, went away with time.

How does one learn to deal with anger? Listen and realize it belongs to the person yelling. It does not belong to you. Oh how many times I have responded with anger and yelled also. Along came a ton of “you” statements, which got the two of us nowhere. It is also so damaging to children in the family who cannot help but hear it. I know of a big sister, age four, who took her little brother, age two, outdoors and they hid in the bushes till it was over.

The dynamics can change when people learn to use “I” statements as my niece did at the beginning of this story. “And furthermore, I…I…I…I…,” she said and I immediately relaxed. They also can change when the person being yelled at takes deep breaths and calm. If you’re the one angry, go for a run or a walk. I’ve seen two of my grandchildren frustrated by something. I didn't need to know what. One walked away at such times; another went for a run. I do the same thing when possible. Each of the three of us returns a far more settled and cheerful person.

Remember, you can’t yell at yourself and someone else’s problem is not your problem.

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