It was the type of conversation we’ve all heard, and then thought, “I’d never do that!” In a small restaurant north of San Francisco, I heard a woman loudly complaining to a friend about the ingratitude of a relative. “I just don’t understand it,” the woman said. “I tried to be helpful. You know, her husband is in critical condition, and she just about bit my head off when I offered to help. You’d think she’d be more appreciative.”

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EMOTIONAL SHOCK

Often the term “shock” is used to describe changes in a person’s behavior because of a traumatic event.  Nineteen physiological symptoms have been identified, but very little is written about the effect an emotional shock has on words and actions. And when they are noted, most people identify them as aberrations of the person’s usual character. That’s so unlike him, or Yes, I know she can be self-centered at times, but this is ridiculous, are the types of statements I often hear when someone is describing a strange or hurtful behavior by a good friend or loved one.

In many cases, these “bizarre” behaviors begin shortly after a traumatic event and often linger. I think one reason they are misunderstood is that what’s traumatic for one person may be of little consequence to another. The loss of a pet may be just as traumatic, or even more so, than the loss of a spouse. The inability to run competitively for a professional athletic may produce more emotional shock than the loss of a leg of someone who was always been physically inactive. It’s the consequences of losses that are of significance, rather than where they should fall on an abstract list of things that are “important.”

THE EXPERIENCE

I witnessed an interaction between two friends that followed an emotionally traumatic event. In individual conversations with me, each said the other was uncaring and each looked to me to verify their own, unique interpretation of what occurred. I felt I was in the middle of the wonderful 1950’s movie. Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, where three characters each describe a terrible event. But the description of each differs according to each person’s needs. And so it did for my friends. Each filtered what had occurred through the pain each was experiencing.

For more than thirty years in various capacities, I witnessed the effects of emotional shock. As a communications counselor I’ve seen “hostility” in clients who realize that their ability to communicate in a certain way is gone. As a speech-language pathologist I watched the “unexplainable” reactions of parents when they accepted that the dreams they had for their child would never be fulfilled. As a hospice caregiver I’ve witnessed the transformation of emotional shock into the “abusive” reactions of family members as the death of a loved one approached. As a change consultant, I’ve listened to supervisors describe the sudden “bizarre” changes in an otherwise model employee. And as a university professor, I’ve been the recipient of “hostile” personal invectives by a graduate student when I gave him a B+ instead of an A- for a term paper.

WHAT TO DO

Despite understanding that traumatic events effect relationships, my patients and clients felt unable to change their behaviors and words in the midst of an emotional shock. They looked back and couldn’t believe the hurtful words and behaviors that came from them. Even with hindsight, few believed they could have done or said anything other than what they did. If reactions to traumatic events are more irrational than rational—and I believe they are—then the focus on how to minimize their destructive effects falls on the person who is receiving the abuse.

As a hospice bedside volunteer for eight years, I’ve learned to park my ego outside the doors of my patients. There are instances when I’m just collateral damage for my patient’s anger at what is physically happening to them or the family’s frustration at a loved one’s discomfort. Just as the experience of dying is not about me, the emotional shock that translates into unskillful acts and words of a friend or loved one is not about you.

But understanding the unskillful acts of others, doesn’t mean “turning the other cheek.” A more appropriate response is the type found in the marshal art of Aikido, where you defend yourself while protecting your attacker. Defending yourself involves understanding that the invectives thrown out against you are probably more a reflection of your attacker’s unresolved problems then anything about you. Protecting him or her requires the type of restraint you might use when a drunk who can barely stand picks a fight with you, or a devastated loved one accuses you of unimaginable behaviors.

Arguing rationally with someone in emotional shock rarely changes their view, and more likely will result in building an even higher defensive wall. Although you may believe that counter-attacking is a way of disputing a delusional belief and protecting yourself, it can be destructive to a valued relationship. Learn from the Aikido Masters. Listen, don’t confront, and gently turn away your attacker’s anger by being supportive.

18 Responses

  1. Jim

    I think of your solution as the ultimate expression of love. How else do you overcome such attacks when your intentions are pure?

    Back in my teaching days, I can think of specific experiences where this applied, and although I lacked the eloquence of your “prescription,” I learned it in my own (and sometimes hard) way. Perhaps it also applied to people who are in emotional situations of all sorts, including puberty and pregnancy.

    Thank you for the insight.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      I think you’re absolutely right Jim. It’s too easy to analyze the intentions of another person from one’s own worldview regardless if it pertains to a chronic illness, or as puberty and pregnancy do, another reality shaping way of thinking.

      Reply
  2. Henry Shen

    How many one-sentence statements are there that one, just one of them, can change the world? I found one today here in your article: “… in the marshal art of Aikido, … you defend yourself while protecting your attacker”!

    It’s so POWERFUL! So Insightful! So True! So sublime! That one sentence hit the point on how we deal with relationships with sentient beings (even if some are beasts). It distinguishes itself from the art of war, as in Mao’s books, “the purpose of all wars is: save ourselves, and annihilate enemies”.

    Stan, funny and ironical enough, this kind of emotional shock happened to me just yesterday when I was in good shape after a routine meditation and Vajrasattva mantra chanting, and concentrating on some work in the lab. Now came in Bob, the guy from Kansas who is always in brief mode, asking me to help fix a networking problem. This guy doesn’t respect people’s time. When he wants something to be done, it must be done now, even if you tell him you are very busy. He lingers you yelling “I can’t wait”. This time, since I was working on an urgent project, I yelled to him “I can’t wait, either! You must wait for just a couple of minutes!” I won, but guess what, the tranquility of my mind was gone. I was mentally disturbed — the worst thing a Buddhist wants to have. Last night when I practiced guru yoga, I put it into my prayer, saying, hey, how come such a worthless event may steal away my peace of mind? Bob is like this maybe just once every two weeks, and in most cases it doesn’t take long to fulfill his request. Why I got really mad of him?

    Later I surfed the Internet, and ran into, by coincidence, a speech by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche my root guru. He said, even those who have meditated for decades may get mad sometimes. I think the key word here may be “preparedness” – that if you know Bob may rush in at any time, you are well poised to that problem. But it’s just not good enough, not at all. ANYTHING can happen next minute, given the nature of impermanence of life. And “preparedness” can pose a distraction.

    BTW, I had a conversation with a local instructor of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s mandala yesterday and told her I read Words of My Perfect Teacher every day and am almost done with it. She thought I started after I took refuge in the Rinpoche and I told her, “this book was recommended by Stan Goldberg, even before I read Rinpoche’s book that enlightened me, it’s another coincidence”. She said, “there just have been too many coincidences around you.” Word of My Perfect Teacher or the Longchen Nyingtik is very important in Dzongsar Lineage, and actually Rinpoches of Dzongsar system are holders of the Longchen lineage themselves, among other lamas. My guru has a very high opinion on that, and teaches his students Word of My Perfect Teacher frequently. It’s definitely NOT a coincidence.

    Reply
      • Stan Goldberg

        Hi Henry,
        Once again the importance of “coincidences” is affirmed. And I believe it’s the universality and enduring nature of certain ideas that reconfirms their importance. I had no idea about the principles of Aikido when I began writing the article. And I can’t even remember why I started reading about it. But there is was, something of great importance to me that had been used in many forms for millineua.
        Take Care

  3. Steven Evans

    Stan has once again given us insightful encapsulated wisdom. With most modest training in Judo, Karate, and at least watching an Aikido Master, perhaps I can add just a bit of unfolding to his terse wisdom.

    Aikido is based (some say) on a philosophy of reconciliation, whereby the Aikido Master understands the rhyme and intent of an attacker and by so doing, controls and directs the attacker’s action to both defend oneself while causing no harm to the assailant. There are three key phrases here – Aikido Master, rhyme and intent, control and direct.

    That is, first this is an art form of a Master. It requires a great deal of practice. It is not easy and does not come quickly to the beginning student. Second, you must be able to quickly recognize the rhyme and intent. Without understanding the attacker’s context, you will for example let it become about you, as Stan pointed out, rather than about the attacker’s needs. Third, you must be able to control and direct the attacking energy away from you as well as from the attacker whom you are also trying to protect from his or her own action. At its heart, Aikido redirects the attacker’s momentum.

    On my first try, I had my “head chewed off” [more accurately, my neck broken – actually a broken clavicle to be quite exact]. In this case, it was easy to tell the master from the student – the student was the one with the bone sticking out of his shirt.

    That was some 25 years ago. I have had the opportunity to practice everyday since. For example, my mother had dementia for about 15 years. Sadly, I have still not yet changed my beginner’s white belt, my amateur standing. But I remain optimistic — after all, it’s just been my first 25 years.

    Thank you again Stan for another fine insight!

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Steve,
      I think there are an amazing number of relevant points in your description of attaining (or trying to attain) mastery in Aikido and understanding the frame of reference of the person who is unskillful in words and actions. I think it’s even more difficult when it’s you in the middle of an “event.” I’ve been trying to master this for more than 30 years and sometimes I still don’t get the intent correct. But, often, even when I can’t fathom why something is being said or done, if I make the assumption that it’s filling a need, my response may not be completely on-target, but I do no harm. Thanks for your comments.

      Reply
  4. David Michie

    I make a point of reading your articles, Stan, because they always have some genuinely useful insight. So many points, well made. The main challenge, for me, is remembering this wisdom at the time of a flare up, instead of two hours later!

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi David,
      I’ve found understanding how something works and applying that understanding are often two different things. And, I, just as you, figure it out sometimes two hours later. Take Care.

      Reply

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