I can lose my temper sometimes. When I do, it can flip me from normal, even easy going, into someone possessed by a murderous rage. It's not hotheaded, it's coldhearted. It's also predictable, to an extent. Like everyone, it happens more when I am tired, frustrated, or distracted. Through the use of sleeping medications, I force myself to sleep more than my body naturally wants to, partly to keep a more level head when I am actually awake. I also try to avoid situations in which someone may unpredictably provoke me, typically strangers who don't know me or my triggers, and I am careful to schedule in a lot of downtime and alone time in which to decompress. I've gotten so good at this, it's been a while since my last rage attack. And all of the recent ones have been while I am traveling, when I am most likely to be forced to deal with strangers.
The most predictable aspect of these rages, though, is when someone "calls" me on something that I have done "wrong" when I feel like I have done nothing that would warrant their disapproval. I get angry at the flight attendant who tells me to turn off my electronic device, the metro worker who tells me to not use a particular set of stairs, etc. I know why, I feel like it is underhanded, that they are trying to force me to follow a particular set of rules that I think don't acknowledge, for whatever reason.
The particular set of rules, I realized, are called "social exchange rules." From a Wall Street Journal article about why folks throw temper tantrums when these rules are broken (try Googling the title "Big Explosions, Small Reasons" to get past the subscriber only):
Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It's the old, childhood wail: "It's not fair!"
Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior "social exchange rules." We're not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don't cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.
"We can't have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules," says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. "And we can't have a beneficial society if we can't trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being."
What makes my losses of temper different, I wondered. Am I the same as these people? I behave civilized, even charmingly. I say please and thank you, wait my turn in line, etc., but largely because this is the best way to get what I want. These are some of the most obvious social rules, whether kept or broken, so I am sure to be seen as a rule follower particularly for these little niceties.
No, when I lose my temper, it's not because I feel like someone has not held up their end of a social bargain, it is because I have been reminded about how powerless I am. The flight attendant has power over me. I try to pretend that we are equals and I could ruin her if I wanted to, but ultimately she could get me kicked off a flight and I would have no recourse. The metro worker looked like God's mistake, but he also has a certain sort of power over me, power to tell me where I can walk and where I can't or else he'll call security. I hate feeling like someone has power over me, hate it so much that I will almost always try to flip the power dynamic in whatever way I can. And apparently get really angry about it when I'm reminded how many people have control over me in countless ways in my daily life. I don't know, it was interesting seeing how the reasons I lose my temper are both similar and different from the way that other people lose their temper. And now I know better how to provoke people (or not) when I choose.