Reframing Irritation As A Need
When I find myself feeling irritated by or impatient with others, I remind myself that they are often expressing a need.
From time to time, I find myself feeling irritated by others. Or maybe I feel impatient like they just don’t get it. Like I might have some other pressing need, or I have a repair that needs to be made, but my family demands my time. Yes, I can be like that. It doesn’t mean that I ignore anyone. I try to be present, but sometimes, my body is there and my mind is processing another problem.
My kids may do something irritating, my wife may grate on me, or maybe I’m at the business end of poor customer service. In most cases, when I’m feeling irritated around other people, I can almost always point to a need that is being expressed by the other person.
With the people I live with, they express their needs to me with requests:
“Play with me.”
“Talk to me.”
“Read to me.”
“Be with me.”
“Spend time with me.”
Sometimes, those people I live with, they don’t present their needs in the most favorable light. They don’t say, “please”. They make incessant demands. They interrupt me while I’m doing something else. The probability that my wife will ask me to do something other than what I’m doing right now is proportionate to the square of how important it is for me to keep doing what I am doing already.
Sometimes, I get “triggered” by these events. The demands of my family often remind me of my own life as a kid, unable to meet his own needs without help. I may feel anger, hostility and/or just plain irritation. As an older adult, I’ve learned to let the feelings pass before acting. I’ve made a habit of assuming that the irritation I feel about someone else has nothing to do with the other people. That sense of irritation, impatience or inconvenience is about me and my own unmet needs.
I wasn’t always so aware. Over time, I’ve learned that anger is a choice and that the irritation that I feel now is a result of the choices I’ve made. I have learned to acknowledge that it takes two to tango. I have also learned that I have many layers of history to peel back so that I can finally get a glimpse of the person that I really am.
The ghosts of my upbringing are still with me. When I was a boy, my father was not really available to me. He submerged himself in work. And then when he was at home, he was always reading, always watching sports. He was not available to go out and play catch, go to a movie or just to sit and talk.
I always felt that my relationship with my dad was so tenuous. I learned to be prepared with the answers he wanted to hear. I learned to remember what was important to him, ready to recite in case he started investigating something. I was made to be there for my dad, not the other way around.
My mom wanted to help. She was always trying to help. And if my dad caught wind of that, he’d find a way to make her busy so she couldn’t help. My dad saw us kids as competition for my mom’s attention. He didn’t see us then as people who have needs. And I remind myself that he learned to be like that from his parents.
Tit-for-tat. In return, I presented challenging behavior to my parents. In return, they presented me with unpalatable choices, often called, “punishment”. As I grew older, I saw my relationship with my parents evolve. I grew more distant from my parents. They weren’t really there for my emotional needs. I had the necessities, so there was never any worry about food, shelter, clothing and the like. But feelings to my dad were hot potatoes.
After a couple decades of writing, reading, introspection, meetings, and fellowship, it seemed like I was ready to be a parent. I got married, we had kids and I learned, in real-time, that my purpose in life was to be there for my kids. I tend to overcompensate for an absent father, so I make sure to spend time with my kids. I have been learning to reframe my sense of irritation with my kids, something that I learned from my parents, as a perception of a need that my kids must meet.
I can do this easily while at work. I work in customer service. Everyone at work is a customer. My customers, my managers, my peers, it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to assume that everyone is a customer. Customers have needs that they can’t or choose not to meet themselves. And they’re willing to pay dearly for the help they need. They pay my bills.
So when I’m dealing with a “hot customer”, someone who is at the limit of his tolerance, and he has a “tolerance break”, as a customer service representative, I don’t take it personally. I don’t feel irritation when dealing with an angry customer. He’s the one having a bad day, not me.
My job is to make their job better, easier. My job is to make sure the customer doesn’t have to call me again for the same problem. My job is to make my customer look good to his manager so that his manager looks good. My job is to make my manager look good, too.
By reframing someone who is irritating at work as someone who is just expressing a need, I am no longer irritated by that person. I’ve changed the context of my experience of customers so that I can better serve them. When someone throws a hot customer my way, I see that as a challenge, not an inconvenience. I see hot customers as a stepping stone to a raise.
I’m learning to do that with my family, too. I have learned to reframe their demands as needs. They need me or they wouldn’t be asking me. And I really don’t want them asking someone else for help, or what is the point of raising a family again? When my daughters ask me to play with them, it’s not an inconvenience. When they want me to help them get dressed for school, it’s a need they’re expressing, even if they know how to dress for school. Help with getting dressed isn’t the need they’re presenting. They want attention.
My job as a parent is to give my kids the attention that they ask for. I have to do this every day of their lives until they get that need met. This is not easy for someone who was raised by parents who didn’t know how to do this. My mom was very attentive to us kids. But there were some emotional needs she could not meet for boys. There are just some things that men can do for boys that women can’t do. Men and women complement each other in their capacities and skills, they don’t compete with each other. So I’ve had to learn how to do things for my kids that I don’t think I learned as a child.
That’s why I spent so many years in therapy, recovery, and fellowship. I was busy learning how to meet my own needs. I was busy grieving the loss of time that I wanted to have with my parents so that I could be present for other people. I did that work so that I could be there for my kids. So that I could be present. So that I could see their behavior as an expression of a need rather than an irritation.