Angry customer causes tears
Today a man called the office where I work on the pretext of buying tickets to a musical event that my company presents each year. He then proceeded to vent his spleen regarding the (admitted) lack of wheelchair accessibility at the venue, which is a quaint, unconventional space with limited potential for improving accessibility. Actually "vent his spleen" is too tame a description. He was belligerent and pugnacious. He was demonstrably angry, not because of any genuine disappointment in not being able to bring his wheelchair-bound relative to the event (in fact he repeatedly told me he wasn't disappointed), but because he wanted to make a point and "teach you people a lesson". He went on and on and on and became very threatening and accusatory. He didn't seem interested in my sincere expression of regret, or the fact that all our other events during the year are in very accessible spaces. He didn't seem at all interested in a constructive dialogue. I tried to be restrained, to empathize, and to maintain a courteous and respectful and positive demeanor. My colleagues assure me that I succeeded, but I feel that it was a case of "only just" under the onslaught. I finally managed to extract myself from the conversation and hung up, but was immediately reduced to tears. It is very rare that someone (even an angry or hurtful person) can reduce me to tears, and this has never happened to me in the workplace even in times of stress.
My question is: how was it that this man was able to "reach me" or "get to me" in a way that caused me so much visible (and atypical) distress? I realize that you cannot necessarily answer this question for me. But what questions can I ask myself that will help me become more conscious of the dynamic that was at play here, and why I reacted as strongly as I did?
I am very sorry to hear that you were verbally abused Thomasina. It seems obvious from what you said in your email that this customer was taking out years of frustration on you and was not really attempting to communicate and resolve an issue. That is verbal abuse.
Your question is a really important one though. Why do we react greatly to certain people or situations? Most people believe that as we mature, we leave behind how we were when we were younger. Therefore, there is only one reality and that is the present. I believe it is much more accurate to view the world as many parallel realities.
Although generally there is a tendency to mature and grow, we never really leave behind our past completely. There is a 10 year old, 20 year old, and 50 year old within the same psyche. Most of the times, we will be in our present day adult and only rarely remember how it was to be younger. At other times, we will remember on a deeper level. Some times, it is as if we have entered a time warp and are actually reliving the past. This is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whenever it appears that the emotion is too great for a present situation, it is possible that the present cue has hit an old wound from the past. This is when it makes sense to search back in your memory and try to figure out what past trauma has been hit.
If you can ascertain what that past issue is, then grieving that past pain, symbolically, will resolve the problem more effectively than dealing with the present situation. When the old pain is relieved, the present issue will be more manageable, and can be dealt with in a more adult fashion.
Of course, it is always possible that it is just the present pain that is the real issue, and not the past. No one appreciates being confronted in the manner that you were. Abuse should make a person feel attacked. Ask yourself if you have ever been blamed for no real reason. If you were, then that might be the past trigger. If not, then it is just the present situation that is at issue here.
In your case, I think it could easily be the present abuse that you were taking offense to, and you were just having a normal reaction to the real abuse of the customer. This is especially probable if it is something that has rarely occurred to you. Most past triggers get activated often, which does not seem to be the case with you.
I hope this has been helpful. Take care.
Jef Gazley, M.S., LMFT
This question was answered by Jef Gazley M.S. Jef has practiced psychotherapy for twenty-five years, specializing in Love Addiction, Hypnotherapy, Relationship Management, Dysfunctional Families, Co-Dependency, Professional Coaching, and Trauma Issues. He is a trained counselor in EMDR, NET, TFT, and Applied Kinesiology. He is dedicated to guiding individuals to achieving a life long commitment to mental health and relationship mastery. His private practice locations are Scottsdale and Tempe, Arizona. You can also visit Jef at the internettherapist, the first audiovisual mental health online counseling center on the net.For more information visit: http://www.asktheinternettherapist.com/