Of the three sisters, family myth has it that I was the difficult one, the one with a temper; the oldest was the perfect one and the youngest was the one with a medical condition. I had been born with a smushed-looking face and hair that stuck up and was a colicky baby, and later could lash out–though I don’t really remember any of that. Okay, the sisters did fight, but she started it! I guess I would cop to being stand-offish and critical, at least in high school, a real study in teenage resentment and angst, taking comfort from other nerdy misfits and political dissenters. Funny how all that can coexist with being a mild-mannered and conflict-avoidant introvert.
Frustration has been my strongest trigger, especially from interaction with systems I dislike.
In any case, over the years, frustration has been my strongest trigger, especially from interaction with systems I dislike. I hate, hate, hated poorly-taught high school classes (managed to get independent study hall for the worst one) and standardized tests. I swore that after the SAT I would NEVER take another one (ha ha ha—I took them repeatedly over most of my life for professional accreditation). And filling out forms—my marks still get harder and sloppier and my signature becomes a big scribble as I work my way through bank forms or financial papers. Take that!
I swear at the computer every time I have to check that I agree with terms and conditions I have no control over, and I often don’t open web pages if they start asking too much. Computer interactions deserve a special place in hell: questionnaires and applications that give you no choice to answer correctly, web sites that are inscrutable, links that don’t link anywhere useful, the myriad levels of taps and double taps and right and left clicks and autocorrects, online appointment systems that don’t work, intrusive questions you must answer to continue, endless passwords and user names, algorithms sending you spam and unwanted solicitations, phone trees that don’t address what you need (you can also go to our web site! Just use our app!) and the travail involved in speaking to real person. AI implications scare me. I haven’t actually thrown a computer or phone out the window yet, but not because I didn’t want to.
Inanimate objects have been my targets. Think slammed-down phone receiver (when that was a thing) or slammed door. Swearing and punching at devices has occurred—and of course the screens don’t respond any better when your finger hits them harder, harder, still not responding, harder aaaaagh!
When I worked in our community health center, I got job reviews stating that I scared people—the poor medical assistants and coworkers who saw me walk back into the office and take charts and slap them down vigorously on the desk in frustration (this in the days of paper charts, before I could punch the keyboard instead). These comments initially puzzled me, since in no way was I directing anything at my wonderful coworkers or patients—I wasn’t yelling at or striking out at people. I was riled by the workload, the lack of time, the difficulty doing the right thing for everyone, and the poor charts became the victims. Symptoms of burnout. Eventually I came to understand how my explosions of frustration affected others and the power dynamics at play (I was the ranking professional), and figured out how to make some changes—especially after I took on administrative responsibilities and got some leadership training.
Being an administrator turned out to be an exercise in the super-ego: self-control and awareness of others, being the parent, keeping the mission forefront, and using emotion with intention. It was exhausting to have to be in control all the time (oops—busted for eyerolling the boss….) but it was really important. I already knew that sleep deprivation or hunger would put me on a short fuse, and so would other stress—so if I could manage my life situation to minimize that, it would help. I told myself it was okay to have anger and fight fiercely for what you believe, but there were different ways to do that. I also got a deeper appreciation of how just being “smart” and doing a good job is not enough—you have to attend to coworker interactions, always. This is of course also true for medicine and life in general, including politics. Knowing this doesn’t make me skilled at it, but it is a start.
Love, kindness and forgiveness have become more important every year. Deaths of family and friends have made that clearer. My sister says I have mellowed. In truth, I think my actions have been pretty tame in a world of staggering violence. I try to keep the more distressing aspects of the world in some perspective so it is not debilitating. With no great optimism for humanity, I nonetheless sometimes marvel at how things ever function as well as they do and I try to turn dismay into positive action. Of course, it is easier to keep the rage at bay if your personal situation is comfortable and you are retired and have some control over your life. But just when I am feeling self-righteous and zen, I turn on the news or the e-mail won’t download, or an ad finds its way to my phone and I want to scream or throw something across the room. I don’t, but I still want to.