I am a control freak. Anytime I’m in a situation or in a mood where I feel there are things that are out of my control or influence, I act out. The most common way I “act out” is being more impatient in the way I speak because I am so frustrated by the loss of control. The factors that set me off are problems I have had since long ago and I haven’t been able to resolve yet. I don’t know if there is right or wrong way to explain what this is like for me. I will illustrate below in greater detail. The examples I gave are very specific to when I’m around a certain person and it’s not a reflection of what happens when I’m in the same situation but with different people.
Situation: Being spoken to in a certain manner, where the person’s voice can be higher or lower in pitch and higher or lower in tone.
Trigger: Sensitivity towards the changes in a person’s voice, especially associating the pitch or tone with a negative response, or anticipating that the pitch or tone is meant to be an implied negative response towards me.
Origin: Perhaps because I was always a sensitive person since childhood, particularly because I grew up mostly having exposure to an Asian language that was not English and that was my primary language at home due to the fact my parents were not very immersive in English. This could be just my perception but as the language my parents spoke relied heavily on using different enunciations in tone to differentiate between same sounding words, I got used to hearing it. But also, I felt quite impacted because my mom was known to have a temper and she would often raise her voice drastically and even scream incessantly to show she meant business. Probably the worst memories I have are of her screaming at me and how unfair (in my opinion) it felt that she thought it was okay to yell at me in that way. I remember being both angry and afraid of her and being mad that she made me feel angry and afraid of her. I would yell back at the same angry volume as her and she would actually get even angrier at me for “daring” to use that kind of tone with her. As if I was supposed to just stand there and take her tirade. I can’t speak for all Asian kids who grew up mostly having to communicate with their parents in an Asian language, but for me, it seems the cultural norm was it even when a parent wasn’t angry, sometimes the way of speaking would come out in a very flat affect and give the impression of anger.
Example #1: This happened recently. My dad happened to stop by my room one day to ask me to help him text someone who he was working for (because he’s not good at typing in English). He noticed my orchid plants on the table and suddenly his voice raised in tone as he commented upon how well they were doing. He said something like, “Wow, look at your plants!”, while giving a halting kind of laugh. And this would be the rough translation because he was speaking to me in Mandarin.
Perception: As my dad habitually is the type to throw out remarks with that halting laugh he usually does, I have (for some reason) come to associate it as a mocking gesture. I feel I perceive his laugh that way because many times in the past, I’ve gotten the sense he laughs that way because it’s one of his habits to do so while talking, but also he does it because he’s not comfortable expressing certain things without attaching a laugh to it to sound less awkward or self-conscious. So not only was I perceiving his laugh as, Oh, he must be secretly making fun of me but also Great, there he goes again hiding his feelings and is unable to say something without giving that nervous laugh. The third thing I felt out of control about in this situation was my own anxiety. The way his voice just suddenly boomed in volume was unexpected and it pissed me off that I got slight anxiety from it. I thought, Seriously? Why is a change in someone’s tone triggering for me?
Response: I felt out of control, of course, about my father’s reaction to me, about my perception of how he was reacting, and being upset that I was even upset about the change in speaking tone. So after his initial comment left me with a teeny fissure of anger, it was like once that crack was there, there was no stopping it from getting bigger because I didn’t know how to fix it. My mind was already set on the idea he was mocking me, even if he didn’t outright say it. So when he said the next thing, which was to notice how little water I put in the orchid pots to nourish them, I was already riding high on that negative perception, almost as if it were a fact I could not disprove. I took his comment to mean, You really don’t know how to take care of your orchids, just because he commented on the amount of water in the pots. Additionally, I remember feeling inadequate and thinking my reply to him had to be proof that I did indeed know how to care for my orchids, but I also felt disgusted by my level of low self-confidence. I had the perception I wasn’t able to assert myself and that then proceeded to get mad at myself for feeling like I had to prove my own worth. Crack goes the fissure some more. Then when I finally did give a response to him, it came out in a somewhat annoyed tone where I simply told him I couldn’t put too much water in it. Not only did I use an annoyed tone, I raised the volume of my voice to match the perceived loudness of his prior tone as an almost challenge.
Example #2: This type of situation is to show my loss of control in not so much that I reacted in anger, but that I lost control by becoming increasingly irrational in my thoughts because of the perceived or misinterpreted negativity in myself and the people around me. Well, the story is from when I was roughly 11ish or somewhere around that age. It was a weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, when my mom was cooking. I was in the living room as I heard her call my brother to come down (which I assume was because she was almost finished cooking). I noticed she did not call me, even though she saw me. So then I was loitering in the living room with my bookbag. My brother was already in the kitchen with my mom at this point. I could hear her washing the pan after finishing up with cooking. She still didn’t call me, so I grabbed my bag with all my homework inside, deciding I would go upstairs and start on my assignments. I was halfway up the staircase when I heard her yell from the kitchen, “Where do you think you are going?”
Perception: In my head (at the time), I started to question whether she was actually cooking for the three of us, or was she only cooking for my brother for some reason. Already at that age, whether by my own fault for not being a very assertive kid or being used to a home environment where generally it felt like I was supposed to shut up and be quiet, I had the perception there were things I couldn’t freely express to my parents. There was also a feeling of awkwardness because it didn’t seem like the norm to ask certain questions or say certain things to my mom. I do not know for sure if I felt that way due to actual awkwardness I had or a perceived awkwardness in voicing xyz to my parents due to never having the experience of doing that. It could have been a combination of both, honestly. Either way, the supposed awkwardness of the situation is why I didn’t just march into the kitchen and ask her, “Am I eating with him too?” I couldn’t bring myself to go near the kitchen. As a child, I almost always felt my brother was my competition for my parents’ affection and love, especially since he often did better than me in school. In that moment, all sorts of strange things went on in my head. I started to imagine that secretly my brother was my parents’ favored child. And the more time went on that I wasn’t called into the kitchen by my mom, the more I started to fear that I was going to be excluded. So when I did hear my mom yelling at me from the kitchen, my initial (and brief) reaction was to feel relieved but then I felt discontent and even fearful because her tone seemed to suggest I was being a nuisance.
Response: Her tone made me wince and I honestly could not decide if she was angry at me or not. I didn’t say anything when I came into the kitchen. At that age, it was like a common occurrence that my mom would regularly raise her tone to express frustration, annoyance, irritation, or just being loud to get a point across if someone (namely me, my brother, or even my dad) tried to argue against her. I can’t say if it was that my child brain at the time wasn’t fully equipped to comprehend her attitude then as I do now; probably because back then I simply did not have a comparison or someone outside the sphere of my family who could tell me, “You know, how she yells at you like that, it’s not right”, especially considering she saved her screaming for behind closed doors so no one outside the immediate family knew she was that way. Like, I knew then that my mom could be scary and could incite dread and fear in me. Unfortunately slivers of those experiences have reverberated down to my present life, in that I feel hypersensitivity when either of my parents talks to me in Mandarin and when I can detect the slightest change in their tone.