Can People Really Change? (or Papa Got an Upgrade)
In October 2012, my mom and I traveled to Los Angeles to see my sister, Stephanie, for our annual “girls’ weekend.” Our plane left Miami later than scheduled, and when we landed in Dallas for our connecting flight, we realized we’d have to sprint all the way to our next gate to have any chance of making it on time.
I remember leaving Mom behind and running as fast as I could. Just as I arrived at the gate a huffing, puffing, sweaty mess, I watched the flight attendant close the door to the jetway. There were at least ten others who got there at the same time. We all pleaded with the attendant to let us onto the plane, but she refused.
Disappointed and irritated, Mom and I immediately shifted into problem-solving mode: one of us texted Stephanie, the other started getting information on the next flight to LA.
Meanwhile, one of the other passengers — a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit and carrying a briefcase — became irate, and lashed out at the attendant. He raised his voice and demanded to be put on the next available flight. The attendant explained that he needed to go to another gate and get on the standby list. He kept yelling and insisting that he get special treatment because he had been inconvenienced.
His petulance was disturbingly immature for a grown man. The other passengers rolled their eyes as if to say, “Chill out, dude.”
Do you want to know what all his shouting and arrogance got him? Absolutely nothing! No one wanted to help him or even be near him. Just like the rest of us, he had to stand in line and hope to fly standby on the next (overbooked) flight.
This man wanted to feel that he had more power than Air Traffic Control itself, and he threw a fit when he couldn’t bully the authorities into believing that he was more important than their rules. Within a couple of hours, it seemed to us that everyone who had missed the connection was booked on another plane, and we still got to LA in time for dinner.
Years ago, my own father would have reacted in a very similar manner. When something didn’t go his way, he’d lose his cool and have adult temper tantrums all. the. time. I couldn’t predict what would set him off. I rarely understood why he got upset in the first place. And I never knew how long his moodiness would last.
As a kid, I remember feeling scared and embarrassed when he got angry or treated others with disrespect. I felt unsafe and anxious, and rarely opened up to him about personal matters because I knew how harsh his judgments could be. At that time, I believed that I was responsible for his feelings and reactions.
Needless to say, our relationship had several ups and downs. But over the past decade, he’s mellowed out quite a bit. Here’s a story to illustrate how he’s changed:
Two years ago, my dad and Stephanie visited New Orleans together. When they arrived to check in at the hotel, the front desk clerk said she couldn’t find the reservation and said the hotel was completely booked. Dad explained that he had made the reservation two months earlier. The clerk had no record of it. My sister’s breathing got shallow, and she waited for an expletive, an insult, or a rant.
Instead, Dad calmly took out the confirmation receipt that he’d (wisely) printed at home. The receptionist apologized for the mistake, and began searching for a replacement room. Casually, Dad pondered aloud, “I wonder what kind of upgrade I’m going to get for the inconvenience,” and smiled at her.
And just like that – Papa got an upgrade.
No yelling, swearing, or lingering tension in the air.
When I asked my dad to explain his “attitude adjustment,” he told me that years ago, he’d heard three different quotes around the same time that profoundly impacted him:
He said he was at a point in his life where he was open and receptive to changing his behavior because he realized his usual way of dealing with things was counterproductive. He decided that he wanted to be remembered, especially by his kids, as a positive and loving person.
He admitted that the changes didn’t happen overnight. He said, “It’s a process. The first step is realizing that your behavior isn’t benefiting you or the people you love.”
He went on to acknowledge that he still gets angry, but that his approach is different. “Once it’s done, it’s done. There’s no point in going ape-shit about it. And if you do, you become the cactus.”
He even articulated that his angry outbursts were merely a mechanism he unconsciously used to try to convince himself that he was powerful and in control. He said that now when something triggers him, he understands he has a choice about how to respond.
Obviously, the changes in my dad’s attitude have improved our relationship considerably. Even being able to talk with him about this topic without fearing some sort of confrontation felt amazing, and we’re closer now than ever before.
People can change when they’re ready, and it’s never too late to repair or strengthen a relationship.
If you’re ready for a change and want to stop losing it with your kids, I can help. Check out my private coaching services. If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and “like” it on Facebook. And for even more great tips on becoming a calm and connected parent (delivered right to your inbox), please subscribe to this blog.