02/06/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

My Completely Avoidable Meltdown

Today, I invite you on a journey, one that leads to a major moment of drama -- in my life, anyway. It still stings a bit for me, but I'm sure you'll be fine. Plus, in the end, you might learn a thing or two about what to do about conflict, and about what not to do.

Come along, won't you?

The beginning

It started innocently enough. Ryan and I were in a writing group together and often arrived at the same time. He would park in the garage. I would park in my beloved meter spot on the street.

One day, we were both stopped at a red light right before the building. It was one of those super long lights, and the streets were empty.

And so, on that particular day, I treated the light as, shall we say, more of a four-way stop. I figured nobody would care.

Ryan cared.

When he asked me if I knew I'd run a red light, I told him of course I did. "You can't do that," he said.

I laughed, thinking he wasn't serious. "Sure I can. it's a free country."

What I didn't know at the time was his commitment to meticulously following all laws of all kinds. And how much it bugged him when others didn't. He told a mutual friend he planned to keep an eye on me, and might even have his police officer friend try to catch me in the act in the future. After that, Ryan and I didn't bother with each other at all.

The slow simmer

The silence between us in the group meetings said it all. We were no longer buds. Eventually, that silence wasn't enough. Ryan began to arrive early and take the spot where I parked. He'd then go into the meeting and sit where I tended to sit.

I tried, really tried, to let it go. After all, I'd say to myself, why let this guy get to me?

But after several weeks, I couldn't stand it any longer. I pulled him aside, told him I wanted to talk things through. He loudly refused, said to just leave him alone.

I should've done just that. I should've looked more closely at his face, listened more closely to his quivering voice. I should've just found a way to let it go.

The spark ignites

But I didn't. The next week, we arrived at the same light at the same time. It was red, of course.

Can you guess what I did? It was a split second decision. I like to think that had I really thought about that choice, had I really considered how I want to conduct myself as a person, I'd have gone the other way.

Instead, I went through the red light and parked. I thought it would bug him just a bit.

The explosion

What I didn't think about was that Ryan's triggers and temper might be different than mine.

The guy freaked out. He got out of the car and began screaming at me... horrible things. I tried everything to de-escalate the situation, but nothing worked until I just shut up. Exhausted and breathing heavy, he finally stopped yelling.

The aftermath

When we got inside I was shaking. So was he. Everyone in the group knew. It was so uncomfortable that a few people left.

I tried to tell myself this was all his fault, but deep down I knew the truth.

  • As much as his behavior had been over the line, mine was too.
  • As much as he had been acting passive aggressive, so had I.
  • As much as he was part of the problem, so was I.

Did I blame myself for what felt like some emotional abuse? Of course not. But at the same time I had to face facts. I'd made a poor choice. I hadn't acted like the person I wanted to be. And it negatively impacted others.

I had to fix this as best I could.

The first thing I did was apologize to the others in the room. After the meeting, I called those who had left and did the same.

The next thing I did was learn from it. Here's what I figured out:

  • We can't assume that other people live by the same rules we do or feel the same way we do about things. They have their own reasons for how they run their lives. Those will always differ from ours in some way.
  • When we're all fired up and getting ready to act on that emotion, we need to take a beat to see if this is really the best choice. Sometimes we should take two.
  • We need to know that we will screw up, and that sometimes we'll need to fix it. This doesn't make us bad people. We need to know that others will screw up, too. And this doesn't make them bad people either.
  • There will be times when we should fight our battles, when the time is right to defend ourselves. Which means we shouldn't waste our energy on the things that don't matter.

This week

Think about the you you want to show to others. Then, act accordingly each day. Oh, and you might not want to run any red lights. Even when you think nobody will care.

Now, go do good... and do it well.

For more by Deirdre Maloney, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.