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That Which We Avoid We Cannot Resolve, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:30am

We spend a lot of time teaching our kids how to get along. How to share, use their words, take a break when things get hot. I’m wondering, now, looking back, whether we should also be teaching them to fight.

Maybe fight is the wrong word. I mean work through conflict. Particularly the blood-boiling sort.

I see now that one of my greatest failings is an inability to stand firm when very angry. It’s not that I back down, as do the timid. Blurters blurt angrily, they throw wine glasses and storm out of conference rooms. But I’m prone to navigate with reason, moving along at 10mph, 40mph, 60mph, 72 mph, just fine, when suddenly, without warning even to myself, I lose my way in unmanaged fury.

Or tears. Anger undoes me.

That is not a way to win a fight. And it’s certainly not the way to move through conflict and come out the other side with sustained relationships.

Knowing this, I’ve tended in these later years to recuse myself, if I can use the judicial word, from hostile or tense situations. Take a past job, for example, where one of my co-workers loved to provoke. He lived for the fight; he targeted me. After a few blowups, I started to back away. I backed away and backed away. I put my team out in front of me, since he for the most part treated them differently.

I backed into my office, but the conflict followed me there and eventually right out the door.

Oh I am in no way advocating self-indulgent abandonment of reason and civility. I find the legions of Silicon Valley executives known for screaming ridiculous. It’s unnecessary and often unproductive. But I wish I’d learned and practiced calm anger. I wish, in many circumstances, not just at work, that I could stand quiet and anchored in the midst of turmoil.

Or, since one must move, sail forward, despite what feels like floods of fire both in my heart and rising somewhere over there.

What you avoid you rarely resolve. I wonder if life will be long enough to learn all the lessons.

Have a wonderful weekend.


63 Responses

  1. Calm anger is an interesting concept. Now that you bring this up, I don’t think I handle anger as well as I’d like.

    1. @Jennifer,
      I’m not sure ‘calm’ and ‘anger’ can go together. Anger is by it’s very nature a state of agitation. However, one can be angry in a calm manner. Surprisingly, my teenaged daughter once complimented me on that. Nurses’ training taught me to be calm in the moment even when angry, and not spew the cuss words until out of the situation. ; )

  2. I have the same problem. Rage as tears. I’m working on it but it’s so difficult!

    1. @NancyDaQ, At least you know to work on it. I think I just put it into the “That’s not the real me” closet for years. Then it dawns, hey, it is the real me and I had better deal.

  3. It is difficult, I tend to simmer and seethe inside and then if it has to come out, not in fury; however sometimes words I wish I had left unsaid. I try to keep in mind the saying ” intelligent people can agree to disagree”

    The Arts by Karena

  4. For many years, my response to anger or conflict was to shut down and go numb. Or feel guilty and get defensive. I think our generation of women often was not taught constructive ways to express and channel anger; we were supposed to smile and be “good sports” and make nice. It’s a skill, standing up for ourselves calmly, and not necessarily an easy one to learn. I’m still learning it.

    1. @Susan B, Although someone like me might think at first, “Boy, I wish I just shut down and went numb,” I am absolutely certain that that reaction wreaks its own kind of havoc.

  5. I hope it would (the life!),because,with ageing and maturity we get some wisdom,too-something about revenges as dishes best to be served cold-
    When I was very angry before, tears just started,very bad beginning….
    But now,things get better with practicing calm anger!
    I have some situation I’m very proud of(and a lot of others). And learn,learn,learn to manage rage,insults,be prepared-I am not very quick at words- if I am attacked unexpectedly, have to think in advance about possibilities
    And I agree,children have to learn from us,after we have learned the right attitude (if),but also the bad and the good

    1. @dottoressa, That’s another trait altogether, when words come slowly, and I can imagine it takes its own toll and its own learning process.

  6. Dealing with anger is something that I’ve gotten better at as I’ve aged. I had a huge improvement 20 years ago when I quit drinking. It wasn’t that I drank at work or whatever, it just seems that alcohol fueled my poor responses, even when sober. I thought I was drinking to unwind from my problems, but it turns out drinking was causing my problems.
    Menopause has been a plus, I’m rid of emotions that swing around independently of outside events.
    I’ve also been around the block so many times that I’m much better at accessing what’s worth holding onto and what isn’t worth it. Since I’m better at knowing what’s not worth it I can stand my ground on things that are worth it.
    It’s too bad we can’t have the wisdom we’ve acquired in the second half of our lives in the first half. Life would be easier.

  7. Like SusanB, I think that women are “programmed” to be nice. Because if you get angry and express that anger, you’re labeled a bitch. I think the reason why we have tears are because we are so goddamn frustrated. When we are legitimately angry, we are not allowed to express it or we will be marginalized or ignored. Because nice women don’t get mad. I’ve recently realized that when I express my anger that I’m effectively told to shut up. And I’m not shutting up anymore. Those days are over. Lisa, I don’t think that there is any way to win this at our age. Perhaps our daughters will have it better. But if WE express anger, we’re bitchy. If we “turn the other cheek” we cede power to the other person. There is NO winning this. DRIVES ME CRAZY! In fact, it’s made me really MAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. @Claire, Ha! Thank you for the laugh. Not that what you say isn’t true, or frustrating, but man a sense of humor goes a long way in this world.

  8. I had the great good fortune of having a career as a litigator that taught me how to deal with anger. Certainly there were days that I came home and cried, but I also learned to direct my anger where it belonged and, at times with my husband’s help, to outmaneuver those who tried to provoke me. I took great satisfaction – perhaps too much – in doing that. As someone in a very male-dominated field, I’d like to think that I helped teach some of those people not to underestimate women.. As for my personal life, the older I get, the less often I get angry. Maybe I’m just lucky in my friends and family. Nowadays I tend to save my anger for those who do injustice in the world.

    1. @MJ, I imagine you helped a lot of people, all the underestimators, even women ourselves. Have you ever thought of teaching a course in how to do this? It would be of great value.

  9. Hhhmm. I have no problem expressing anger. I’ve learned when it is appropriate and when it is not to show anger. One doesn’t have to throw thing to express anger but raising ones voice or eyebrow or turning and walking away is sometimes all that required. Particularly if one is in a position of power. Women are too quick to eschew anger. It’s not ladylike. Well I call BS on that. I think it quite ladylike to stand up for your self and not swallow what the bullies dish out. I am also quite good at handling other people’s anger. Haha I guess I consider myself an anger expert:)

  10. My daughter teaches a class which is mandatory at the school called “life skills” and conflict resolution and dealing appropriately with anger is a huge part of the program.

    I’m not very skilled at it myself….So sorry you’re going through such a tough time.

  11. I suspect you’re touching a lot of raw nerves with this post — so many of us have struggled with expressing the negative, anger being perhaps its scariest element. I must say that although I find “calm anger” (what a useful term) hard to get to, I learned any helpful techniques I have in my toolbox through a parenting course I took, way back when. They do help to anchor me, but my “reflective listening” and “I messages,” etc., may have a concomitant effect of making the adult I’m talking to feel a bit 7. Possibly not as useful as I hope ;-)

    So sorry for whatever you’re handling that might have triggered this post. These learning curves — wouldn’t you have thought we’d be done with more of them by now?!

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, There’s a thin line between that “therapist talk” that I think you’re referring to, and actual constructive truthful anger. In a way, I wish that therapist talk were available to me when I’m really mad, even though it can make other adults feel infantlized, as you say. At least you don’t say things you regret later. And yes, I might have thought I’d be further along by now;).

  12. My first question is always “Is this a fight worth having/” (So many of them are not.) Then, “Is this negotiable?”- If it is I try to make concessions as I can. If not, I stand my ground. Sometimes you can work this out in advance e.g. I told my husband at the outset that my friendships were NOT negotiable. I had a few old friends that he didn’t care for. I told him that I would see them alone, as necessary, but that I expected him to be polite and tolerant if circumstances required. Setting ground rules worked for both of us. I think that all of us have a boiling point, and it is our own interest to address things early on. Too often we let things simmer to our own detriment.

    1. @Kathy, I agree. Things simmer but they still get hotter and hotter. It would be good to ask if something was worth having, I’d have to ask myself that before it begins, as I get too caught up in the middle of things otherwise.

  13. I’m very bad at dealing with anger. I would love to be calm. Sometimes I yell, sometimes I just cry. Sigh.

  14. Lisa – Maybe this will make you feel better.
    My 96 year old father-in-law basically invented the field of conflict resolution. His book “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution”, is considered it’s bible.
    My mother-in-law, and my father-in-law, have spent their entire married lives alternating between screaming matches and smoldering resentment (although at this point they don’t have the energy to scream so they mostly smolder).
    I concluded, early on in my marriage to their son, that conflict resolution is a pipe dream.
    I think a lot of people care too much about what other people think about them.
    The best (and really, only) thing you can be is who you are.

    1. @Diane, Diane, to me yours are the wisest words of all. Thank you, Lisa, for your beautiful reflections on another important subject. Such a wonderful blog–I never, ever miss a post. Love, Linda

  15. Thank you for these wise words, Lisa: “that which we avoid we seldom resolve”. It feels like the story of my life: avoiding the important things, the hard things, and washing up at 40 suddenly bewildered and unhappy.

    I too am someone who spurts into rage as the last resort. I wish I’d been taught to fight well. I’m only learning this now, slowly, probably too late. The best I’ve been able to do is learn how to prepare for things that might be fights – somehow that helps me stay calmer. Not perfect, but better. I use a worksheet similar to this one. It helps.

    Thanks again for your wisdom – I’ve been enjoying your blog for many years

    1. @alison, I am so sorry to hear that you feel you’ve washed up. 40 is so young. I can almost guarantee you that, if you pardon the pun, your boat will float again. Thank you for that worksheet, boy I could have used that in my job situation. And thank you for the kind words about the blog. I often have no wisdom per se, only a habit of thorough questioning, and the good fortune to have this group to listen.

  16. Anger is strange. One can feel it’s intensity if it is directed at us personally or a member of our family…I am thinking of how angry I got when someone was mean to my kids. I would get all bent out of shape and boil inside. I always thought of my response after I analyzed the situation.
    Now I feel wiser and rarely get angry. The last time I felt angry it was when an unknown person smashed my windshield. I was all huffy and no one was there to receive the negative energy. So I had to let it go…venting, writing it down, gardening with gusto all seem to help diffuse anger.
    If someone is bullying or belittling you I think you have to face it head on and challenge them. Life is too short and you deserve to be happy.

  17. I am conflict averse. Growing up, we were not allowed to express anger. Only our parents were allowed to be angry and they were angry a lot. They were angry at us or at each other and there was a great deal of yelling. But we, the children, had to stuff our anger down inside of us. Anger would simmer and eventually, inevitably wind up causing us to blow up like a pressure cooker. Either we would blow up or we would become depressed because the anger not expressed outwardly would be directed inward. I wish we had learned how to express our anger in a constructive way. Fortunately I am now married to a man who allows me to feel safe and express myself before I get to the boiling point. However, I am still feeling inadequate in dealing with other people’s insults and bullies. I never find the words for a smart retort. My husband, on the other hand, is great at the quick retort for rude remarks and bullies. I wish I was as clever. Avoiding the bullies instead of standing up to them, leaves me feeling powerless. Wow! This post really hit home. I am still struggling with being assertive without getting angry.

    1. @Jane, You chose so well then, in your marriage. If he can both help you feel safe in yours, and be quick with the retort to others, kind of the best of both worlds. With any luck we will all get better at this.

  18. Avoidance self-protects. Pulling your hand from the flame is not a foolish act.
    Stay strong. Stay safe. Stay sane. Xox

    1. @Rosie, Doing my best for all three. I will say, some flames just follow the hand, so you just have to know how to deal.

  19. Anger arises in different situations, and the way you express, or deal with, your anger has to be suited to the situation. You deal with anger caused by a bully at work differently from the way you deal with a triggering remark made by a life partner, or by the behavior of a child or a stranger or the world at large. Analyze what causes you to be angry in a given situation and explore possible responses.

    But never, ever “rise to the bait” – roll your eyes, shake your head, be cold and polite, leave the room – but once your anger causes you to lose control, you have given your power to the other person.

    There is also the point that being raised in a High Wasp household may cause one to express anger in peculiar ways, since of course one never raises one’s voice in anger – one engages in reasoned discourse or one simply has yet another drink!

  20. I don’t do well with conflict and do everything to avoid it. I still can get very angry though and I wish I had known earlier in life how to get through it with your head held high. It is an important skill that should be taught. Now that I’m older, I try to say to myself “this too will pass” & cross my fingers and hope I’m right.

  21. Calm anger. I wish more practiced it, and I wish I could master it and have better control of it, during those occasional less than pleasant exchanges. . . instead of seething, stewing, fretting, and generally feeling crummy for hours after the fact.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von B.

  22. I wanted to add something I was thinking about from one of your last lines in this post. As hard as it is for me to accept – sometimes the “resolution” is that there will be no resolution. And in that case….I’m learning to forgive them from afar and to try to let go. Not easy.

    1. I have had to do it with two very close family members over the last number of years. Yes, very hard – but you can’t always resolve a situation if the other person won’t participate in a solution. So – you learn to accept that THAT is the resolution in fact.

  23. Lisa,
    Someone targeting you will not give up. Bullies have low emotional intelligence and are toxic people. The question is how to deal with toxic people and people who are still 2 years old. I’m not sure there is a solution.

  24. I think it’s healthy to express our anger…it’s the HOW part that is sticky. I’ve gone through tears, yelling, bottling it up, and the only thing that seems to truly work is trying to talk it through. You can’t make the other party talk, however, so easier said than done. My therapist says that “Depression is anger turned inward.” I’m still not sure how I feel about this, but I know he’s right in part. We can’t let anger just sit and stew because it’s harmful to ourselves.

    1. So true, and if the other party won’t talk, or participate – I’ve written a lot of letters and emails that I’ve never sent – it does help me, at least, to get it written down in a coherent way. I often read it several times and then get rid of it in a “ceremonial” kind of way…..

  25. Lisa. Lol. I’m flattered. It’s as simple as picking your battles and not taking things too personally. But sometimes you can’t ignore those battles either and you have to “show your teeth” as my mother used to say. I try to embrace anger. It brings good change sometimes. What I don’t embrace is being anyone’s doormat nor do I treat others as doormats. I think as women we have to quit making anger taboo for females to express. I say rick that anger and move on :)

  26. I think you’re right about teaching our children some better techniques. I worked in the Girl Scout organization years ago when they were developing best practices related to “female relational aggression”. One of the best things I learned to do was to sit down immediately with the two girls in conflict and then my only role was to redirect their comments back to each other rather than to me. Once they replaced their first instinct (to tell me their side of the story and wait for my “adult ruling on who was in the right and who was in the wrong”), they had to make that same statement directly to the other girl. They stumble a bit with it….and then….wow, it was amazing to witness! And to think, we as adults, think we had any right to decide who was in the wrong! Bullying means those who are good at it (well practiced) have also developed the skills to keep it so under-the-radar that others never suspect the hurtful intent. And I swear, swear, swear, my experience is that mean girls grow up and go to work in offices where they continue to perfect their skills!

    1. @Kitty, I love the idea that the Girl Scouts think about this issue. I wonder, really, if we studied adult bullies, what we would find out about who they were as children.

  27. I agree, some people like to invoke, attack and even bully. Often, they like an audience. I have little tolerance for these individuals.

    I find these individuals can’t handle it when you refuse to engage. That is, as they attack, you listen, stay calm, and say as little as possible. (Also speak very softly, this makes the attacker have to quiet down in order to hear your calm soft spoken words.) Because you do not engage, they do not know what to do. They are defeated. Basically, you give them enough rope to hang themselves. Also, this strategy puts you in control of the situation.

    When this takes place with an audience, the attacker looks like a fool. This attacker will think twice before taking you on again. That’s my experience.

    1. @Susan, That is exactly how I would like to behave. That, to me, is managed anger. Refusal to engage. And that kind of approach requires that one does not feel that one’s very survival is at risk.

  28. This is a beautiful piece of writing Lisa.

    I think there are some people who can channel their anger in considered and useful ways. I can never do that in the eye of the storm, as it were. Anger and conflict go together in my mind and I passionately dislike the latter which probably effects how I deal with the former?

    Looking at my 20 year old self and my current self I can see how much better I deal with anger now, but I still have a long way to go. On a good day I’m even optimistic I’ll get there ;)

  29. Also, my way of dealing with my anger recently has been to wait for that disorientating hurricane of emotion to pass, and to then go back in after considering e v e r y t h i n g (as is my way). I think retreating isn’t necessarily avoiding, if you can come back to it at some point.

  30. This is very timely! I’ve been listening to an audio book called “Crucial Conversations” about talking with people when the stakes are high or emotions are running strong. It’s been really useful since I often tend to clam up as well, and the anger turns inward (as many commenters have noted, as a woman I have taught to “be nice” and that’s not really serving me as an adult).

    Just this weekend I had a conflict with a very dear friend. In the past I would have “played nice” and smoothed things over. This time, though, I stated my feelings and what I wanted. It was uncomfortable at first but then felt SO much better to be honest and NOT simmer and feel resentful. I felt our relationship deepened just a little bit through that.

    Anyway. Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts. I hope you can learn and practice calm anger now; it’s not too late <3

    1. @Danielle, Sounds like a great audio book. Thank you for the reference. And I agree, the thing is, if you can work through anger, a good relationship will deepen. And a bad one, I’m guessing, at least gets some limits placed that do one good.

  31. I think with AGE WE simmer…………..
    WE admire the people who can handle these situations.I was forced out of a job once because MY BOSS LIED ABOUT ME!She was jealous looking back at my relationship with others in the office.I have NEVER BEEN SO MAD IN MY LIFE!
    I remained CALM when accused but was SO HURT and ANGRY I lost pieces of my memory I recall NOT being able to access my bank account as the password did not come to me!
    I heard SHE GOT CANCER……………..I didNOT send a CARD!

  32. hmmm. I think you’ll hate this answer but I find astrology oh so useful here. it helps to be a Taurus. How I would love if every comment here had the commenter’s birthday attached. 9/10 I have no trouble shrugging my shoulders and ignoring an offending party. Unless someone is in danger or truly hateful speech is being used, I will stick to sharp and dismissive comments and walking away. I won’t pretend but I also won’t get all into it. It’s a rare occasion I bulldoze anyone, but if need be I can.
    I think even more essential than understanding anger is understanding forgiveness. Forgiveness as we teach it is such a crock. We’re taught to use the words and phrases of forgiveness and then carry some residual bitterness forever. Like in my dad’s family “pass the salt please” with a cold tone can mean “you jackass I’m still pissed you scratched my England Dan record in 1977” because no one ever actually apologizes or forgives sincerely.

  33. Lisa, this came at the perfect time for me. I had a client who has given me notice that he is leaving despite having worked myself ragged for him, he refused to listen to what the market was saying and is going elsewhere, where they have told him the same thing. I am glad to be rid of him, he is difficult and grumpy. But I was seething at him leaving me after all I’d done for him. And my problem with anger is that I don’t realise I’m angry until the self-recrimination stops and the seething anger starts. Then I blow up with anger like a puffer-fish – from 0 – 60 in 3 seconds. I get mad. Real mad. Swearing mad. Previously out of control-relationship-wrecking mad. So I read this whole post all over again. Got my breathing under control, and wrote down all the points I wanted to ‘share’ with my soon to be ex-client, about how he didn’t listen to me, and the 3 other professionals whose opinions I also sought in the first place, about how his builder was flat out rude and arrogant to me (oh yes, sexism is still alive and thriving in some men’s minds – I should have been at home sewing, not running a million dollar company, what am I thinking, what do I know, Who do I think I am?), etc etc. So, I made the call. The ‘goodbye Mr You Suck’ call. I started, in my calmest voice. I told him I was disappointed to be losing his business, that I had told him 8 weeks ago he would not achieve the price and yet I went along with his wishes. Now I was losing his property to someone else, who had told him exactly the same thing I had. He stopped me, shushed me up (as SO MANY MEN IN MY LIFE HAVE DONE) and said there was no point in recriminations. I countered. I didn’t falter. I said, “These are not ‘recriminations’, they are FACTS. And your builder is not welcome here again, whether I am your property manager or not, I will not work with him, he was rude and officious.” And I did not lose control. Did not lose control. I wondered afterward if I have burned my bridges, if there was a chance he would come back to me in time, but I was not going to let this guy go without letting him know he’d upset me – something about boundaries in that I think – and that I’d worked my ring off for him and put up with his sexist rude builder for 10 days, smiling through it all, but I am not prepared to do that again. Thanks for the post Lisa, and thanks for all the contributor’s comments, everyone helped me out here. Tracey xx If anyone wants to analyse my complex issues, I would welcome the comments ;)

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