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From Rage to Resolution
By DeAnne Rosenberg
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 DeAnne Rosenberg
All right reserved.
Conventional wisdom suggests that conflict is a bad thing. People who find themselves in a conflict situation, therefore, must be inept at managing their lives. If that were true, it would mean that everyone must be inept at managing their lives, because conflict is an inherent part of living and being human.
There is nothing simple about conflict. It is convoluted, complex, confusing, and untidy, in that it embodies three problems:
the issue itself
how to address the issue
to whom you should speak regarding the issue
Take, for example, the following situation. Your spouse pressures you to lend her brother ten thousand dollars. Although you believe that the brother is irresponsible and reckless, especially where other people's money is concerned, you agree to make the loan in order to avoid a conflict with your spouse.
Six months pass, and the brother has not paid back one cent. You are upset with yourself, because you knew better than to make the loan. You are angry with your spouse for putting pressure on you to make the loan in the first place. And you are furious with the irresponsible brother, who has made no attempt at repayment of the loan. You discuss the issue with your spouse, who asks that you not say anything to the brother right now, because, "He's under a lot of stress." With that statement, your stress increases tenfold.
Your spouse and the deadbeat brother are close. Often your families get together for a night out. The brother phones and says, "Why don't we get together this weekend? Maybe we could take in a movie or go out to dinner." When you hear his voice, you start to seethe. Your teeth begin to grind. You can't help yourself, as you respond, "We can't afford to go out to dinner, because we've lent money to people who won't pay us back—a-hem!"
The brother isn't stupid. He gets your message. He then launches into a litany of reasons why he hasn't been able to repay the loan. "You know I'd have paid you back if I could, but Judy needed orthodontics, Jerry's tuition was due, Jeanie had her appendix out, and Joey needed help with his auto insurance." Obviously you now have more information than you want. Moreover, you feel like a heel for even mentioning the loan.
On the other hand, after your comment explaining why you cannot go out to dinner, he might respond: "Why do you need the money back? What are you going to do with it, anyway?" And you tell him: "Mary needs orthodontics, Matt's tuition is due, Maddie has to have her appendix out, and Martin needs help with his auto insurance."
Now he has more information than he wants. Moreover, he might even argue with you about how you are planning to spend the money.
"I'm sure the dentist will wait for his money; I thought you told me that Matt was on scholarship; your medical insurance policy should take care of Maddie's medical bills; and Martin is working full time, so he ought to be handling his own auto expenses."
Or, suppose the brother becomes extremely angry when you hint about the overdue loan and yells at you, "My God! What's the big deal? Do you think I'm going to screw you out of a lousy ten thousand dollars?" How should you respond? Should you get equally angry, or should you back off?
In the end, no matter how the conversation goes, not only do you not have the money back, your friendship with the brother and his family is forever damaged. Most importantly, you are now carrying a heavy load of unresolved anger toward your spouse. In addition, you feel depressed and infuriated with yourself. You have proven that you are the world's biggest moron. Your inner voice tells you, "Undoubtedly you deserve to lose the money."
As this situation illustrates, the existence of conflict creates enormous amounts of anxiety and self-loathing (and sometimes fear) in a number of directions, for several reasons:
You worry that saying anything might make the situation worse.
You brood about a possible loss of emotional control—yours as well as the other person's.
You agonize that the long-term effects will generate a desire for reprisal on the part of the other person.
You despair that efforts at conflict resolution will be a win-lose exercise and that you are likely to end up on the losing end.
Suppose you decide that it is best to say nothing at all about the loan and hope that your brother-in-law will eventually pay back the money. As the months go by with no mention or repayment of the loan, you begin to fantasize about interesting ways of torturing your brother-in-law:
By ordering Chinese takeout deliveries from sixteen different establishments, all to arrive at his home at the same time
By infesting his home with hundreds of mice or other noxious four-legged creatures
By telephoning him at home at 2:00 AM and 3:00 AM every night and, when he answers, saying, "Sorry, wrong number."
By hiring a Sopranos henchman to break his kneecaps
Of course, the longer this situation goes on, the more malevolent your fantasies become. Now when your families get together, you sit silently making faces at your brother-in-law. When he asks you what's the matter, through gritted teeth, you respond with a curt "Nothing!"
The brother-in-law is now uncomfortable in your presence, and so your families meet less often. You think this is probably a good thing, because he won't have the opportunity to pressure your spouse into asking you for yet another loan. Your ultimate surprise comes when, months later, you receive a postcard from Argentina. He tells you he has moved the family to the Patagonian region, where they are going to raise lamas.
A work situation can generate the same kind of frustration and hostility. Kevin was hired by a very prestigious banking firm. He was a fast learner with a pleasant personality and so was quickly promoted. He was assigned to work closely with the senior vice president. Unfortunately, the senior vice president had a problem with Kevin's name and kept calling him Kermit.
Early on, Kevin thought about correcting his boss but decided that was probably unwise. He wanted their relationship to work smoothly and believed that telling the boss he was wrong was not in his best interest. As the months went by, the Kermit epithet began to really annoy Kevin. Not only did the Kermit name generate a good deal of ribbing from his co-workers and customers, those outside his immediate work area began to call him Kermit, as well. Soon, each time someone called him Kermit his stress level would spike, and he would grind his teeth. Co-workers began to wonder what ever happened to Kevin's congenial attitude and cooperative demeanor, because he seemed out-of-sorts most of the time.
Kevin realized he was in trouble. When he went to Personnel to discuss the issue, the counselor told him: "If the old man has been calling you Kermit for the last five months, it's a little late in the game for you to correct him now. It would only embarrass him and make him angry. You know how negatively rigid he is about mistakes. He will ask you why you didn't say anything about this before. What can you say? My best advice to you is that you live with it. The old man is due to retire in eighteen months. I'm certain you can hang in there for that amount of time."
Kevin made a valiant effort to ignore his boss's calling him Kermit. His discomfort, however, showed. The boss could see the tension in Kevin's body and hear the stress in Kevin's voice every time they talked. Eventually, his boss interpreted Kevin's negative reactions to mean that he was unhappy with the job or with his boss. Six months after being hired, Kevin was told to seek employment elsewhere.
Why is it so difficult for people to give voice to their very legitimate anger? Are we fearful that whatever we say will create more difficulties than we will solve? Are we scared that things might get out of control if we are thought to be offensive for speaking up? Are we troubled that we do not have tools appropriate for confronting another person?
Perhaps we should arm ourselves so that we are fully prepared to handle our own rage and the rage of others. This book is designed to help us meet and conquer the irritating issues that plague our daily lives.
Chapter TwoLooking at the History of the Problem
People behave pretty much within certain norms, whether at home, school, work, the mall, in traffic, or wherever. Those whose behavior is recognized to be far outside those norms are already in institutions or prisons or hopefully headed there.
Stress and conflict are staples in our lives. They are ubiquitous. When stress and conflict besiege us, it feels as though we are being driven outside those normal boundaries of behavior. Deep down, our fear is that we will succumb and act out inappropriately. Therefore, we attempt to imprison our distress internally. No one is fooled, however. We all recognize one another's stress anyway. Perhaps that is why our century has been termed The Age of Anxiety. The more economically and technically advanced our society becomes, the more pressure is put on us. As we become more and more anxiety-ridden; we also become less prepared to cope with stress and conflict in nonviolent ways.
Every day there is a new instance of someone shooting and killing others. We hear of it going on in homes against family members, at schools against fellow students, in workplaces against co-workers, at malls against strangers, and on street corners in random drive-by shootings. We ask ourselves, "What is going on in this society? Are we degenerating into a mass of uncivilized and deranged creatures?"
What we are seeing today are the results of generations of us being taught to grit our teeth and bear it. The truth, however, is that experiencing anger and hostility is as much a part of being human as is experiencing joy and love.
As youngsters, we were taught that experiencing and expressing anger was not a good thing and that to act out our hostility was appalling. We have been indoctrinated to believe that a civilized person never exhibits this troublesome emotion.
The hostility we see in our world is a product of the stress and anxiety most of us experience on a daily basis. We simply get overloaded, and, much like a pressure cooker, we explode. Consider how most of us start our days—we listen to the news. Is there ever anything on the news that is not stressful? Try counting the number of items the news report offers you, on any given day, that add to your worries:
Traffic accidents and tie-ups
Higher prices for food and energy
If you survive the news, there's the drive to work. Here, utter strangers threaten your existence by manipulating their vehicles with one hand while drinking coffee with the other, and, of course, talking on their cell phones at the same time.
Once you get to work, you learn that the project you expected to be completed and on your desk will be delayed several days. There is an e-mail from your boss informing you that, because of economic conditions, there will be no raises this year. The boss then asks you to select one person from your team to be let go, as another cost-saving measure. The e-mail closes with an apology for adding to your frustrations, but he/she is certain you understand, because you are a team player.
Please notice that all the anger-generating situations described here are things over which you have little control. You did not personally create these situations, and you have no useful tools for changing any of them in a way that would create a positive outcome for you.
Human beings do not have an unlimited capacity for holding stress and aggravation inside. At some point, we need a way to unload some of that hostility. Grinding our teeth and holding everything inside just doesn't do it for most of us. Some of us use sports and exercise to lower our stress levels; others take to drinking; some use prayer; and still others take out their exasperation on others, by using loud and outbursts or abusing their animals. Eventually, most of us find some socially acceptable method for unloading the hostility generated by frustrating circumstances that affect us personally and over which we have little influence.
It is easy to become paranoid, to believe that others are out to get us. We know that really isn't true—but it certainly feels that way. Why? It is because we don't actually control many aspects of our lives. In many situations, we are just pawns in someone else's chess game.
What about youngsters and those whose behavior cannot be considered adult? These are individuals who do not have coping methods for dealing with their hostility. For most kids, childhood is a nightmare. Survival and happiness depend upon those over whom one has no power. Think about your own experience as a youngster.
Were you in the in-crowd, or were you an outsider?
Were you teased because you wore glasses?
Were you ridiculed because you were overweight?
Were you always the last person chosen for the kick-ball or baseball team?
Did you skip the prom because you could not get a date?
Were you ostracized because you were a lot smarter than the others?
Were your parents financially unable to dress you in the accepted mode du jour?
If you were bullied, did you have the skills to respond appropriately?
Were you ever compared to others in your group who were smarter or better looking than you and asked why you could not be more like them?
Did you suffer from embarrassing acne?
Were you heckled because you refused to smoke pot and/ or drink?
Were you goaded into doing things you knew were wrong just to be an accepted member of some clique?
If we consider the lack of coping skills most children have for dealing with their anger and frustrations, we begin to understand why some youngsters literally go berserk. In the aftermath of the all-too-frequent situations in which youngsters bring guns to school and kill their classmates, it is enlightening to examine the writings they leave behind. Their words attempt to justify their acting out because of an overwhelming frustration. Similar word patterns occur again and again in these situations, not only at school, but in the workplace and in the home—wherever these heinous actions occur. Phrases include
showed all of you
no other choice
you forced me to
no other way out
couldn't let them get away with that
couldn't take it any more
From the comments listed above, we begin to see the common sources of violent hostility:
The person is on psychic modifiers such as alcohol or drugs.
The person believes he/she is under attack and/or in great danger.
The person is under extreme pressure from some set of circumstances.
The person feels cornered and sees no way out of his/her predicament.
The person is extremely angry and has no skills in anger management.
The person is reacting to the frustration of unmet, maybe even unspoken, expectations.
The person believes he/she has been taken advantage of one too many times.
The most potent of these is the hostility created as the result of unmet, maybe even unspoken expectations.
As an example, consider the teenager who asks his parents for permission to attend a neighborhood party where liquor will be served and there will be no adult supervision. The parent says, "Absolutely not!" The teenager slams the door to his room in anger and, later on, climbs out a window to attend the party, anyway. Much later, at the police station, the parent asks the child, "Why did you sneak out to this party after I said you could not go?" The teenager responds, "Everyone else's parents allowed their kids to go. But you're so old-fashioned you never let me have any fun. I was not going to let you get away with treating me that way again, so I went to the party, anyway."
Excerpted from From Rage to Resolution by DeAnne Rosenberg Copyright © 2010 by DeAnne Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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