“I think… we have to really accept that anger is a normal human emotion that can be a positive force for change.”
As many of you know, I’ve been taking a fiercely candid look at anger and rage for the past couple of years. I am particularly aware of how gendered expectations play into anger in conflicts.
I recently had a huge argument with my husband. It was bad. It was rrreeeaalllyy bad; Embarrassingly bad.
I had gone into the conflict conversation focused, centered, ready to use all of the tools I regularly coach my families to use. I was ready. I was good.
I completely lost my ish, in a manner of seconds.
Neither one of us was at our best. I have to say I think it was one of worst arguments ever in terms of deteriorating into our defensive child-minds.
Y’all thought I was kidding…
I tell my clients all the time that knowing what to do with our linear minds is not enough to change our behavior. In fact, at times, knowing intellectually that we have lost our minds and are doing unhelpful, (sometimes hurtful) things just makes it all worse. It’s like our knowledge sticks its tongue out at us and shames us for being out of control, pushing us to be even more out of control.
I also remind my clients that this stuff is hard, that we are going to mess it up frequently, and that it’s ok to mess up as long as we then own up and figure out how to grow from what just happened. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they imagine that all of these things go oh so perfectly at my house… that we never lose our minds and do all the wrong things. Oh if you could have been a fly on the wall at our place the other day!
What’s even worse…
To make matters worse, this was a planned conflict. Some things had happened the day before that we didn’t have time to talk through. We agreed to talk it through the next day when we were both free in the afternoon. I spent the morning self-reflecting, sifting through what I needed to say and preparing to be in a listening, empathic posture. I was all set to self-regulate, to amply apply the XYZ Formula, and to keep things focussed on “You and me v. the Problem.” (The picture above is the actual piece of paper I took with me to try to resolve the conflict well. It was right there, in front of me.)
I believe it took less than five minutes for all of that to go straight out the window.
Timing timing timing
I thought that the way we delayed the conflict was going to assure that we could do it all so much better than it had started out the day before. I thought I was composed enough. He seemed to think that he was. Looking back now, one of our key learnings is that we are actually a whole lot more stressed out and on edge than we think we are.
We are better rested than we were in August when the puppy first came home with us. Better rested is nice, but it isn’t necessarily rested. We are communicating better now than we were when the puppy chaos started under our roof. Better communication is lovely… but we still aren’t back to where we used to be, and I really don’t think either one of us realized it until we were already flinging absurd accusations at one another as if we didn’t know one another at all. Neither one of us had the wherewithal to do all that is required to manage a conflict well. Apparently, neither one of us was aware enough to know that we weren’t aware enough either. This is a really important learning for us.
I was aware that my husband was tap dancing on my squishy spots right out of the gate.I determined to stay calm and level. I attempted to bring the temperature of the conversation down a notch. Most typically that is his forte. I struggle with it more. But I was prepared! I had it in writing, after all! I tried again to bring it down. By the fourth attempt my anger and frustration were so compounded by watching him behave in ways that drive him crazy when I do it, I pulled off my emotional rings and broke out the verbal brass knuckles and Vaseline.
I kirked out.
He kirked out.
We were all over one another’s squishy spots. Neither one of us was clear enough to reel it back in.
I am incredibly grateful that this kind of awfulness has only happened a rare few times in our eight years under the same roof. I don’t remember it ever ending as badly as this one did. Even when we crash and burn, it just isn’t our habit to attack each other instead of attacking the problem. I knew as soon as I screamed my parting shots that I was wwwaaaayyyy over the line.
Have no fear…
The good news is, we came back to the table a couple of times until we could really work it out. We both humbled up and owned up in the end. We figured out what we could learn from all of the rubble. We addressed important issues and came back together stronger.
I’ll leave his learning to him, but I wanted to share mine with you as it is directly relates to topics I have recently covered in this space.
I have used the XYZ Formula in conflict with my husband before, and I’ve walked countless couples and family dyads through it. I have seen it be very effective as a way to speak from our side of the problem, make room for other interpretations, meet one another emphatically, and directly request the changes we wish to see without being accusatory. I believe in it. And, I have a really hard time using it, and my other tools, when my husband is tap dancing on my squishy spots!
Apparently, it’s not just me…
As I sit and listen to couples and other family duads struggle, I started to recognize a pattern. When our expressions of anger are pushed away, rejected, shamed or demeaned, the message our anger was carrying very frequently gets lost. For those of us who have had to unlearn the idea that our anger is bad, undesirable, unacceptable, that loop makes us… more angry.
Around the circle goes, accelerating with each turn until we have taken off into the stratosphere, out of bounds and not coming back any time soon.
Anger primer reminder…
As I have mentioned in this space before, I do not believe for a moment that anger is “bad.” The way we express our anger can be damaging or terrifying, but the anger itself is not bad. Our anger is diagnostic, faithfully telling us that something needs to change. When we use it well, we clarify what, of all that we have power over, needs to change in the situation.
This is part of what the XYZ Formula is for. (If you don’t know what the XYZ Formula is, please click here. For a fuller explanation of using anger diagnostically, please click here.) However, when it feels like we are getting reinforcement of the “anger is bad/don’t be angry” message, it occurs to me that we can tweak the formula to address the unmet need more effectively.
This is not ok with me…
Anger very often arises when we get an internal message that screams: IT IS NOT OKAY TO TREAT ME THIS WAY. I’m toying with adding it to the XYZ Formula when it applies.
For example, (and don’t worry – these are fictional:)
- “When you (X) told me that I should ‘just get over it’,
- it left me feeling (Y) belittled, unseen, devalued and disrespected.
- This is not okay with me.
- I would prefer instead that you (Z) make an effort to understand why I’m not done with that issue.”
- “When you (X) follow me around the house when I’ve told you I’m not ready to talk about something,
- It leaves me feeling (Y) taunted, manipulated and antagonized.
- This is not ok with me.
- I would prefer instead that you (Z) respect that I am not able to finish the argument well at that time, but I will come back to the table with you as soon as I can.”
It seems that saying those words out loud: “This is not ok with me,” is the kind of self-validation we need in order to stop the cycle of needing to prove that we are “allowed” to be angry by escalating our angry expressions.
I am going to be trying to implement this in the coming days. If any of you experience something similar, I’m challenging you to try it to, and let me know how it goes. I’m really curious! Shoot me and email and let me know.
If you’d like conflict coaching with someone who truly know what it’s like when it does not go well, but who can help lead you through something much more effective, please contact me here. I’m happy to help any way I can.