I have any number of things that I could write to you about, but I tend to be pretty introspective, and I know that deep down I know the answers to most of them. This one is a bit different; I'm at a loss and I hope you can help.
Growing up, my sister was a very difficult child. She's a few years younger than me but was always the bully. Due to various issues she was always extremely explosive. She had, and still has, extreme difficulty controlling her emotions and can be very emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive. I, on the other hand, was quiet and shy and always tried to play the peacemaker in my family. There have been a lot of negative consequences from this, one of which being that I tend to end up in emotionally abusive relationships. That's something I'm dealing with.
What I don't know how to deal with is my absolute terror of anger. Raised voices send me into a panic (literally — although not as extreme as panic attacks, I have a physiological reaction). The thought of someone being angry is a disaster, being angry at me is the end of the world. I just can't stomach it. As a result, I've had a lot of trouble standing up for myself. Slowly, I'm getting to the point where I can assert myself in normal circumstances against people who disagree with me. I am learning that ability, thankfully. My problem is people with quick tempers.
I live with a large group of people, and I work from home, so this puts me in very close orbit to my housemates. Their opinion is, therefore, extremely important to me. My problem is that, as in any group, there are a few alphas floating around. When things don't go their way, they don't just get irritated. They blow up. And unfortunately, in a large group, this can happen relatively frequently. No one has actually screamed at me, but anytime I hear raised voices, I fall apart. I'm convinced it must have something to do with me. And if it actually does have something to do with me, it ruins me until it's resolved.
Everyone else is capable of saying, "They aren't really that mad, that's just their personality, they'll be fine in a bit." I don't seem to be able to do that. Even if the person is being unreasonable, I fall all over myself trying to smooth things over, and I'm not calm until the other person is. This is extremely disruptive to my life, obviously: I can't plan for other people's anger, and I can't seem to weather through it. Afterward, I find that I'm angry because all I did was give in to whatever the upset person said.
It's a ridiculous cycle and I don't know how to get out of it. Is this some kind of PTSD?
Scared Little Girl With Her Hands on Her Ears
Dear Scared Little Girl,
I can't tell you if it's post-traumatic stress disorder, but I can suggest that you find someone trained in the treatment and diagnosis of PTSD who can. I'm not any kind of psychologist. I'm just a writer. But what you say sounds familiar to me. And I, too, have a problem maintaining my composure around angry people.
So what do I do? First off, I try to avoid living with them. So, while I know there may be many reasons you are living with a large group of people, I would suggest that you search for a place to live that is quieter, with roommates who are less explosive. You don't say why you are living in this place, but I assume you have a choice. If it is a jail, a group home or a halfway house, then you may be there out of necessity. Otherwise, you are living with this large group through choice. So that would be my first suggestion: Find a living situation with fewer, less explosive people.
Second, although you really should see a specialist in order to find out if you have PTSD, for your general state of well-being you may find that exercise and meditation will reduce stress. Try to find time, even just five minutes a day, twice a day, to sit quietly and pay attention to your breath. If you can sit somewhere and be peaceful at regular intervals, you may feel calmer over time. That doesn't mean you will cease to have these physiological reactions to angry voices. But the reactions they trigger may lessen. And perhaps your baseline anxiety will improve.
Third, if you can't move out of your place and you can't control the other people in it, find ways to shut out the environment while you are working. Wear headphones while working, and listen to your favorite music. Find the quietest spot in the house and work there. Try working outdoors for some of the day. Take breaks while you work to meditate.
Fourth, try to learn to remain calm when people are yelling. This is not easy. Like you, I tend to freak out when people yell. But I have found that simply holding my place and observing, out loud, what I see, can sometimes help. I mean, it won't necessarily stop an angry person. But if we weren't affected by the shouting, we wouldn't really care what they were doing. So it's not so much that we want them to stop. We just don't want to be affected by it.
If we were bullied as children, we may have learned that there's no defense against a bully. And it is this awful, paralyzing fear that is so uncomfortable. So we find things we can do to remind ourselves that we are not children and we are not in danger. We can speak, as adults, about what we see. We can define our own reactions. For instance, you can just say, "I see that you're yelling," or, "You seem to be angry." I know it sounds obvious. But stating the obvious is useful. It's useful to the nervous system.
You don't have to say, "Stop yelling," or "Why are you yelling?" To say such things invites conflict. Just try observing and reporting. You might say, "You're yelling and it's making me upset," or just "You seem really, really angry." And leave it at that. Just watch what happens.
You might fear that a person will strike out at you if you say something like that, and it's possible. But unless you are in physical danger, it may be worth doing anyway. If the person turns to you and starts yelling at you, you can say, "Now you are yelling at me." If the person asks you if you have a problem with it, you can say no, it's fine to yell, or you can say yes, it makes me uneasy, or it makes me afraid. You don't need to ask why the person is angry with you. Sometimes just reporting on what you see can have a marvelous effect. The person may say, "Yes, I'm angry at you because you just sit there and act all superior!" or the person may say, "No, I'm not angry at you at all. I'm just pissed off about the way things are going." Sometimes people who yell just want to be heard. In a large group with several dominant personalities, some of the yelling may be an attempt to be heard.
There's no way to tell what's really going on. And it is often a mistake to presume to understand the angry person, or to try to win an argument. But just speaking a few simple words, and breaking through your awful panicked silence, may help you retain your balance and composure.
Meanwhile, try to find a psychologist with experience diagnosing and treating PTSD. There is a lot that can be done.
I hope that helps.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.