Have You Ever Been Afraid of Your Own Anger at Work?

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There’s no getting around it:  Anger is scary. I’m not talking about moderate-to-severe daily annoyances. I’m talking about white hot rage, the kind where control is balanced at the edge of a cliff – at the base of which lie crashing surf, rocks, bones, and the remnants of careers and reputations.

It’s bad enough being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger. But it’s also horrifying to be the angry person yourself. It’s like you have stepped out of your body and are watching this unfamiliar person who is wearing your clothes totally lose any semblance of sanity and civility. Who is that person? And what extreme behavior is she/he truly capable of?

When you’re an ASDP (adult survivor of a damaged past), like I am, especially one who grew up in a household where someone in a position of power had severe anger issues, it’s even more frightening. Because you know first-hand what emotional, mental or physical violence is possible when someone gives into their anger. And you will do almost anything to avoid going there yourself. You deny. You stifle. You rationalize. You stuff. You ignore that building up feeling. But then one day boom!

I’m about to tell a story about myself. And I have to admit right up front, this isn’t an easy one to tell. Years after it happened, I’m still ashamed and regretful. My note of sincere apology has gone unanswered. And I can’t say that I blame the person who got the full blast of my pent-up rage, delivered in an afternoon that I wish I could take back.

The details have to be sketchy, to protect everyone involved. So I hope you’ll understand. There’s a piece of me that’s hoping David (let’s call him David, shall we?) will read this, recognize himself (even the sketch), and will see that I’m still as freshly regretful as I was the day "it" happened. And maybe he will forgive me.

I had hired David for a project that he was, and remains, uniquely gifted for. The company, from the CEO on down, was thrilled with the results of his work and talent. And he was so good at the project that soon the project moved into its next phase of maturity, which required new capabilities that were different than David's gifts.  It needed a whole different set of skills. In my loyalty to David, I expected that we could bring him along into the next phase and it would be a natural flow of excellent performance. And that he would welcome the opportunity to grow the ability that would keep him centrally involved in the project’s lifelong journey. And I was wrong.

He started showing signs of disinterest. He wouldn’t show up at meetings. He didn’t deliver on assignments, and he belittled the need for the deliverables I was requesting.  In addition to the frustration I was feeling that the essentials were not being taken care of, I was beginning to feel personally betrayed. Colleagues started to take me aside and warn me that he was taking advantage of my emotional attachment to him.

Resentment began building up inside me. Then resentment turned into the glimmerings of anger, which culminated behind a closed-door meeting.  And then he got angry. And then I got even angrier. The meeting instantly took on the stuff of epic legends. Word traveled fast and before too long, it seemed that everyone knew about the confrontation.

I had invested my entire life and career in becoming the high-achieving, perfect-performing, people pleaser. So I had zero skills in identifying this strange emotion called anger, and learning to control it while it was still manageable from the executive function of my brain.  All I knew about anger was that when my father unleashed it on me as a little girl, I was afraid I would die. And whenever someone was mad at me as an adult, it truly felt like my life was at stake. My big coping skill was to avoid anger altogether.

One day at a Pathways to Successful Living workshop, Sue Paige said to me, “Susan, you’re afraid of your own anger.” Well, no one likes being angry, right? When you’re an ASDP, anger is experienced as a life-threatening event. The person angry with you can obliterate you with one explosive episode of rage. If you’re the one who is angry, you risk first exposing yourself for not being perfect. And then you’ll self-combust into a small little heap of white ash.

You know first-hand what emotional, mental or physical violence is possible when someone gives into their anger. And you will do almost anything to avoid going there yourself. You deny. You stifle. You rationalize. You stuff. You ignore that building up feeling. But then one day boom!

So, yeah, I was afraid of my own anger.

ASDPs who need to come to terms with ancient anger and fears around managing emotions should seek out professional support from mental health counselors. But the workplace is such a perfect lab for exposing those fears and then learning new skills. I’ve developed two sets of tools to help you identify your confusing feelings that can overwhelm you and then achieve mastery over how you address them at work: SAW (like the jagged sharp tool that cuts and tears at things) and SAK (for the multi-purpose tool, the Swiss Army knife). Let’s take on SAW first:

SAW stands for stress, anxiety, and worry.  When you’re feeling this upsetting emotion that you might later identify as anger, it might initially show up as stress, anxiety or worry. You’re feeling the stress of not having your needs met – or objective-critical performance requirements fulfilled by your colleagues. You’re worried about the outcome that will result from the performance failure. “Might I lose my job (yes, we are great at catastrophizing)?” You’re worried that you don’t have the skills or resources to efficiently address this issue as the team member who is responsible for the project’s success. And anxiety shows up in the form of vague ghosts of your childhood past where you were made to feel small, helpless, defenseless, and even at risk of your very survival because the person responsible for making sure your childhood needs were met was out of control with rage.

When you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, and worry, you are overtaken by emotions that are too large for your inner ASDP self. Your inner child wants to grab your inner adult by the hand and run and hide. But this is the time for your inner adult to take over with calm and compassion, reassuring yourself that you’ve got what it takes to handle this upsetting situation. These are the moments when our two realities collide - our childhood reality and our adult professional reality.

This is where the Swiss Army knife – SAK – comes in handy (doesn’t it always?).

Settle yourself down.

When you’re feeling stress, anxiety, worry, take time out to truly feel what you’re feeling and name it. Is there a trigger kicking in that you can spot because of the emotional work that you’ve already done? Or are you over-responding in the moment because you have been triggered and you immediately go into automatic pilot mode of fight, flight or freeze?  The settling phase is not about taking action or being right or wrong. It’s just removing yourself emotionally from the situation and taking a calm look at the situation from a detached perspective.

Become aware of why the situation is particularly upsetting to you.

Once you’ve given yourself the chance to review the situation and why it’s triggering you emotionally, you’ll likely see that there is some aspect of the past that’s colliding with your present – your own personal, internal bumper car moment. Allow yourself to truly understand the connection between what’s happening to you now and what happened to you in the past. Don’t dismiss or diminish the impact of this collision. And don’t try to talk yourself out of it. It’s there. It’s affecting you. It’s just the way it is.
And you are okay. You are safe.

Acquire knowledge in how to handle the current situation.

With this fresh understanding of how the conflict is affecting you emotionally, you’re better equipped to rise above it, saying to yourself, “Oh, that’s an emotional trigger from my past; it carries with it powerful meanings that have nothing to do with what’s in front of me now. I am an adult now and can take steps to address the challenge in a way that protects myself.” You know now that the conflict is a business challenge that can likely be addressed in the context of calm and timely communication. You know how to set guidelines and performance expectations inside the appropriate guardrails of your official role in the company. Ask a mentor to help you lay out an appropriate plan of action for addressing the situation with your colleague. Role-play the conversation and the many directions it might end up going, so you’re equipped to calmly handle however it will play out.

When I think about how badly I handled the situation with David, I still cringe. I actively wish today that we were still on working terms with each other.  I greatly respect him and his expertise.  If it remains his choice to hold that horrible day against me for the rest of our respective careers, I’m sorry about that. But that’s still his choice.

As for me, am I still afraid of my own anger? Maybe a little bit. But not as much as I used to be. Thanks to what I’m learning in the workplace, I discover every day that it truly is a lab filled with gifts. The gift in this case is that I know how it feels to be afraid of untapped, unexplored rage. And now I can support my colleagues in identifying and growing beyond their fears to be the fully actualized adults that they deserve to be.

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt

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Bio: Susan J. Schmitt is the Group Vice President, Head of Human Resources for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA.  This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

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