One of the things I come across as a coach (and also personally) is having very negative and strong feelings when someone behaves in an aggressive and angry way.
In this blog, I would like to give some suggestions to help cope with and understand these using different approaches from coaching, philosophy and therapy. Please note that these tips are not aimed at resolving traumatic experiences.
Let’s say you go to a ‘horrible meeting’ with someone and they yell at you and other people there. Here are some ideas –
- Transference. The horrible meeting is likely to remind you of something similar that happened from your past. The yelling colleague, boss or whoever reminds you of a person (or people) who used to yell at you when you were much younger – that is the ‘source’ of the very strong reaction. This idea is that you have transferred the feelings you had from someone in your past to someone in your present. This person somehow reminds you of them, which super-charges the upset you feel today. This is the notion that we often associate behaviours today with intense experiences we had when younger, often with significant figures from our childhood. When we can disentangle our historic feelings from those of our current ones, we can often cool down quite rapidly. There are techniques I cover in the NLP training that can also help to heal those original memories, making these types of episodes much less frequent.
- Drama Triangles. This breaks down what goes on in our minds as a result of these intense experiences. If we feel someone has been unpleasant to us, they are the persecutor and we are the victim. If someone else gets involved, they become the rescuer. Many thoughts and relationships moved around this triangle (see below). After the horrible meeting we may go around these ideas in our heads, we want to get even (therefore becoming a persecutor ourselves) or perhaps we felt that someone else had been hurt at this meeting, we worry about them and want to rescue them. We then switch our role to Rescuer on the triangle; however, the actual result of all this can disempower the person we are rescuing and the person we get back at may well feel victimized and start their own drama-triangle with us. These patterns are deeply ingrained in our social interactions and our need for them are exemplified in the stories we read, watch and listen to every day. Part of the reason we may have got so upset from that horrible meeting, is that we start engaging with a drama triangle. We do this habitually by becoming upset, rather than understanding the bizarre emotional needs of some emotionally charged individual. We would be better off ignoring the rants of these people, rather than joining them on a merry-go-round of emotional upheaval. These situations are also called psychological games, where the indirect intention of the person is to engage you in a drama triangle so they will get emotional stimulation in what might be a slightly empty life for them. The best way for you to handle this is to refuse to play and see their behaviour as their problem and not your own.
- Accept that you are angry and upset. Often, we try and stay ‘professional’ or cool even though we are actually feeling angry, scared or shamed. There are plenty of ideas in this blog about how to change your thinking. However, it is also important to stop thinking after a while and simply allow yourself to experience these feelings. Trying to push them away and then heating them up by playing a drama triangle type negative inner-narrative simply makes it worse. Yes, this was not pleasant, but it is helpful to allow yourself to experience the negative emotions and realise that these feelings won’t injure you – they are simply feelings; they don’t need a solution right now, and this will pass in time. So often it is our thinking mind that will try to solve the problem that makes these feelings arise, hoping that we will immediately feel better – however, after a while this simply makes matters worse as your thinking processes go into analysis-paralysis. Your adrenaline system then kicks in which literally shuts down part of your brain – your thinking is no longer helping you. Realise when this negative loop has happened and tell yourself to simply suffer in silence, you can’t work out what to do – just live with it and it will soon pass. Being able to tolerate negative states leads us perfectly on to the next topic…
- Stoicism. There is a powerful idea from this ancient philosophy about control from Epictetus. “There are some things you have control over and there are some things you have no control over”. Concerning yourself over things you have no control over is futile; a Stoic will focus their mind on what they do have control over and will choose to act accordingly, which may mean choosing to do nothing. During the horrible meeting, you can say to yourself that you have no control over how someone else behaves, but you do have control on your attitude towards that behaviour. Can we really be surprised if people behave badly at times, only if we unrealistically expect them to never do so. Indeed, Stoics would call the horrible meeting an amazing opportunity to practice your stoicism!
- Negative visualisations. Another counter-intuitive idea from Stoicism is to imagine things going worse (with the intention of feeling better). Allow yourself to imagine things going much worse than they did in the horrible meeting. This is also a worthwhile practice to learn to appreciate things and people in your life. Taking a few moments to imagine not having them in your life (in a fairly detached but mildly upsetting way) brings a full appreciation of how lucky you are when you end the practice. Appreciating how you would miss your awareness and being alive, is also worth adding to this experience. These types of practices (see also 9 below) also help to build resilience.
- Leave. Often when we look back on unpleasant experiences when we may have felt trapped, there was actually an elegant way of leaving fairly suddenly by making some excuse and simply leaving. One obvious suggestion I received from a renowned coach was to say that he advised clients to suddenly get up and say that they were sorry but they needed to visit the toilet immediately. Practically speaking, there are few situations in life where you can’t leave and that is therefore something you have control over.
- NLP. Change your perspective towards the person who did the yelling. Behind the yelling person is an angry ‘child’ finding it difficult to express their needs who feels frustrated and passionate about something. They clearly are not doing a good job at communicating. Try and work out what they are trying to get out of this behaviour for themselves. Step into the shoes of the yelling person and recall times when you had problems containing your own feelings. View the situation from above and notice how you appeared in the meeting too. Perhaps imagine the yelling person as a young child having a tantrum – try imagining them wearing a school uniform or dressed as a moody teenager. Imagine them as much smaller, change the tone of their voice or give them a clown outfit.
- Archetypes. There are positive human energies such as power, caring and imagination. These also have shadows, naturally occurring feelings and behaviours that can make a negative impact. Power can shade over into aggression; caring into emotional pain and imagination into manipulation. This is the nature of being human and when we see someone else enter a shadow, it can have the effect of unleashing one of our own shadows. Noticing this process and accepting the reality of being human again can give us choices, including not to enter a shadow if someone else does.
- Practice building positive states. Spending time building positive states and feelings requires practice – just like lifting weights builds muscles. There are techniques such as mindfulness and anchoring from NLP, which you can learn to develop this muscle. Eventually this leads to us being more strongly anchored when we enter challenging situations.
- Talk to someone. Sometimes problems go around in our head and when we can speak our thoughts out loud, often we can hear them more clearly ourselves. As my original coach Anna Baldwin said to me, “I help my clients have conversations with themselves.’
I will be covering many of the principles in this blog in our training next week in London and there are still a few places left. I also hope you have found some of the ideas in this blog will be useful the next time you experience some kind of horrible meeting.