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Martyr? I hardly even know yr!
November 8, 2012 5:39 AM   Subscribe

How do you recognize and prevent situations in which attempting to stand up for yourself or for a principle of yours results in embarrassment and making yourself look belligerent, condescending, embittered, and a bit crazy?

I'm talkin' bout those times where you're sure you're doing the right thing and standing up for yourself and for others, but when the dust settles and you prepare for the feeling of gratification you get from being forthright, honest, and assertive you look around to find everyone you were trying to help is looking at you with surprise and a little disgust like you took a piss on the rug, because you made it a little louder or a little more serious or a little meaner than it really needed to be.

And that leads directly to those times you're up, grey-faced at 3am poring over the e-mails you can't help yourself from sending, desperately trying after the fact to explain your behavior or support your view, anything to avoid accepting the reality of the situation, that you went a little too far, e-mails first proclaiming you will stand your ground, and when the response contains some criticism of your lofty position your next e-mail grows a sharp little edge on it, an edge that puts thoughts in their heads like Hey, this dude seemed normal and thoughtful and nice, but now I see something nasty under there, and then eventually you have to start apologizing, revising, adding postscripts, sending more and subsequent "I know you don't want anymore e-mails from me, but I just have to make it clear about this one last thing you misunderstand about me" e-mails and you know you've lost, you bet the farm without even looking at your cards and you lose every time, and you should just stop but hell, it's already ruined, so just let the muscle memory take over and lose a few more friends.

How do you see it coming early enough to avert the tired PR disaster when you take a feeling too far? How do you diagnose whether you're acting assertively and with confidence or aggressively and with hubris? What signs do you watch for that tell you to dial it back and take sober stock of a situation before it deteriorates and your ugly side peeks out?
posted by My Famous Mistake to Human Relations (35 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Will this matter tomorrow?

Will this matter a week from now?

Am I helping other people or just myself?

Am I helping other people in a way that will actually matter a week from now?

If I were one of the other people, would I care about this enough to make a fuss for myself?

If one of those other people said to drop it, would I drop it or disregard their opinion?

If my mom had acted like I'm acting now when I was a teenager, would I have been absolutely mortified?

Am I making such a big deal out of this that I forget about other worthwhile things in my life?
posted by phunniemee at 5:44 AM on November 8, 2012 [22 favorites]


Also, don't ever do things like this over email. Rule #1. People will have proof that you're crazy forever and show their friends and laugh about it.
posted by phunniemee at 5:45 AM on November 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


There are three questions you should ask yourself:

1. Does this need to be said?

2. Does this need to be said NOW?

3. Does this need to be said by ME?

I was the queen of sticking up for the underdog. I used to do this at work. If management came out with some new thing people had to do, while it wasn't a problem for me per se, lots of other people were bitching and complaining about it, so I'D be the one to speak up.

Then, when I was waiting for the chorus of the folks who initially complained to speak up and support my concern...crickets.

It took me a while, but I learned.

If your gaffe took place on email, then a simple one line apology is in order:

Sorry, I got a bit passionate there. Let's agree to disagree.


That should be the end of it.

Also, if you feel the need to tell everyone what you're thinking every time you think it, you need to dial it back. An indicator would be how many bumper stickers do you have on your car, front door, computer bag, etc. If it's more than 1, you really need to realize that the world isn't all that interested in your opinion.

I for sure know it's not interested in mine.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:47 AM on November 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


Can you give an example? Because the truth is, unless you are dedicated to some kind of issue advocacy and do social justice-related work in your daily life, there really are very few times that you should obey the urge to "stand up for yourself or a principle of yours" and even fewer times that others need you to stand up for them. Such times wouldn't call for email, they would call for direct action, like physically getting in between the kidnapper and the kid. In general, if you're defending yourself or others via email, you're not saving anyone, you're just arguing. If that's what's going on, then the question is why are you arguing?
posted by headnsouth at 5:50 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, you can be totally right about, I dunno, slave-free chocolate. The conditions of child workers and trafficked workers is inarguably appalling. But the reality is that 94% of consumers like KitKats or whatever and just do not care. Right or wrong, that's the way it is. So the first question is:

Am I arguing about something I care about and the other party cares about, or am I arguing about something I care about and think the other party SHOULD care about?

Because scenario #2 fails 99% of the time, and makes you look like a tin hat evangelist 99% of the time. The second question is:

Are you this XKCD comic?

Because someone on the internet or in your group of voters or in your electoral college is always wrong. The metric for engagement is not "can you convince them?" but rather "have you had an opportunity to say your piece?" If you have, great, you're done. If you did but forgot three things and blew it, you are still done.

Also: get a blog.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:59 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ask yourself: What am I hoping to acccomplish by doing or saying this?
posted by Carol Anne at 6:10 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a follow-up to my last comment...

If it's something you wouldn't say to someone while standing directly in front of them and looking them in the eye, you shouldn't write it to them. Period.
posted by phunniemee at 6:19 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know you don't want anymore e-mails from me, but I just have to make it clear about this one last thing you misunderstand about me

That quote does give a hint as to part of the problem. This statement absolves YOU of any responsibility for the current situation puts the fault entirely on the other person.

No legitimate apology puts any of the responsibility on the recipient.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:19 AM on November 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


My life, my relationships, my career and my family were all improved radically when I began to accept this:

Being right doesn't matter.

Doing the right thing can matter. Standing up for the rights of others can matter.

But being right? having other people know I'm right?

Doesn't fucking matter at all. ever.

it is a struggle, and I don't always succeed but it helps to know it is the cause of what you are describing. That foolishness and embarrassment is always the result of trying to be right
posted by French Fry at 6:20 AM on November 8, 2012 [23 favorites]


I think you need to practice keeping an air of calm and picking your words carefully. The choice of words can make the difference between a statement being perceived as belligerent or logical. Make your argument based on objectivity rather than subjectivity.
posted by JJ86 at 6:21 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry, maybe got a little too wrapped up in my description. Let me clarify:

I know I went on about it for awhile, but the e-mailing is not the issue. I am all too aware of the ways in which it doesn't help to keep sending unwanted beanplating messages to someone in this type of situation, we are agreed it's a poor idea. I have strong social anxiety and tend to obsess heavily after the fact about any dramatic interpersonal situation, and in moments of tiredness or weakness I sometimes send e-mails trying to somehow save face. This is because I don't have a huge number of people in my life and my monkey brain is desperate for all of them to think I never make a mistake or put anybody off, so I mistakenly feel that if I can explain or justify the behavior in question that that will somehow ameliorate the force and scale of the fallout. I choose e-mail over phone or face-to-face because I have trouble keeping my physical composure when discussing something I feel strongly about, telling myself I can compose my thoughts better and communicate more clearly through text, which is true when I am in a rational state of mind, but which has a lot of caveats if I'm heated up and really feeling the anxiety. The e-mail thing is stupid, and ya'll's thoughts on it are apropos and useful to me as a reminder of just how not good of an idea it is.

But what I'm interested in is trying to recognize the onset of and then prevent the types of situations that end later on down the road with me typing the kinds of e-mails that are a bad idea to send. RuthlessBunny and phunniemee's answers are exactly the kind I'm hoping for.
posted by My Famous Mistake at 6:24 AM on November 8, 2012


Clinging and Aversion, as they say, are the source of Suffering.

When you grip onto stuff too much, whether to hang onto it or force it away, you are usually projecting your image of a "perfect" situation so strongly that you can't see the actual situation. Naturally, your imaginary situation is way better than the real one, because your imaginary situation doesn't have to deal with inconvenient facts, like other people and their legitimate feelings and positions. And the gap between imagination and what you actually have (much less what you end up with after attempting to engineer your imagined paradise) is where these bad feelings grow.

So, make you case, of course, if you have an opinion. Support it with facts and other considerations as applicable. Then let it go. Seek agreement as much as possible.

Also, for a principled stand to matter worth a damn, you can't have too many of them. If every hill is the one you are going to die on, then everyone will see you as a problem, possibly the problem. You have too look really closely at each situation and decide if this is one you need to let slide, put in your two cents and let go of, or say "this is one which is really serious and wee need to hash it out all the way." In most cases, you probably want to aim for that middle point.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:25 AM on November 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


An example would really help. It's hard to tell if you're in a toxic environment, have crazy friends, or are yourself way out of line, or what combination thereof.

But this whole paragraph? "And that leads directly to those times you're up, grey-faced at 3am poring over the e-mails you can't help yourself from sending, desperately trying after the fact to explain your behavior or support your view, ..." That really shouldn't happen more than a few times in your life. When you're up at 3 a.m. sending e-mails not directly related to life, death, or getting someone home from the other side of the world, it is time to GO TO BED. How can you prevent this kind of thing? Well, for a great deal of your escalating aftermath, if it's after 10 p.m. and you're arguing or defending yourself by e-mail or online, it's time to stop. All the e-mail will be there in the morning and you will have some distance and rest and not be so emotional.

Back in the day, when everyone had land lines, you probably obeyed pretty strict rules about when you could and couldn't call someone. In my community, after 9 p.m. was time-sensitive and important (next morning carpool arrangements); after 10 p.m. someone was in the hospital. And you couldn't call again until 7 a.m. (school arrangements) or 8 a.m. (anything else). 10 a.m. on weekends so people could sleep in. Pretend your e-mail is a phone from the 80s and obey the polite blackout hours.

"sending more and subsequent "I know you don't want anymore e-mails from me, but I just have to make it clear about this one last thing you misunderstand about me""

If I'm understanding you, this is a thing my husband does, and it makes me CRAZY. We'll have an argument about some minor thing and we both get strident and then we offend each other by saying something and I say, "Sorry, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." and he says, "Here's why your feelings shouldn't be hurt because what I really meant was ..." And the thing is, he can explain it until kingdom come (and probably I already know what he really meant), but explaining it doesn't undo the part of the conversation where he hurt my feelings, even if I accept that I misunderstood what he meant. I just want him to say, "Sorry," for causing me the upset. Not explain to me why my feelings are incorrect AND I misunderstood his point. GAAAAAAAH.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:27 AM on November 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


This is something dialectical behavior therapy helped me with. DBT calls this skill area "interpersonal effectiveness" and coaches you to balance the intensity of the need with the intensity of the ask. Here's a worksheet that might help and some more description.
posted by liketitanic at 6:37 AM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have strong social anxiety and tend to obsess heavily after the fact about any dramatic interpersonal situation, and in moments of tiredness or weakness I sometimes send e-mails trying to somehow save face.

Healthy interpersonal relationships are not filled with drama. If you are involved with so many dramatic interpersonal situations that you have developed a followup process for dealing with them, then the problem isn't the email followup, the problem is the drama. The email followup perpetuates the drama, but it isn't the root problem.

This is because I don't have a huge number of people in my life and my monkey brain is desperate for all of them to think I never make a mistake or put anybody off

The monkey brain is steering you wrong. Ignore the monkey brain, learn and practice mindfulness techniques, get therapy, focus on the root of the problem.
posted by headnsouth at 6:39 AM on November 8, 2012


Can you give an example? Because the truth is, unless you are dedicated to some kind of issue advocacy and do social justice-related work in your daily life, there really are very few times that you should obey the urge to "stand up for yourself or a principle of yours" and even fewer times that others need you to stand up for them. Such times wouldn't call for email, they would call for direct action, like physically getting in between the kidnapper and the kid. In general, if you're defending yourself or others via email, you're not saving anyone, you're just arguing. If that's what's going on, then the question is why are you arguing?

This is pretty important - I mean, I am dedicated to social justice work and actually have both stood up for people when it was right in my daily life and failed to stand up when I should have.

1. What is the weight of the issue? Is it something comparatively trivial even though real, like one person always mooches cigarettes or borrows ten dollars? Is it something kind of stupid, like someone asks you to do a trivial task that takes more time and effort for them to explain than for them to do? Is it that someone is always a bit condescending or talks too much? If it's something where the other person is wrong but the injury is slight, teach yourself to write it off. I find "noticing" to be helpful to me - "I notice that I'm feeling irritated because they are not being logical/mooching cigarettes again/etc". And then I purposely move my thoughts on to something else.

People do fool things all the time - you do fool things all the time.

2. What can be done about the issue? Are you placing the person you're defending at more social risk? For example, if your friend has a creepy, sexist partner and a troubled relationship - making a big fuss may put her at risk of further arguments and harm when you're off the scene. Does the person value keeping the peace more than being right?

3. If your friend group differs from you about serious moral matters - like they think "let's agree to disagree about racism!" or something, then you need to find new friends. Sometimes people are going to be all "why is Joe making such a fuss just because Tom is throwing a 'Dress Like A [racist stereotype]" party?" and they're going to think that you're crazily over-reacting if you object. I did have to quit one terrible friend-group in my twenties because they were sexist jerks who thought I was a loon for objecting to how they treated me and other women, and I feel like that was the right call.

4. Are you a person who is strongly influenced by logic, rules and research? Does it frustrate you when others are not? I've found that reminding myself that logic is always culture-bound and that 'research' is seldom neutral really helps. I still like to research things and have fussily informed opinions, but I no longer have really strong feelings about having others believe that I am right.

5. When you do need to disagree, take a leaf from the "socialized female and learned never to hurt anyone's feelings" book. (I think it's a bad book, actually, but it has useful parts.) Speak in softer tones. Make it a little diffident - "I don't know, my friend says....", or "but I'm a little worried that [THING] will make it harder for [person]". Personalize it - "when I grew up with a mosque next door". Sympathize - "I know that some people have had bad experiences, but I think those aren't the norm". Emphasize universals: "I think trans women and radical feminists actually have a lot of the same experiences with patriarchy and could really have a lot to say to each other".

6. Remember that you can "win" an argument longterm by losing in the short term. I remember, for example, arguing fiercely in favor of Columbus Day and "discovery" of the Americas with some kind of filthy hippie back in 1992. I didn't change my mind during the argument, but I changed it shortly thereafter and with it a large chunk of my politics. You don't have to make the person you're arguing with concede; you just need to make a cogent argument and often a person of goodwill will reflect on their own. (This is of course assuming that it's a serious matter.)

7. Advocate for information-gathering. Don't say "this places an unfair burden on [PEOPLE} so it is totally wrong!" Say "but how will this affect [PEOPLE]? We wouldn't want this to be unfair - let's ask them about their work process". Obviously, this doesn't mean that you seek out people to "educate" you about racism 101 or whatever, but if you're dealing with day to day topics it is good to advocate that the affected people be consulted instead of advocating directly for them.
posted by Frowner at 6:40 AM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Reflection and time. Stop and think. Sleep on it. You aren't going to figure it out in the heat of the moment.
posted by empath at 6:41 AM on November 8, 2012


This is because I don't have a huge number of people in my life and my monkey brain is desperate for all of them to think I never make a mistake or put anybody off, so I mistakenly feel that if I can explain or justify the behavior in question that that will somehow ameliorate the force and scale of the fallout.

O hi, mon semblable mon frere. This is the issue that you need to work on - a stronger sense of self. When you're desperate to keep other people liking you/thinking well of you/thinking you don't make mistakes, you'll always be doing some kind of unhappy information-managing, whether it's the 3am emails or keeping your mouth shut all the time or anxiously conforming to a group orthodoxy.

Where does this come from? Were you bullied a lot as a child? Did you experience a serious social loss? Were your parents very strict? Did you accidentally drive someone away through arguing? How did you learn to think about your social role growing up? What are you afraid will happen if people see that you are imperfect?

Do you feel like you are only likeable or worthwhile if you never make mistakes? Do you judge others very hard when they make mistakes, especially if the mistakes are the kind you're afraid that you will make?

I would suggest some journaling about what you're afraid of and what your self-image is. Do you feel like your "real" self is unacceptable, so you need to project a perfect "false" self to the world?

If journaling and stepping away from the email don't help and you continue to be frantically troubled over this, I'd suggest therapy. As you can tell from my comments here perhaps, I struggle with a LOT of the same things, and honestly I wish I'd gone to a therapist years ago. I have not solved my "I am afraid that people will hate me if they think I'm imperfect" problem yet, but I feel much happier and calmer now.

A caveat: if you are like me, you may actually be drawn to unhealthy social relationships where people really will turn on you if they see that you make a mistake. In healthy friendships settings, people will basically be your friend if you're honest and a person of goodwill, even if you have a few goofball traits. In toxic social settings, they won't. If you're in a toxic social setting, you may have perfectly real anxiety about appearing wrong or vulnerable - this is a sign that you need to find a new social group.
posted by Frowner at 6:51 AM on November 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


What signs do you watch for that tell you to dial it back and take sober stock of a situation before it deteriorates and your ugly side peeks out?

Simultaneous tension and confusion. I feel my scalp tighten and get prickly, as if my hair is standing up. My eyes feel like they're suddenly wide open. Basically I'm aware of physical fight-or-flight reactions, which are my cues to excuse myself for a little until I can think straight.
posted by jon1270 at 6:52 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, it comes from being and feeling alone for large portions of my life because trying to operate socially with no understanding of my anxiety was generally too fraught with anxiety to be helpful to me. So since I felt like nobody ever saw anything I did or was good at I tried to improve myself and get good at things on my own hoping that somehow would translate into or replace the social acceptance I craved, which is fine, but it got skewed into a feeling that, whenever an opportunity arises for me to show any of the skills and qualities I'm proud of learning or developing on my own, the anxiety kicks in and the message is something like "NO ONE EVER SEES WHAT YOU CAN DO, SO YOU BETTER MAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY COUNT LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT."

I feel like adding that my life is not awful, it's fine and this isn't really beating me down in an alarming way, but these kinds of situations have been a recurring thing and I'm grown weary of it.

Thanks all for your thoughts and your time.
posted by My Famous Mistake at 7:07 AM on November 8, 2012


Well here is one thought for you: people who are truly good at things make it look effortless. So instead of being all rah rah rah passion unf unf unf just git r done and dust off and move on to the next thing. Because anyone who is paying attention will notice your skills/talent. Anyone who wasn't paying attention won't, but that's okay, because asking for their attention either before or after the fact just makes you look needy.

In other words don't try to trade on your accomplishments for social acceptance. Instead use the accomplishments as a by-the-way means of having social experiences.

Or in other other words: just do stuff with people, and be cool.

Not sure if that helps?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:28 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I used to be the king of doing this - in fact, when I first joined Metafilter I said some ridiculously stupid stuff that I deeply regret. I'm not entirely "cured" of saying dumb crap, but I've made substantial progress since then. Here are some things that helped me - possibly they may help you as well.

1) When you are describing your opinions, always provide context. For example, in one situation, I accidentally portrayed myself as a terrible misogynist because I suggested that part of the reason guys adopt the PUA mentality might be because they had been hurt by women in the past. A lot of people thought this meant that I was blaming women for men's douchebaggery, but the truth is that I am a moral relativist so I don't share the common assumption that it's inherently wrong to hurt people (which is not to say it's inherently right either: I just feel that it depends largely on context). If I had qualified what I was saying to compensate for the fact that most people hold mental associations like "hurt = bad = blame", I would have represented my opinions much more accurately.

2) Try to use more statements along the lines of "I feel X because" instead of "X is clearly true." One thing that I have learned over the course of the past year (and some therapy) is humility - I have learned that no matter how passionately I believe in something, it's always possible that I simply haven't thought it through carefully enough. When I express something as a feeling substantiated by my personal experience -instead of a definitive statement of fact - it's much easier to back down from my view if somebody makes a good point that forces me to reconsider, so I don't get caught in the trap of raising the stakes in order to save face.

3) Remember your past mistakes. When we do something embarrassing or shameful, it's human nature to try to push it out of mind, because revisiting the memory causes pain. Don't allow yourself to do this. When I find myself with that angry feeling like I need to make a proclamation to enlighten the benighted masses, I ask myself "Hey, remember what happened the last time you got this feeling? Yeah, that didn't work out too hot, now did it?" That reminds me to tone it down a little before opening my mouth.

4) Practice being articulate. Regardless of what opinions you hold, you'd be surprised at how reasonable you can make them sound if you simply articulate your beliefs (and the reasons behind them) clearly and precisely. Metafilter is a wonderful tool in this regard, and I've become much more articulate since joining up. Observe who gets lots of favorites and study their rhetorical style - regardless of whether you think they're right or wrong. In fact, you should focus even more closely on the people who are clearly wrong, because these are the ones who have polished their rhetoric to the point that it can compensate for occasional flaws in their logic.

These are the tools that have helped me, but obviously your own mileage may vary. In any case, I wish you the best of luck.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:29 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"When you're in a hole, stop digging."

Also, forget trying to control situations ahead of time. Recognizing the onset and stopping it there? Maybe you can, maybe you can't. In social situations there always will be the equivalent of your car going into a skid-- things feeling off balance. You can't prevent that. Just don't panic and overcorrect and make it worse.

I feel like adding ...

Are you starting to do it right now?
posted by BibiRose at 7:36 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


People who aren't used to standing up for themselves can sometimes swing too far in the opposite direction and get overly confrontational. (If you're like me and get most of your life lessons from cartoons, there's a My Little Pony episode about this.) It can be tricky to figure out, especially in the moment when emotions are involved, and even more so if you have social anxiety and are simultaneously juggling this person is WRONG! and oh shit I better not piss them off.

Pick your battles, to start. If something has a real and immediate negative impact on you, it's good to stand up for yourself. If someone lies to your face or keeps drinking all your milk without replacing it, calling them out is warranted. If it doesn't affect you but is likely to harm another person, it's often good to make yourself heard, depending on the case: if someone's about to drive home drunk, by all means get up in their face; if they're talking shit about their mom, you may or may not want to let that one go. When things get into the theoretical realm, confrontation isn't going to have any real effect and is less likely to go well. If someone has opposing views to yours on something like abortion, and they're not planning any sort of action but just talking about it, and no one in the room is currently pregnant, all that's likely to happen from debating the point is just pissing each other off.

The more tangential your point is to the current discussion, the less likely it is to go over well. If you're in the middle of a discussion about the merits of vegetarianism, a comment like "killing animals is cruel" works in the context of that discussion. But if you're listening to someone talk about the new BBQ joint that just opened, "killing animals is cruel" is a derail and not a conversation that other person wants to have.

A lot of people just refuse to engage in certain topics and in certain venues to avoid the sort of situation you've been finding yourself in. I know scores of people who will just not discuss politics or religion at work, at family gatherings, or on Facebook. (Later, we go home and vent about it to our like-minded friends.) If there's a social milieu where you know people are going to have different views from yours, you can just mentally go "nope, not talking about X here, no matter what."

You are almost never going to change anyone's mind on the big issues. You are going to be misunderstood from time to time no matter what. This is true of everyone, loud or quiet, social anxiety or no. Keeping both of these points in mind will help you minimize arguments and bounce back from the ones that do occur.

I'm pretty non-confrontational, myself, and whenever I hear or read something that I find repellent, I do a quick cost-benefit analysis before saying my piece. Is this conversation likely to get heated and go on for quite a while? (Probably.) Will that upset me? (Often.) Do I really want to be involved in that, even if I am right? (Usually not.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:44 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Could you please provide a specific example of the kind of situation you're talking about? Something recent, from your own life? Actually, if you don't mind a bit of typing, would you be so good as to provide maybe two or three?

From the original post, I guess I figured you were talking about issues of values clashes - a spirited argument over abortion or racism or whatever thing - but from your followup it sounds like these instances of "doing the right thing and standing up for yourself and for others" are based in making sure the people around you know that you're good at something...?

Thing is, if this kind of situation bothers you, then it bothers you, and that's totally valid and maybe something that someone can offer some sort of good advice about, but I don't really get a good sense of what the problem in particular is. If you're losing friends because you won't sit by and let people talk about how terrible black people are, that's a different sort of thing from, I don't know, if you feel like you need to prove to everyone how good you are at playing guitar or whatever thing. But in any event, specifics would help.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:14 AM on November 8, 2012


Eyebrows McGee, what's driving you crazy is also probably driving your husband crazy. I would be exactly the same as him - very annoyed if someone refused to re-evaluate whether their emotional reaction was fair and proper if they totally misinterpreted something I said or did instead of asking me to apologize for something I didn't say or do. English is my wife's third language. Sometimes she totally misunderstands something I said (also because she seems to be anticipating and then hearing what she wants to hear or thinks she'll hear rather than what I actually said). When I tell her that's totally not what I said, she'll still remain upset about it. To me, that's irrational madness. So how does this relate to the OP's question? I believe in many situations there's room to discuss what is right, better, truthful, etc., and unless it's clearly totally unproductive, not doing so may even be wimpy and weaselly. Maybe it's a guy thing, but logic and reason are important to me, and throwing them out the window is spineless. That being said, there are clearly times where it's just not worth the effort and grief. And that's my advice to the OP: pick your battles.
posted by Dansaman at 8:45 AM on November 8, 2012


How do you see it coming early enough to avert the tired PR disaster when you take a feeling too far?

For me, some of it comes from the recognition that there are certain situations in which making progress with people is not possible. A lot of it also has to do with the image I have in my head of the other person and what their mindset is at the time I'm considering asserting myself. If I notice that I'm attributing a lot of their actions to malice instead of ignorance, that's a sign that I'm in danger of overlooking a simple detail that would change my perspective entirely and make me look like an ass.

I've learned that from experience of sticking my foot in my mouth, and from reading books (like Crucial Conversations) from people who have studied how to assert oneself civilly and effectively.

I agree with Metroid Baby that if you're not used to standing up for yourself, you can sometimes do it too much. In my experience, though, this is a phase you can move out of, or at least something you can do less and and less.

How do you diagnose whether you're acting assertively and with confidence or aggressively and with hubris?

A lot of it has to do with attachment to the outcome, and attachment to control of the other person. If you're at a point where your goal is to make your feelings known, and possibly to explain what you'll do given the other person's possible responses, and is done with the goal of improving the relationship you have with the other person, and starting with the assumption of good faith, these are all good things.

If your goal is to "win" rather than to problem-solve, that's not a good sign. And I put win in quotes because a lot of the time the competition is one that only exists in your own head, with you, strangely, also being the person who determines who wins.

What signs do you watch for that tell you to dial it back and take sober stock of a situation before it deteriorates and your ugly side peeks out?

If I'm seeing things in all-or-nothing terms, and/or if I'm considering drastic actions it's usually a sign that I'm not thinking clearly. This is a Dunning-Kruger style problem because part of the all-or-nothing thinking is that I am seeing things perfectly clearly and the other person isn't seeing things clearly at all, and someone who is super-convinced of the clarity of their own thinking is more likely to be confident that drastic actions are warranted, while the better course of action is often the paradoxical one; i.e. being extremely convinced that you are right, and being really attached to being right, and focusing on drastic action are all signs that your thinking is not clear.
posted by alphanerd at 10:15 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe go back to basics. Count to ten before answering. Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it anytime before you speak, to remind yourself to not get worked up, and to be able to take a minute to remind yourself to speak calmly and to keep it short.

Try practicing your basic communication skills in this manner and you will develop the habit of calmness/softness/not overreacting/etc. that will eventually even kick in when it is a hot button topic.
posted by Vaike at 11:04 AM on November 8, 2012


Signs to watch out for to tell you to dial it back: Pay attention to your body. It will tell you. If your muscles are tensing up, your teeth are clenching, you have a headache, you're getting sweaty, your heart is racing or pounding a bit, it's definitely time to pause and take a few deep breaths. So do that. Imagine yourself tomorrow, reading over what you're about to write right now. Ask yourself if you're about to embarrass yourself. If you're unsure, go ahead and write what's on your mind, but DON'T SEND IT. Do you really think that the other person is up at 3:00 am, waiting to hear from you? No, they're not; it can wait. The next day, you can read over what you wrote the night before, and if it still matters, you will have the chance to edit it and send it. If it doesn't matter anymore (and I'll bet it usually won't), you can pat yourself on the back for having saved yourself and others some unnecessary drama.

I think it would be helpful for you to cultivate a more relaxed attitude about your mistakes. Mistakes are perfectly OK. Often they're quite funny. Very few of them result in death or serious injury. Trying to prevent all of them is futile. Most of them don't matter at all to anyone but you; most of them will go utterly unnoticed unless you draw attention to them by making a big deal over them. No one else expects you to be perfect. Indeed, a person who can accept their mistakes (and others') with grace and humor is MUCH more likable than someone who is trying to be perfect and right all the time. Let go, move on, try again. There is absolutely no shame in making a mistake. You are perfectly flawed, just like all the rest of us.
posted by Corvid at 11:17 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


An acquaintance of mine not too long ago in a group setting made reference to Dave Chapelle's "filthy big lipped beast" joke. He's white and was a little drunk.

I told him, "See, that's why Dave Chapelle quit the spotlight."

"Why? because he's a filthy big lipped beast?"

"No, because people use his commentary on racism as an excuse to be racist." That was all.

Anything beyond a simple indication that I don't think what just happened is okay is lecturing, and is unlikely in the extreme to be productive. Doubly so if get worked up about it.

Also, a lot of the time a blank stare is more than adequate. Do you enjoy getting worked up like that? Then stop it.
posted by cmoj at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2012


When I am tired, hungry, whatever, I may write that email but then not send it. If it still seems like I need to send it after sleep, a meal, whatever, okay.

Also, I made my peace a long time ago with "no good deed goes unpunished". When I take a stand, I assume at the outset that it will make me look like an asshat, alienate people, There Will Be Suffering, yadda. I've been kicked so much for it that if abuse isn't heaped on me, I wonder if I am doing something wrong. I am working on being smoother and all, but I have zero expectation that Doing The Right Thing leads to Fwends. It usually leads to trouble.

So I guess one thing to ask yourself is which you value more. And if the answer is Fwends, then step away from the high horse. Permanent-like.
posted by Michele in California at 3:53 PM on November 8, 2012


I also have social anxiety! Here are some rules:

1) Never email after midnight.
2) Apologize once, without qualification (no "I'm sorry, but" and no "I'm sorry you were offended"), and move on.
3) Assume people have good intentions.
4) Get what you want.
4a) Decide beforehand if you want to be right, if you want to save face, if you want to feel secure in your relationships, or something else.
4b) Ask yourself, "Is this the way to get what I want? Is there some other way to get what I want more efficiently and honorably?"
4c) If there is, do that.
5) Put your money where your mouth is. If you are up late at night arguing with people about child slavery in the electronics industry, try donating some money to a charity that supports education and sustainable development instead. More effective in the long run.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:30 PM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


You should switch your focus from evaluating *yourself* to evaluating *how the conversation went* and learning to improve that. I think that will better achieve your goals, as the "feeling of gratification you get from being forthright, honest, and assertive" at least for me, depends a lot on how the conversation went -- on whether I felt heard, for instance.

Success in conversations is less about the speaker themselves being perfect -- perfectly picking the issue, then delivering an amazing speech or email -- and more about using short bursts of communication (sentences) to communicate in a way that steers the conversation, in reaction to others' response, to keep the conversation feeling fairly comfortable for everyone. Books like Difficult Conversations and Crucial Conversations are good guides here.

While your anxiety about this is so high that you cannot speak in person, I'd suggest that you pick a much more limited set of battles -- being assertive about your own needs in non-aggressive ways, but not trying to take up anyone else's issue.
posted by salvia at 8:03 PM on November 8, 2012


Try thinking about the situation as though you're a neutral third party. I find the best way to do it is to pretend it's on the television. When you watch a drama or sitcom the best path is usually pretty obvious, even though the characters don't take it (because watching the characters suffer is what makes the show interesting). My goal is to live in a very boring show, where I pick the battles where I can make a difference and let other things slide, where I quickly confess to mistakes and quickly forgive others, and generally just where I get along with most people most of the time. Basically, imagine you just cut to the final ten minutes where the sidekick with the heart of gold is giving you good advice on how to patch up all the shenanigans from the rest of the show, and take that advice right from the beginning. ("What would Wilson do?")
posted by anaelith at 1:09 AM on November 10, 2012


Marking this resolved. I got a lot of help from this question and a lot of clarity about why I find myself in these unpleasant situations, and I will be saving it in a safe place for when I need to recalibrate perspective in the future. Thanks, all.
posted by My Famous Mistake at 8:51 AM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


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