Building Up An Immunity to Assholes
February 22, 2011 4:18 PM   Subscribe

When someone yells at me, or tells me I've screwed something up (oddly, in my profession these two events seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive) I get a physical reaction. My throat constricts to the point that it becomes sore. I get dizzy. My brain turns into jello. What's going on and can I train myself out of this?
posted by Saucy Intruder to Human Relations (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Stress turns off or down the more reflective thoughtful areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, leaving you ready to fight or flee. Since those are not appropriate responses in most offices, it worked better for our ancestors.

Anyway, it could indeed have to do with stuff that went on when you were growing up but this kind of thing happens to everyone when they feel threatened to some extent. You can learn ways to calm yourself down, to cognitively reframe the situation so that it doesn't trigger you as easily but it's often hard to pre-empt the reaction once it has been started. Breathing deeply and mentally soothing yourself can be very helpful.
posted by Maias at 4:31 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Deep breathing is probably the single most effective non-medication answer.

It sounds like perhaps it gives you a sort of panic attack. If they get really bad, you may want to see a doctor.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:35 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Reframing the issue is one way to help deal with it. The other strategy that seemed to work for me was having some understanding of how to de-escalate stressful situations, including expressing understanding of the person's feelings without necessarily expressing agreement with their position. (This is vastly more professional than telling them to go f*ck themselves, but that is sometimes also satisfying.)

We're in the same profession, but maybe different areas. From time to time, I still have these situations once or twice a year, and I handle them more appropriately--but I still get that feeling, though it's less of a hindrance than it used to be.
posted by Hylas at 4:39 PM on February 22, 2011

Try hypnosis therapy or self-hypnosis.

I used it for some stuff and it was great. I have no idea how other folks find it, but I recommend it all the time here anyway!

Similar would be meditation and/or mindfulness techniques that keep you in the moment when shit erupts.
posted by jbenben at 6:09 PM on February 22, 2011

Oh, the joys of lawyering.

My way of dealing with yellers was to do much like Hylas suggests, to develop set tactics for dealing with this. I work in a law firm, and the yellers are partners in charge of me. They usually know what needs to be done to fix things, but are too busy venting at me because I'm low enough on the totem pole that they can.

So I think of it as customer service, and I have a customer service script for it, like somebody answering the phone for your bank/cable utility/whatever. Mine goes like this, to be delivered in a calm, helpful, friendly voice:

Me: Understood. That's annoying/that makes sense. What can I do to help/fix this?
Me: Sure. That makes sense. Is there anything I can do?
Me, writing: So A, B, C, and D.
Me: Sure. Give me a sec to write that down.
Partner, stewing: FINE.
Me: OK. I think I've got it. I have some questions, though -- 1, 2, and 3?
Me: Sure. I'm writing that down. If I have questions later, are you the person I go to with them/can I come to you with them?

Tweaked as appropriate for the situation and how much substantive knowledge the yeller has and hierarchy.

Having a clear idea of exactly what I need to do -- what I'm going to say, what tone of voice I should maintain, having the clear goal of getting a list of concrete actions that need to be taken -- helps immensely. I'm busy doing these things instead of feeling the physical effects, and the partner ends up knowing that I'm trying very hard to help and maintaining my professionalism. I've got a similar script for when I'm wrong. It's about dealing with them/the facts, not you, right?

My associate friends and I call it partner-whispering.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:18 PM on February 22, 2011 [22 favorites]

No, it's not specific to a law firm. I don't get worked up long-term over that sort of ridiculousness. I'm just curious about the physical reaction, because the situation really doesn't matter. It could be some homeless guy GRARing that I exist. Or whatever. Same reaction.
A me-mailer suggested that this was PTSD, which I found interesting.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 6:48 PM on February 22, 2011

You might find this Google Talk by David Rock interesting. At around 18 minutes in he starts talking about how your brain reacts to perceived threats and rewards and skills for regulating this response.
posted by lantius at 7:30 PM on February 22, 2011

Therapy? This is similar to some "physical reactions to emotional experiences" stuff I have been working on with my therapist recently.
posted by Sara C. at 9:06 PM on February 22, 2011

Something like this used to happen to me. I put it down to being screamed at a lot as a kid. A fight-or-flight response is adaptive when you're a small child and you know that the screamer might be about to hit you. But you're an adult now, and it's comparatively unlikely that a yelling match at the office will escalate into physical violence. You need to adjust your response to fit your new situation.

There are lots of ways to do this, but I did cognitive behavioural therapy. It helped so much that I no longer have any physical reaction to yelling. Which is good, because on a bad day my workplace can be a real yell-fest.
posted by embrangled at 9:12 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

"My throat constricts to the point that it becomes sore. I get dizzy. My brain turns into jello."

Clearly, you're particularly sensitive to what is commonly referred to as "The Force". Don't believe me?! I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Go for the cognitive behavioral therapy.
posted by markkraft at 12:27 AM on February 23, 2011

I get this I think for the opposite reason as embrangled: I had an excellent relationship with my parents when I was little with very little yelling or screaming. If there was yelling, it meant something was seriously, seriously, incredibly wrong, and that my parents were amazingly upset and probably terrified over something that had happened. I can count on one hand the times I or my siblings were really yelled at as a child. I don't think I remember my parents ever yelling at each other. So now, when I am yelled at, my immediate thought is "oh god something super super serious is wrong here", so it's very panic-inducing.
posted by brainmouse at 9:12 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a book called When I say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel Smith that I highly recommend you check out. This book is all about training yourself to be assertive and become comfortable accepting criticism. As someone said, you're experiencing a fight or flight response. If you practice using the controlled, calm responses discussed by Smith, you might be able to get a hold of it.
posted by nel at 4:54 PM on February 23, 2011

if this happens a lot, and therapy doesn't help, you might try a visit to an ENT (Ear Nose Throat doc) and see if you can get a referral to a physical therapist who specializes in voice rehabilitation. you'll learn techniques to relax your throat muscles. in fact, your psychiatrist may very well be able to refer you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:02 PM on February 23, 2011

It's a panic attack. Try breathing techniques, scripts as suggested above, etc, but above all seek therapy and medication. Really, "when I get stressed/angry/sad i get x physical reaction" is panic attack 101 and there's no reason to train yourself or do anything besides get actual medical/therapeutic help.
posted by sweetkid at 9:21 PM on February 23, 2011

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