Can I just hire a drill sargeant to scream at me?
April 22, 2011 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to (temporarily) show no reaction when someone is angry with me or says mean things to me.

When someone yells at me or tells me I've done something wrong, I sometimes cry, sometimes shake uncontrollably. And sometimes I say things without thinking, so I want to learn to keep my mouth shut until I've calmed down and had time to process my thoughts. (This, at least, seems far easier to me than restraining the shaking and/or tears.) I remember an anecdote here on Mefi about acting like an old man sitting on the porch... about not answering someone immediately and taking time to answer. But it's hard to remember that in the heat of the moment. Keeping my mouth shut also has the added benefit of preventing any show of emotion in my voice.

Because I can't avoid mean people or doing something wrong forever, I want to learn to (at least temporarily) appear as cool as a cucumber. I want to show no emotion, much like a soldier being yelled at by his drill sargeant. In other words, I know some particularly mean people (in my family, so I can't really avoid them all the time) who seem to feed off emotional reactions and I want to deprive them of that satisfaction/encouragement. I don't have to hold it in forever, just for a short time. Is there any way to get some practice at this?
posted by IndigoRain to Grab Bag (25 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Meditation. It teaches you to go to a very calm place no matter what's going on around you.
posted by desjardins at 4:07 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You may benefit from guided visualization specifically. This sort of thing has been a great help for me in all sorts of situations. Including the dentist's chair.

As for speaking before you think, there's this anecdote, which I don't recommend:

"When I was a little lad I used to tell lies! Ach! what fibs they were, and my old grandmother cured me of ithow, do you think? My parents had talked, and cried, and punished, but still did I forget as you. Then said the dear old grandmother, `I shall help you to remember, and put a check on this unruly part,` with that she drew out my tongue and snipped the end with her scissors till the blood ran. That was terrible, you may believe, but it did me much good, because it was sore for days, and every word I said came so slowly that I had time to think. After that I was more careful, and got on better, for I feared the big scissors. Yet the dear grandmother was most kind to me in all things, and when she lay dying far away in Nuremberg, she prayed that little Fritz might love God and tell the truth."
posted by bq at 4:15 PM on April 22, 2011

I'm an extremely sensitive person. But for better or for worse, I've learned to automatically think "well fuck you" to mean, negative people. YMMV but it has been extremely liberating for me.

Those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind has become my philosophy in life.
posted by lovelygirl at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


What do I mean by meditation?

Observe your thoughts, but do not grasp at them. It's hard at first but pretty quickly you will discover how if you do not give your vital energy to them your various thoughts drift off just as they drifted in.

Let your consciousness be like still water reflecting the clouds drifting past.

I think I learned this from Alan Watts in a recording of one of his talks or maybe in "Still the Mind" (a transcription of some of his talks), or maybe it was Dogen in "How to Cook Your Life", or maybe Robert Anton Wilson, or Timothy Leary or someone else entirely.

In one sense you're looking to do something very big: you want to be present in the moment and decide how to behave rather than behaving automatically. Really though, it's not so hard.

Meditate in a calm and easy place, once you get familiar with it you'll be able to be present and observant and calm the same way more often.

In the mean time, if someone comes at you angry or mean or aggressive just know that if you portray yourself calmly and coolly you will disarm their confrontation and shame them more effectively by not responding in the way they expect or desire.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 4:30 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am very similar...I get very upset when people are rude - my face turns red, I respond without thinking or illogically. My current job involves giving people feedback about their job performance, and I've had a ton of practice this year working with people who are very unhappy about something (ie non-stellar feedback) and taking it out on me.

Here is what has worked for me: Think of some cool-as-cucumber responses that would work in various situations. Having them ready gives you more time to process/reflect/defuse, or even to put off having to give a real response. And if these responses are polite, and involve you taking the high road (rather than trying to snap back), they're much more likely to calm the other person down. It totally depends on the situation, but here are some examples:

"Oh no! I'm so sorry that ____________. I'll get right on that!"
"Thank you for the feedback, this is something I definitely need to work on."
"I'm sorry you feel that way."
"Thanks for letting me know. I think I need some time to think about that, so maybe we could talk about it more (later, tomorrow, etc)."

And if someone is really saying something rude and inappropriate to you, it is of course fine to respond with something like, "You know, I'm really sorry to hear that you feel that way. If this is something you want to talk more about, though, let's find a time to do it when we've calmed down and can talk to each other in a more respectful tone."
posted by violetish at 4:50 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think a good way to develop a thick skin is to get a job in retail or in the restaurant industry. Maybe do a part time during the summer. You pretty much getting treated like shit on a regular basis so you can't really help but develop a thick skin. I remember when I first started working in restaurants, I would cry multiple times a week. Nowadays, I can't even remember the last time someone made me even feel the slightest bit upset. I even had a guy rant at me today for over a minute because we were out of a certain beer. I put on my best emotionless straight face and didn't bat an eye.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 5:00 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Imagine you can give people terminal cancer by staring calmly at them when they are rude to you (find a scenario compatible with your anger and misanthropy level).
posted by benzenedream at 5:01 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a similar tendency when faced with someone else's anger or criticism and there are two main supports that are helping me become more resilient.

1) Eat. Make sure you're well fed. Whole foods are best for me as I tend towards hypoglycemia and when I'm hungry (a.k.a. hangry) or have eaten a lot of sugar you can be sure I'm not the most stable person in the room.

2) Being in a committed relationship. I've found no better place to come up against my fears and emotional triggers than in a safe and intimate relationship with a mutually respected goal of gradual healing.

Living with a significant other is the perfect environment in which you and another person can set eachother off repeatedly, using each experience as a testing ground for your limits and seeing how different approaches yield different results.

Trying this with family members can be trickier as the triggers run deeper, but it's certainly possible.

Getting practice "out in the world" can be more difficult as the relationships at play are undoubtedly more on the surface and therefore leave less room for mistakes, blow-ups etc. However with enough practice in a safe environment getting into these kinds of triggered states in public becomes less and less likely.

Things like meditating, getting outside regularly, exercising, doing things that give you self worth will inevitably contribute to you maintaining a more balanced state around others as well, however the two things I mentioned have helped me the most.

Finally, remember that we're all a little crazy. Best of luck!
posted by knilstad at 5:09 PM on April 22, 2011

Here is a little tool that you can use in conjunction with all of the above suggestions.

Create a "stop button" for yourself. It can be anything physical like wrinkling your nose or stretching out your hand. (For me, it has to be physical to work.) The idea is to remember to do that thing as a first response to any confrontation. The desired result is for you to start an internal dialog that breaks the spell of the moment. "Oh, I'm supposed to wrinkle my nose right now."

You should feel a bit more comfortable even during the first time trying this but you should keep upping the ante. Perhaps the next time you can wrinkle your nose and try to listen patiently... and so on.

You really can do this. I'm in my 40s and only in the last few years have I been able to react to confrontations in ways that were healthy and comfortable for me.

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 5:26 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also see if you can get your hands on a copy of 'The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense' by Suzette Hadin Elgin. It goes through various types of verbal attacks and suggests responses.
posted by bq at 5:37 PM on April 22, 2011

Try to create a little buffer zone, like a time delay, in your head-- you don't have to react in the moment. Also a trick I use when being given criticism is, pretend you're someone else. Play the part of confident, mature person when being criticized, and then when you're alone, let yourself feel what you want to feel.

My rule is: if someone is trying to hurt you on purpose, and you SHOW you're hurt-- they've won. If they're NOT trying to hurt you, but did so accidentally, it's best to maintain calm and explain why what they said is hurtful, so that they'll have a chance to apologize or clarify.

When taking professional or social criticism: if they're giving you criticism you disagree with, try to understand that it's just someone offering up an opinion, and only an opinion. If it's not productive or true, it has nothing to do with you-- it's their problem, not yours. However, if they're giving you criticism that IS true, then there's no reason to get upset in the moment-- you can say "thank you for pointing that out, it's something to think about." And then in a place where you feel safe, you can examine at length and perhaps, learn from, their statement.

Lastly, something a mentor once told me (I think it might be from AA) is "if they're hysterical, it's historical." Meaning irrational, cruel, psycho behavior has a lot more to do with THAT PERSON'S history, than with anything you did.
posted by np312 at 5:48 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most stuff people suggest sounds hard or a bit gimmicky to me (that is, I wouldn't be able to commit to it, though I don't know about you). I can only speak as a person who is very sensitive but almost never reacts obviously (...even when I try). In other words, I suppose I am naturally good at being the person you want to be (in this sense), which I'm not sure others may claim. This is what really works: disconnect.

You have to want to, and this isn't a quick fix, but you're talking about a major aspect of your personality or at least persona, so it'll take awhile. But focus on building not *self-esteem* but *boundaries*, which isn't the same thing. You can have good self-esteem and not-so-good boundaries. Any gimmick will sometimes fail. This, though: boundaries? Will never fail.

How do you grow boundaries? You have to not care about people to a certain extent; this is you-- here. This is them-- there. Without that basic delineation it'll never work; any strategy will fail because they'll have a back-door into you to shock/upset you through. The key to not showing these emotions is not quite feeling them. The key to not quite feeling them is to disconnect your inner link what other people think of you and how you think of yourself/the world/etc. It's not that you don't care about them-- it's that there's a wall between you. It's not about visualizing that (unless it helps) but *feeling* that wall there. It's a wall with a door-- you can open it if and when you feel safe. Otherwise, you don't open it. In fact, mostly you forget it's there and you'll think this 'distance' is normal. Note: this isn't an extreme strategy if it sounds that way. It doesn't mean you don't feel things. You'll still process plenty-- by yourself, behind the wall, with the short time lapse that is a function of increased emotional distance you have from the world/people you care about/etc.

This is a permanent, resilient, long-term solution: it's not a strategy. It'll become who you are, just as this is who you are right now, so you have to understand this is a major change. It's not something you could do just for work, not really. You can fake it, but you can't really *feel* it unless it goes all the way to the center of you.

For me, it works because I want people to be *quiet*. There must be a place in you that is *tired* of being bombarded by people's negative emotions-- but simply overwhelmed, but also tired. You want quiet. You want a place only to yourself, where you can choose your inputs and your outputs at least to some degree. You want a buffer, a blanket over your head. So you withdraw. They don't get to touch you. They don't get to come into your house. They stay behind the door, which is sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner, but their voices are muffled and you can never quite *hear* them entirely. You know what they said, but it's not like you're fully present with them as they say it. Emotional volume-- emotional immediacy-- is lost: they have *deserve* it for you to allow that. This will be true whether they're very happy or angry or very anything else, so it is a price to pay, but I think it's worth it. Their happiness isn't yours either: it's theirs. Their anger isn't yours: it's theirs. Their feeling, in their mind, that you don't have to accept as relevant to yourself if you choose not to.

This isn't hard because I think (unlike, say, meditation), you just need to want to sincerely, for long enough, and instinct *will* take over. What you need is *intent*. You need to be serious about-- basically-- pushing people those few steps at a distance at (virtually) all times. You don't need to be 'good' at it, or be 'trained' or anything-- it's not superhuman. You just have to want to be left alone in your head. Really focus on that feeling of you and only you in your own head, and not them. Push them out long enough, they'll stay at a distance. Not too far. But far enough.
posted by reenka at 5:52 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you're asking how to show no reaction, not how to have no reaction.

You're acting. You are not being a method actor so you don't have to attain a perfect state of nonreactivity and zen and fuck-you and so on in order to perform this. You just have to pretend really well.

Hold the expression you had on your face before they started yelling at you, unless you were doing something that would now be totally incongruous like grinning or laughing, in which case you just go to your resting face (the expression your face has when it's not doing anything).

It's really a myth that actors have to really feel what they're portraying. They just have to imitate how people show those feelings, which usually means detailed analysis of the process of feeling that way, and dredging up memories of "my dog has died" or whatever tends to be a necessary part of that process. But you can certainly feel one way and act another.
posted by tel3path at 6:07 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the problem is that you want to object to what they're saying, you want to defend your honor. That means you are committed yourself to the proposition that if what they're saying really was true, it would be absolutely shattering to you and your self esteem.

Your emotional reaction is a side-effect of hardening yourself, resisting against being shattered. But if you let their anger shatter you, it can't hurt you. It will feel like you're being smashed into fine dust, but you'll still be there and then their words will pass right through you and leave you unharmed. A stone seems strong, but dust is stronger - no matter how much you thrash at it, it just floats in the air, laughing at you.

Credentials: extremely stoic.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:28 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Visualization works for me. Most basically, I put myself in a bubble before being around people I know will trigger me. The walls are about two inches thick. When inside the bubble, nothing can hurt you. It doesn't even have to annoy you because it is largely unrelated to you. So it is very peaceful in the bubble. When you're in the bubble, you don't have to care about anything outside the bubble. Usually it ends up being of minor interest. You can speak, but it's a lot of effort to communicate without the bubble going away, so it's mostly about just relaxing and being at peace inside the bubble.

If I can't do that and just kind of ignore the situation with three-quarters of my attention, then I have to actually visualize myself as a person reacting to the comments the way I want to. I think of either people i know, like a boss i've liked (someone on AskMe recommended Oprah's interview style) or archetypes (patient teacher).
posted by salvia at 6:55 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

In your head, count to three. (Practice keeping a face of non-reaction - not blank, precisely, but unaffected).

Then pause.

Then turn away and occupy yourself with something else.
posted by contessa at 7:02 PM on April 22, 2011

When people trigger that knee-jerk angry/hurt response I tend to do one of these: clench my fists, curl my toes inside my shoes, bite the inner edge of my cheek or lip (but not hard enough to do any damage) or clench my jaw. Then I try to deliberately take a deep breath and relax. This is a variation on a type of meditation exercise, and I find it helps a lot in the moment to keep at least an appearance of calm.
To learn to actually not react as frequently, I think what other people have suggested about meditation is good. In the case of family members, I also think it can help to take a break from their presence (a week to a year, whatever you need) to break current patterns. Then when you come back, try and view their behavior as a scientist/researcher might. Think about what triggers the behaviors, and what you know about their past that contributes to their meanness. Take yourself out of the equation as much as possible. I don't like my relatives any better for understanding their neuroses, but I'm much better at not engaging now that I'm aware of the feedback loops they are stuck in.
posted by anotherkate at 7:25 PM on April 22, 2011

If someone is verbally abusive towards you, you should not have to just sit there and take it without response. Defend yourself in words.

If you feel so upset that you cannot reply in words, then slowly stand up and walk out of the room.
posted by ovvl at 8:15 PM on April 22, 2011

Well, there's the cause, and the effect. You're trying to control the effect (your reaction), but if these confrontations usually (only?) arise with people you know well, you should make an effort to call them out on it, even if it's when they're angry at you. If things are, well, neutral now, maybe you could somehow address this issue and take steps to avoid them in the future. Explain your point of view, what your emotions are when that happens. Are these people mean to others as well? That could at least help you not take these attacks too personally.

As for your controlling your reaction (which may also result from getting yelled at by strangers), acting out scenarios with friends or (nice) family members could help condition you. It's a lot easier when you know it's just "for fun," but it can have a practical benefits.

Or watching a show like "What Would You Do" and imagining what you would say in those sorts of heated situations. Although personally, I often myself thinking "I'd punch that guy's lights out"...

And maybe others can comment on this, but I get the impression that some confrontational types are "comfortable" in 2-way arguments, and when they're met with a calm, rational response, they almost get even more incensed. Either because they're thrown off, or maybe they feel like they have a green light to blow up even more.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:11 AM on April 23, 2011

Here's an idea. Anyone who loses their shit and gets all yelly in your face like that -- they've instantly lost all respect you may have had for them. This rests on two important points:
  • You do not deserve to be yelled at like this. Heck, maybe you actually did the wrong/silly/even stupid thing they're accusing you of. No matter what, you don't deserve this level of treatment. Nobody does, certainly not you.
  • When they do this, they lose your respect, which is a valuable thing. If they treat you this way, I'm guessing they don't value your respect, but they're wrong. Be sure of this in yourself.
(I don't think you can just adopt these attitudes in an afternoon, but you can over time. Try mumbling them to yourself, with "I" in place of "you". How do they sound?)

Now, when this happens again, what have you got? A foolish person yelling at you, but in some ways, it doesn't matter. What they're saying isn't valid, and they're just getting more and more ridiculous, yelling away. Yes, it's unpleasant, but only like stepping in a dog turd. You think "Ick." and take care of your end of the situation. "Oh, I have to go do X, see Y, whatever. Bye."

Or you can watch them. "Hunh, look at that. She's really building up a head of steam." Some people are really good with compassion (not me), but they can think about the person in front of them, regardless of how that person is acting. "Was she always like this? She was a little girl, once. Happy? Sad? What has happened to her that she is now standing in front of me yelling her brains out?"

You said some of the people are in your family. They'll probably be in your life for a long time. Good news! Just because you don't respect them, you can still love them, care for them, enjoy parts of their personality, or admire some of their other actions. Non-family members who you can't respect, they're usually best left behind, as soon as possible. But it's different with family, right? So it's great that Uncle Jeff spends all that time on the charity organization he's in. You can respect that.

But his treatment of you? No Respect.

(On preview, maybe I'm talking to myself more than to you. But I'll hit "Post" anyways, in case any of this might be helpful to you.)
posted by benito.strauss at 8:00 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The easiest and the hardest thing to do in such a situation is to say, "I will not be spoken to like that," and walk away.

It's a short, easy sentence. You can say it even with emotion in your voice; it's one of those phrases that's simple, direct, and there's no counter for it. No comeback. What's someone going to say after you say that and walk out the door? "Yes, you will!"? That's about all they can say, which is pretty weak and that makes them look like an idiot.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:28 AM on April 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

This may sound a little ridiculous, but remember in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry has to act "normal" for the time Aunt Marge is there to get Uncle Vernon to sign his Hogsmeade permission slip? He manages to get by for a while by thinking of the book Hermione sent him for his birthday:

Harry got through the next three days by forcing himself to think about his Handbook of Do-It-Yourself Broomcare whenever Aunt Marge started on him. This worked quite well, though it seemed to give him a glazed look, because Aunt Marge started voicing the opinion that he was mentally subnormal.

Thinking about a passage from a book that I've read over and over again (like that one, for example) and can practically rattle off like catechism helps me to delay processing whatever hurtful things my unavoidable relations are saying.
posted by Devika at 11:51 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone. We are beyond ever being able to speak civilly again, by their choices and their actions. It's too long a story to get into here, but they have devolved into being mean just for the sake of being mean... my dad says of my aunt who is the ringleader in all this, that a team of the best psychiatrists in the world couldn't fix her. She gets her jollies from upsetting people, spreading rumors to each other and then pretending to be on both parties' side, and she's dragged her kids and some other family members into it. I got sick of it and called my aunt on her inappropriateness 10 years ago and that has only made her hate me more, because I won't play her stupid little games. (The specific incident: I was full time in college and part time at work. She felt my parents should be charging me rent, and that I was lazy for only working part time. She cornered me and got right in my face and said "look me in the eyes and tell me why you can't work full-time." I told her that my finances were/are none of her business and she didn't like that, because she thinks EVERYTHING is her business. The woman is truly messed up.)

So I really want to take away the reaction, because if I take away that, they have nothing left.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:42 PM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

For people like that, keeping cool, smiling, laughing, and moving away from them works wonders. "Why, Auntie Nasty, how silly you are! You say the funniest stuff" as you sweep into another room because you're getting a drink or whatever.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:00 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tangential: You're not obligated to speak to people who are consistently mean to you, regardless whether you have some DNA in common. It's been 10 years? Just stop interacting with her altogether.
posted by desjardins at 6:54 AM on April 25, 2011

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