How to break a cycle of inaction and resentment?
February 19, 2014 6:55 AM   Subscribe

For most of my young adult and now adult life, I'm having more and more difficulty taking control of the resentment that seems to build up as the result of my inability to communicate. I'm not sure if there's an overlap between the two, but I can't remember a time when I'd feel one without the other.

For background, I'm a female in my mid-twenties. I have a good sized social circle and don't have a difficult time meeting people or making acquaintances and friends. Friends and colleagues have described me as outgoing and charming. However, I do struggle with anxiety that fluctuates from high to low, but hide it very well. It may be important to note that I'm an only child (please, discard speculative generalizations about being an only child; anecdotes are welcome.), and growing up,my parents were on neither end of the extremely strict or extremely laid-back parenting spectrum. They have and still encourage and support me, but have never pushed me in my educational and professional endeavors. Not currently dating, as work and professional studies (both in law) consume the most of my time.

First: While my personality comes across as confident, even headstrong, I have a problem speaking up for what I want, or what I feel. I'm no pushover, but this attitude has led to situations where I feel discomfort or unhappiness, but continue with the status quo because some mental block stops me communicating what I'm really feeling. There was a brief period in the last 2 years where I became much more confident and good at communicating difficult emotions, but objectively speaking, I've since reverted back to my old ways, and these anxieties have only gotten worse.

Second: If something doesn't sit right (e.g. toxic friendship or grown out relationship; see examples below), my natural inclination is to sit back and seethe, instead of communicate or take some worthwhile action to mitigate the situation. I waver back and forth between saying something and cooking in my own angry juices. More often than not, I do the latter.

Example 1 - The Relationship With Expiration Date That Had Long Passed
In my last long term relationship (lasting ~6 years, we broke up 3 years ago), a good percentage of our arguments resulted from my end, due to the fact that I felt he wasn't "doing enough" for himself. My ex was a bit older than me, but had taken longer to kickstart his studies and career. At the time we were together, I was finishing college, working part-time, and preparing for grad school. It was difficult to strike a balance between being helpful and encouraging to being harmful. I'd check in about his studies, about his job applications, prep him for interviews, ask my industry connections to see if they knew of any jobs. I realize I was nagging and that the relationship had gone way, way past its expiration date, but it was easier to try to "fix" it rather than recognize the incompatibility and move on.

Example 2 - The Potentially Toxic Friend
Went on vacation with another friend overseas. Long story short, she was incredibly moody and unreasonably so for nearly the entirety of it. She'd become visibly peeved if she didn't know where we were eating for lunch and make comments like ; likewise if a train ride took too long. Even though I was pissed beyond belief, I never called her out on it, choosing instead to let the frustration in me fester. After returning from the trip, I all but went radio silent on her. Weeks later, she brought up her behavior on the trip and apologized. It was only then that I directly expressed a modicum of what I had felt on the trip to her. I met up with her recently and though it was only dinner, I was drained and wary at the end of it due to the noticeable moodiness and one-upping. I didn't say anything.

Other Examples:
During the few times that another friend asked to borrow money, I had a difficult time saying no. I refused only when she had already borrowed a significant amount and had not made an attempt to pay the debt (lesson learned). We ceased communication for awhile, but have resumed the friendship over the last year. I am wary and keeping myself in check as much as possible.

I have yet to ask for a raise at my job. I've been there for about 3 years now. I have a close relationship with my boss, and objectively know that I've more than put in my dues. However, when family or friends ask whether I've pushed for a raise yet, my default response is either: "It's been too busy," or "There's no way I'd get it, the industry is dismal and similar positions pay for way less." It isn't so much the monetary aspect that bothers me so much as the fact that I've talked myself out from even trying for something.

So, my question:
How do I break what feels like a vicious cycle of inaction ==> unhealthy thoughts? Specifically, how to neutralize the harsh resentment that arises?

Thanks so much.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
We tend to avoid things that cause us anxiety and fear. Sometimes, to the point of putting blinders on in our minds' eye and ears (i.e., under the guise of general, sourceless anxiety that we do not want to dwell on or penetrate into) -- yet it is revealed in our actions, or in our failure to act.

The next time this happens, slow down, look within yourself and observe -- when you feel angry, trampled over -- what are the thoughts and feelings that arise? What do you think would happen if you spoke up? What is it that you truly fear? Sit with your fear. Look at it closely, become familiar with it. Why do you have this fear? Is it a current fear, or one stemming from a long time ago? How real is it? How reasonable is it? If you had a good friend, what would she say to help make you feel better about it?

Once you have embraced those fear, you will be able to accept them, learn how to deal with them, feel more comfortable communicating in a timely fashion and deal with the actual interpersonal issues before resentment has time to well up.
posted by enlivener at 7:10 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may want to pursue assertiveness training. I'll recommend the book "Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships." It's about finding a balance between being too passive and too aggressive.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:15 AM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're going to have to speak up. Start with small things, and work your way up.

I think you're worried about confrontations, and I find that sort of thing incredibly unpleasant. I avoid yelling and fighting at all costs. So I'm with you. I just have strategies that I employ that get my point across, without me having to squabble.

For example, as a group of friends starts deciding which restaurant to go to, pipe up with your suggestion. Don't let others say what they want, without lending your two-cents. You may decide to go elsewhere, but it's a low risk venture, and you'll find that you won't feel ripped off because your place wasn't even considered.

As for the raise, your review is the natural time to mention it. But if that's not for a while, do this. Compile a short list of your accomplishments over the past year. Make an appointment to meet with your boss and sit down with him. Just say, "Boss, here's a list of my accomplishments for the past year. It's been three years since my salary has been reviewed and it's time to consider a raise and a cost of living adjustment. What can I reasonablyl expect?"

Notice there are no threats there. You boss should be 100% honest with you, and if they won't even entertain a raise, smile and say "thank-you". Then go to your desk, update your resume and find a new job with better money.

If you are in a relationship that's going nowhere, well, just tell the person, "You know, things between us haven't been good for awhile. It's time for us to part ways." This works for friendships and relationships. Avoid blame, people get defensive. Just state what YOU want, as dispassionately as possible.

If you're out with a friend and you have to be in Prague with her, and she's being a total beyotch, you can say, "You don't seem to be having a good time. What's up with that?" Notice you've acknowledged that there's an issue, but you've left your friend room to save face. Hopefully she'll tell you what the problem is. "I can't sleep because you snore and I'm punchy." Now there's a problem to solve. "OH! I had no idea, I'm so sorry. Let's buy some earplugs and see if that helps." The other thing that can happen is, "What do you mean? I'm a ray of sunshine!" In which case you can say, "Most of the things you've been saying to me sound negative. The train being too long, the food not being good, the castle being stinky. You may not be aware of it and I wanted to be sure that we both had a good time on this trip."

Confrontation works when no blame is laid, and the other person has room to save face in the situation. I can handle that.

What often happens is, if you hold it in too long, you're apt to explode, and that's no fun.

But start out with small things and work your way up. If it really is anxiety, then talk to your doctor. I am a much happier bunny now that I have Celexa.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:18 AM on February 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

When you sit back and seethe rather than speaking out about a problem, is there ever an implicit "fantasy resolution" scenario in the back of your mind, of which the inaction is a part? For instance, when you don't talk to your boss about a raise, does some part of you imagine him magically noticing your efforts someday, being super impressed by your modesty and industry, and then you get the raise without asking?

When you seethe at your inconsiderate friend, do you imagine on some level that she'd notice after awhile and be like super extra sorry because you'd suffered in silence for so long?

I ask only because while a lot of avoidant behaviors are certainly rooted in anxiety, as enlivener suggests, I think that people naturally inclined toward passive-aggressive/guess-culture thinking (and I'm one of them!) can also tend to rationalize those behaviors as somehow virtuous/self-denying and worthy of compensatory rewards from the universe (Look at me, I'm bearing all this without saying anything or lifting a finger to help myself! Shouldn't people pet me and praise me and try to make it up to me?) Which, of course, leads to one becoming extra-enraged when, instead, other people fail to even notice the silence or make good on those imaginary obligations.

I think a lot of this happens on a subconscious level and is probably based on childhood models/experiences, so just articulating and recognizing the pattern can sometimes be helpful in breaking it. Next time you're silent, ask yourself, "What do I want to happen here? What would be the ideal outcome of this?" And ask yourself whether it's better to stick stubbornly to the moral high ground, or to let go of that scenario and act pragmatically to get what you want.
posted by Bardolph at 7:27 AM on February 19, 2014 [15 favorites]

To add on to what Bardolf said - or at least to use that as a jumping off point - is it possible that when you don't feel adequate (adequate according to your internal meter) control you just shut down?

Maybe being mindful of the fact that you cannot control outcomes and the general unfairness of life will help you loosen up.

If you are sometimes able to out yourself out their and other times not, then that's a clue.

Focus on your behavior, not the response from others. That should lead you to behavior that works for you and makes you more pragmatic.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:47 AM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

"While my personality comes across as confident, even headstrong, I have a problem speaking up for what I want."

This is me, and I attribute a lot of it to swimming in a giant sea of sexism (I am a woman). People tell me all the time that I seem so confident, independent, forceful, etc. Depending on the person, this might have an overtone of respect for my ability to stand up for myself, or of criticism like I'm being too pushy. And yet, I still hold so much in.

Sometimes I think, if people already see me as assertive, or even aggressive, what would happen if I actually said what I feel, and ask for what I want? I'd be seen as an even bigger, badder, more-super-aggressive woman, I guess.

Or I could flip that logic around and think, if people already see me as assertive, or even aggressive, what would I have to lose by actually saying what I feel and asking for what I want? It's not like I'm getting the benefits(?) of being a meek flower anyway. This is probably the way to go, since I might actually have a chance of getting what I want.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:50 AM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

"While my personality comes across as confident, even headstrong, I have a problem speaking up for what I want."

I read this one a little differently - when people appear 'confident' but in actuality can't stand up for themselves, I think they're overcompensating for something. My guess is they're overcompensating for a deep feeling inside that says "I have to be agreeable in order to be liked." But then inside that hurts to feel so stuffed down all the time, so they counteract that feeling of being stuffed down by acting hyper assertive (about stuff that doesn't really matter to them). When it comes to stuff that does matter to them, it is very difficult to take a stand.

This is also known as the subjugation schema (#12 here, with coping styles described here.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:05 AM on February 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was an only child, and while not a people-pleaser, I had trouble as a teen and young woman being direct about what I wanted and how I felt. I might appear compliant, but I'd make snide comments under my breath or side-talking to my pals, etc.. I would agree to do something and then either bail out or screw it up. Or I'd be the sneering face jn the back row. As an only child, I spent more time with adults than peers, and, in my experience, adults weren't keen on little girls who were very direct. I told myself I was subversive or cool or above it all.
Finally, after reading dozens self-help pieces in Cosmo and taking a company-endorsed "growth training", some dim light went on in my brain. If I didn't care that people liked me (the story I told myself), then why not just say what I thought/felt, out loud? And if I did care, why would stating my wants/thoughts make someone not like me? Were my true desires so repellant? So, I got better at saying "No, that won't be possible" and "Yes, please, I'd love to" rather than my previous style of cool-appearing noncompliance.
The conventional wisdom is to take baby steps, but I just plunged in. The pendulum probably swung too far at first, and I was fairly self-righteous in expressing my opinions, desires and idle thoughts, to be honest. But practice makes perfect, fake it til you make it, and all that jazz.
Tl:dr Saying how you feel or what you want is risky, but you gain more than you lose.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:08 AM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

The problem is not the thoughts that result from inaction or the harsh resentment that arises; the problem is the inaction. Deal with that. Try therapy and/or treatment for the anxiety, try assertiveness training, and try a self-defence class. Why self defence? It teaches you to occupy your space, be more confident, draw boundaries and yell NO very very loudly without the world falling apart. Many women need help to do those things because we struggle with socialisation that tells us to avoid those things.

Note your question: I'm having more and more difficulty taking control of the resentment that seems to build up as the result of my inability to communicate. You're not asking how to communicate more effectively, you're asking how to repress your emotions better. That's not healthy and not the right question.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:12 AM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hm. Reading your question put me in mind of the notion that people who can't control themselves try to control other people. Did you notice that there was a major element of control in your story about your love relationship? Did you notice the total lack of compassion for your traveling companion who was apparently struggling with some of the challenges that travel inevitably brings? Did you notice that you are blaming and resentful of the friend who borrowed money from you and didn't repay you, although you gave them money against your own better judgement in the first place?

I think you're smart to recognize this is a problem and to try to work around it. Lots of good suggestions so far about what to do to assert yourself--but I think another part of it is going to be letting go of expectations about what other people should do and how they should behave, or at least to develop compassion for meeting your friends and loved ones where they are, without feeling like you need to assume undue responsibility. So your boyfriend is on a slower career track than you. So your traveling companion gets freaked out when she doesn't know where her next meal is coming from. Why do these reflect on you? Why do these get under your skin, when they're not about you?
posted by Sublimity at 8:17 AM on February 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

a vicious cycle of inaction ==> unhealthy thoughts?

This isn't a cycle, it's a straight up A causes B. Stop doing A and you won't have any B to neutralize.

Easier said than done, I know, but this is pretty much a "doctor, it hurts when I do this" situation. Asking how to deal with the resentment caused by your inaction is focusing on the wrong end of the problem. Deal with the inaction.

Be conscious of when you start to feel resentment, and remind yourself that that is your cue to do something about the source of that resentment.
posted by ook at 8:17 AM on February 19, 2014

I agree with Sublimity, that it's less of a case of you not speaking up, and more a case of you wanting to control other people's behavior. I also think that there's a great deal of anxiety in that. You seem to be very anxious that other people are doing what they "should" be and acting how they "should" act, which of course is a way of you controlling your environment.

I would say that working on general levels of anxiety may relieve this, and it will also help you to say "no," which to me is very difficult because I'm terrified that saying "no" will make others dislike me.
posted by xingcat at 8:20 AM on February 19, 2014

You might try reading some comment threads about communication on Captain Awkward.

It's great that you can recognize the pattern of inaction->grar thoughts, that's the first step! The goal is to be able to communicate (figure out your boundaries and what you need to do take care of yourself) before the grar stage kicks in. The other part of that will be knowing how to handle situations where you do that and still feel like the person isn't listening.

To state the obvious, goal oriented therapy is great for just these sorts of things.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:24 AM on February 19, 2014

You might try reading some comment threads about communication on Captain Awkward.

Seconding this suggestion. It can be helpful to see potential ways to speak out/responses modeled.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:53 PM on February 19, 2014

The recipe for resentment is saying yes when you mean no.

So, stop saying yes, explicitly or implicitly, when you mean no.
posted by jaguar at 7:35 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your thoughts sound normal to me. For years I felt I was inadequately expressing my feelings; I was terrible at identifying them and never confronted people with them. (Which unconsciously led to studying ways to better communicate to other people, including counseling and majoring in language studies in college.)

It became obvious to me that the problem isn't exactly me. I realized relationships are a two-way street and the other person can be blamed for miscommunications too. Sometimes two people don't function well together.

With the friend you spoke about, the one who travelled with you, you sound like you recognize that being with her has a negative effect on you. It's not just you -- it's also her, and what you don't like about her. With your ex, it sounds like you were losing respect for him towards the end. It's okay if you break off these sorts of toxic relationships, if they make you feel bad about yourself. There's nothing wrong about that.

Anyway, confrontation isn't the best thing you can do in any situation. It can hurt to tell the "truth." It sounds like you need to raise your self-esteem, to feel more confident in your relationships with certain other people. Inaction does not signify weakness. It can be a strength to let go, when you need to let things slide.

As for concrete advice.... maybe examine your current relationships with friends, family, significant others. You want to surround yourself with people who encourage you to share your honest opinion. Do things you love to do, and talk about them with people who care.

Just go ask for your pay raise. Think about why you deserve it. Then schedule a meeting with your boss. You can do it.
posted by myntu at 8:15 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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