How do I stop lashing out?
April 3, 2016 2:13 AM   Subscribe

I have a very destructive pattern in most of my relationships and friendships. The closer the relationship is, the worse it gets. I can usually always maintain composure at work but personal life is another story. After I lash out, I say so many nasty and hurtful things that the friendship/relationship is irrecoverably damaged or ends all together. How to change this?

When I was younger, it didn't worry me as much because I just assumed that other people are the problem. But it's happening too much for that so it must be me.

I did read that I should speak up when I have an issue rather than let it pile up. The problem is that I am naturally very sensitive so I get hurt by even a minor offense. If I spoke up, there would be a lot of conflict. I also don't seem to be able to do it constructively and when I try it's still a mini-blow up that damages the relationship. So I end up ignoring it until I can ignore it no more. Then, all bets are off and if the other person doesn't respond reasonably or tries to escalate, it ends up with so much nastiness and us deciding to never speak again - maybe this is for the best, who knows.

There were only a couple of friendships that have lasted over a decade where I never felt the need for this.

In romantic relationships, this happened in every one and usually a guy that's more calm and passive responds in a way of calming me down rather than escalating.

I am kind of sad that I recently lost another close friend in this way but we have both said so many nasty things (initiated by me) that there is no going back.

How to deal with this in the future?
posted by sockiety to Human Relations (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you can hold it together at work, you can certainly hold it together with people you care about. You choose not to do this, and although it's had terrible results in the past, you keep doing it. There is a payoff for you somewhere, and it'll take some therapy to figure it out.

What you want to do is find a therapist who will work with you to discover why you repeat this destructive behavior over and over, and who will give you skills to work with it so that you can address issues as they arise, appropriately.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:59 AM on April 3, 2016 [27 favorites]

Agree with Ruthless Bunny - it sounds like you have an impulse control problem. You need to find a therapist who can help you learn more appropriate communication and coping strategies.
posted by biscotti at 5:19 AM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone above; this is way beyond the assistance that anonymous strangers on the interweb can give. You need to talk to a professional.
There's no shame here, no blame here, just an sincere desire to get better, and you have that.
Be gentle with yourself, do the hard work necessary, and don't be afraid to go to several therapists until you find one that feels to be a good fit.
This is good, I wish you the bestest.
Because, believe it or not, you DO deserve it.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 5:27 AM on April 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreed with others that therapy is the best solution. Here are a few things to think about meanwhile though.

You may not think of yourself as an angry person, but what you are looking for in part is anger management. When you use words as your weapon but fly into a rage where "all bets are off," that is precisely what it is - rage. It is just as destructive as hitting someone, in many many ways.

The idea that you only have two responses to being hurt -- have conflict right away, or blow up later -- is false. There are other options! I recommend Harrier Lerner's The Dance of Anger (as well as The Dance of Connection) for a look at this. Other assumptions you might be carrying around: That the options are complete honesty or complete lying, that "authentic" means says the negative thoughts or when you are hurt, but not always saying when you are happy or lifted up by those around you.

You may have grown up where adult rages or behaviour were things that you were expected to pretend never happened. But when you say something cruel or hurtful to someone -- or even negative -- it counts. Although there are a lot of tools and techniques and exploration that you will need to develop and work through to be able to stop, it's really good you are asking this question - because you also on some level need to decide that it's not okay to rage at people, it's never okay to rage at people, and you are going to commit to never behaving like "all bets are off." Who you are when you are angry is also who you are.

You can find a way to interact with people that is different.

I say this as someone who had the same pattern. Therapy changed my life and although I have not achieved 100% Zen, I have not really found myself in that place where "the bets" -- which is another way of saying behaving like a caring, ethical person who does not tear people down -- have come down. You can change this. Go you for taking some of the steps.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:02 AM on April 3, 2016 [22 favorites]

A therapist once told me that rage is anger + helplessness + fear. That rang true for me - if you can explore the very basic emotions that you are feeling when you have the urge to lash out, and learn to voice them ("I am feeling angry about...." "I am afraid of...") you might get a better response.

As far as raising issues before they become so big that you lash out, here are two thoughts. Once is a recommendation for the book Crucial Conversations, which has good, actionable advice for conversations where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions are strong. The second is that if you are hurt so frequently by your friends that you would be creating "a lot of conflict" - well, either you need new friends anyway or you need to work on developing a much thicker skin. People can be thoughtless in what they say, but a friendship should not require that much constructive criticism. Nthing the recommendation for therapy, which can help you explore how to build relationships - with others or yourself - that are supportive and encouraging rather than things that need to be criticized.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:28 AM on April 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

For me, anger is the other side of the coin from sadness. I was taught that to show sadness was weakness, and that anger gave the impression of strength, power, and control. Once I gave myself the space to actually experience my sadness, the anger drained away, and now I just....don't experience life through that lens anymore.

However, what I just wrote is so over-simplified. The anger didn't just drain away, and I didn't just give myself space. Everyone here saying therapy is very right, so I'm throwing my vote in as well. Having a professional to help unpack the stuff behind the anger, and to allow you to practice new patterns in relationships is so key. I believed that maybe I was destined to be a loner, or to just not have very many deeper relationships, but so not true. I don't think that's true for you either!

Best of luck.
posted by gollie at 7:01 AM on April 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Look for a therapist. Ideally, look for one who has training in DBT and/or treating BPD--this kind of vicious, nasty lashing out is something those of us with BPD do, so someone trained in the area will likely have excellent insight on helping you help yourself.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:49 AM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

There is a payoff for you somewhere, and it'll take some therapy to figure it out.

Yes! There is some apparent reward here. It's probably not the same with everybody. Is there someone in your family who also acts like this or who you think of when you think of this pattern of behavior? My father acted as you describe, and he knew it too-- he told me he bottled things up until they became unbearable, and then would let fly.

Two things about that, First, he was pretty clear that the origin was from his mother and it was about thinking he wasn't entitled to express feelings, so he only did it when it wasn't bearable anymore. But, second, even though this pattern started pretty early, he would not have continued it unless it was doing something for him. What it did for him was to give him power. If he wanted us to do something, by god we did it. Everyone was too afraid of setting him off. I sort of doubt this is going on with you, because these relationships keep ending for you. This is not a family situation where someone uses their anger to control everyone. Maybe with you, there is a feeling you don't really have a connection to people because you are too busy covering up your emotions, and when you really let go, you are paradoxically trying to connect? Again, probably different with every individual but there is something you are looking for, and your current pattern isn't getting that for you, really.
posted by BibiRose at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree that if you can control yourself at work, you are capable of controlling yourself in personal relationships and choose not to. It sounds like you need to get more in touch with your own feelings and motivations, and work on your sense of self-awareness.
posted by a strong female character at 9:45 AM on April 3, 2016

IANYT. That said, the lashing out isn't really the problem; it's how the problem manifests. Before you lash out, you are feeling things and you don't want to feel them. I can only guess what they are--it's up to you to find out--but my guess is that you feel slighted in some way that resonates with your history and that there's an element of helplessness and perhaps even of being taken by surprise. These feelings are out of proportion to the reality but are about situations that have symbolic significance.

But that's all theory. The solution is to understand what these feelings are and why you are so vulnerable to them. This can be done in therapy but there is the danger that the feelings will come up in a session and you will quit therapy, certain that the therapist is incompetent or worse. I say "certain" because you will be convinced of this. Your task at that point is to stay in therapy and talk about what happened. And talk about the feelings, not just the "happened" part.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:11 AM on April 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

2nd Obscure Reference.

I bet it's easier for you to compartmentalize at work, and that the issues that come up there don't hit the same kinds of buttons, they aren't as central to your sense of identity and emotional safety. Or maybe you don't invest yourself as deeply in work relationships.

Some questions for pondering: Do you have high expectations of people close to you? Do you give a lot? Are you a people pleaser, and do you expect that others should behave the same way? Do people say you're "intense" or "needy"? Would you say you've felt taken advantage of in the past? Sometimes people who fall into those patterns go too far the other way when they try to assert themselves, and come across as aggressive, vs. assertive.

If any of that's true, some ideas: Work towards managing expectations and understanding and respecting boundaries - others', and your own. Give less to others, and expect and ask for less from them. Work towards increased self-sufficiency - find ways to meet your needs that depend less on other people's responses. (I think interdependence is good - like it's *good* to ask friends for support, but if things are imbalanced, or if you misunderstand what other people are able and prepared to give, that needs looking at. Communication helps. So does putting yourself in the other person's shoes - if they're busy and unavailable, maybe they're unavailable because they're really busy, tired, whatever.) Don't put too much weight on expectations around any single friendship, try to spread things out a bit.

Work on managing distress / self-soothing on your own. Try out some practices that help you feel more calm generally, and offer stress release (like maybe yoga or meditation).

Learn about what confident self-assertion looks and feels like (through therapy and/or reading). Communicate as you go, instead of saving things up and exploding. Also, learn to choose your battles. Not everything can (or should, imo) be talked through, sometimes it's a question of recognizing how things are (i.e. applying that serenity prayer stuff - accepting the things you can't change, working on developing courage to change the things you can, and figuring out the difference).
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:47 PM on April 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Good for you for realizing that a change is needed. It's a difficult but necessary first step.

I used to have this problem. It was so destructive and horrible. Every time I lashed out at a loved one I felt first vindicated and relieved, and then deeply ashamed. I too could hold it together around coworkers etc, but in a close relationship I couldn't stop myself from doing it.

I eventually realized I had internalized my parent's constant fighting as 'normal' for a loving relationship. Even though I hated conflict, I craved the release I got from lashing out. I also thought that if someone reached out to me after a fight and didn't leave, it meant they really loved me. I'm sure I don't need to go into detail about how much this totally did not work ever.

It took me a long time to get a handle on all of this. A big part of it was learning not to be so sensitive and easily triggered -- that I couldn't take every perceived slight or moment of friction personally. I needed to cut my partners a lot more slack, and really, actually, for real, let things go and not get so worked up about stuff.

Then I had to learn how to defuse my instinctive anger and rage. Lots of breathing exercises. Lots of repeating mantras instead of speaking. Learning to ask for space to calm down. Letting the other person have space when they needed it instead of insisting on a fight right then and there.

Next I had to learn how to express my feelings in a way that was not aggressive, combative, or attacking the other person. Non-Violent Communication was my path out of this one.

Now I don't lash out at people. At all, ever. I find great satisfaction in controlling any anger that does come up and channeling it into compassion. Much more satisfaction that I ever got from lashing out. Best of luck to you. This is a hard road, but very worth it.
posted by ananci at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

The hidden "payoff" may be that the anger maintains your comfort zone of distance/intimacy, with yourself and others ....hidden from your consciousness of course. But you are questioning the pattern and that is so great. Lerner has another book the Dance of Intimacy it might help. I am currently reading Family Ties that Bind and the author suggests we unwittingly attract people with the same need for closeness or distance as our family of origin to maintain the status quo of closeness we consider "safe". So the anger may what you use to maintain that, we do what makes sense not to our conscious mind but our subconscious mind imho. Blind spots suck i know and the onion-like layers of the psyche give up their truth at a pace which can be frustratingly slow, keep questioning and working to keep your heart opening.
posted by RelaxingOne at 3:52 PM on April 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just want to second FFFM's recommendation to look into DBT... And maybe a mood stabilizer or antipsychotics. You'll probably revolt against that idea, but it truly helps AMAZINGLY. I have had a version of your problem, and DBT plus medication (currently Lamictal, but I've been through pretty much all the antipsychotics as well to varying degrees of success) have made me into a totally different person. Everyone I know has noticed the change, even those who don't know I'm on meds. Just something to look into.
posted by celtalitha at 4:44 PM on April 3, 2016

Also, in my case, that "if you can hold it together at work, you can certainly hold it together with people you care about - you just choose not to" line was patently false. Work is usually a set chunk of hours where you can, if strong-willed enough, put on a face for a little while each day; putting on a face 24/7 is near impossible for anyone, and when your inner life involves this much rage and turmoil, you simply can't. For me it's a psychological and brain chemistry issue. Telling me "you choose to be like this" is like telling someone with depression that they are choosing to be sad. It's not helpful. (My issues did actually eventually spill into work too, which is what ultimately forced me to seek help; ymmv.)
posted by celtalitha at 4:49 PM on April 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I did this for years, thought it was just a thing that people did. Until I started meeting people who had never had a "blow up" never "been in a fight" and I was kind of blown away.

Therapy and regular exercise worked for me.
posted by French Fry at 7:16 AM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with therapy suggestions, for sure.

I don't have experience with exactly this, but I am totally feeling you on the being sensitive and letting things build up. With close relationships, you could try to say something mild that doesn't sound accusatory and focuses on your feelings, like, "it sounds like you're saying I'm fat. Is that what you mean?" or "that kind of stings. Were you trying to hurt my feelings?" You always want to give loved ones the benefit of the doubt. Is your friend/partner/mother the type of person who would say something like that to hurt your feelings on purpose? I think you should say something also because maybe the person doesn't realize it hurts you, and they'll continue doing it, which degrades your relationship.

For instance, my husband used to go on about my "big butt" which really hurt my feelings, but apparently he meant it as a compliment :-/ We resolved it, but I tried to laugh it off at first even though I hated it. I wish I'd nipped it in the bud earlier.

Good luck!
posted by serenity_now at 9:02 AM on April 6, 2016

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