Strong reactions in relationships
October 6, 2017 12:32 AM   Subscribe

In my romantic relationships I tend to verbally lash out when I feel hurt or insecure. The emotions are so strong and I can't seem to process them first and then talk in a more open and kind way. As a result, my partners tend to feel at least slightly unsafe being themselves with me. I deeply want transparency in my relationships—I'm very transparent—but the only way for that to flourish is for both people to feel safe being themselves.

I haven't experienced being with someone like myself, so I don't even know how hard it feels. My previous partners took it more in their stride and didn't react to it even though it wasn't easy, but my current boyfriend says it feels worse than physical violence. He has a terribly hard time with it, which is what is pushing me to do something about it.

Has anyone managed to 'permanently' change a habit like this? Or do I just need to be with someone who doesn't have as hard a time with it? Even so, I would like to work on it!

(Yes, I am looking for a therapist but it's a little hard to find someone where I am so it might take some time)
posted by miaow to Human Relations (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
That's basically what we spent 90% of our time on in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) group. It's meant for borderline personality disorder but the skills you learn can help you manage issues with emotional dysregulation caused by anything. It's based around mindfulness and learning to recognize that you're about to pop off in a way that is probably not appropriate. There's lots of time spent learning to identify emotions and try to relate your extreme feelings to what they're really about. Then you apply the coping skills you learn to have more productive relationship dynamics.

You can get workbooks for DBT that might help steer you in the right direction while you wait for more professional advice.
posted by xyzzy at 12:43 AM on October 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. - Victor Frankl

I was like you. And I remember the passionate buzz or release those verbal lashing outs supplied to me. But I came to realise that it is bullying behaviour and essentially abusive. No wonder your partner feels abused. You are abusing them.

Has anyone managed to 'permanently' change a habit like this?
Fortunately, for me and those I love, I have. First I recognised it for the abuse that it was. Then I mentally collected role models for how I'd like to behave in those situations. Then I came across Frankl's quote above and began to conceive of that 'space' where the habit or pattern of behaviour could be intersected. Then I made a pact with myself to take a breath when I encountered a trigger so I could find that space.

Your lashing out is the response. Find your stimulus, your trigger, and make a commitment to recognise it and intersect your usual pattern of behaviour. Your trigger is always something inside you - your response to outside stimuli - not something external to yourself. You have control over when and if it gets pulled.

On preview - DBT goes into this stuff too. And I find that having a deep and honest wish to do know thyself and to practice loving kindness will also get you there.
posted by Thella at 1:06 AM on October 6, 2017 [43 favorites]

Along the mindfulness suggestions, consider starting here at least for the biochemistry explanation.
posted by Karaage at 1:29 AM on October 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Like any other behaviour that leaves you suddenly aware you did something you wish you had not done, start by walking backwards.

As soon as you realise you have lashed out, admit it, label it and take it back. Diligently practicing this skill will enable you to become aware between the impulse and the action so that you can stop doing it.

So first of all, acknowledge to your partner what you do, how you do it and the fact that it is an out-of-control reflex. "Anything I say when I lash out is nonsense - I apologize, please ignore it. - think of it like a verbal anxiety attack."

Then when it has occurred go to your partner/victim and take it back - "Last night when we were talking I said that you were an insensitive lout. That was me panicking and lashing out. I apologize. It's not true. "

You will get to where you can see the behaviour as it occurs. "Damn it, I just lashed out again. I am sorry. What I said... not true, not valid - that was an anxiety reaction."

"I hate you so mu... hang on, I am having an anxiety reaction. I am lashing out. Hold on." * deep breaths * "Okay. Never mind what I just said. Sorry. Okay. Keep talking. What were you saying?"

Physical actions can help mark this for you, just as if you are having trouble pulling your attention away from something, you point in the direction you should be going, having a personal physical gesture to indicate to yourself that you just lashed out/are lashing out/are about to lash out can help make you more aware of this and control your physical and verbal actions. A simple physical gesture might be to raise both hands and hold your head, while pointing your index fingers up. Holding your head would also be comforting. But any physical gesture reserved for indicating to yourself (and maybe your partner) would help with the noting and extinguishing of the behaviour. You could do a Vulcan greeting, (because Vulcan's have good self-control) if you preferred that.

Remember to look for mini-lash outs as practice for not doing the major ones. You may scowl or mutter profanity at people in traffic - which are micro-forms of the "I hate you. Why did I ever marry you? You are worthless!" lash out, and therefore you can use them to practice controlling for the big scary visible lash outs.

Seconding DBT. Lots of useful stuff for helping you to wisdom in that.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:17 AM on October 6, 2017 [13 favorites]

Another thing worth bearing in mind: the day you begin to take effective action to alter this pattern is the day you can also stop beating yourself up for exhibiting it, and this will undoubtedly make altering it less overwhelmingly difficult.

Owning your own strong emotions is a wholly admirable skill, and certainly something worth practising to get better at.
posted by flabdablet at 4:43 AM on October 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

I don't have much relationship experience, but I was advised by a former therapist to avoid talking things out when "activated" - instead, take time to process and breathe first.

You might want to read up on emotional flooding.
posted by bunderful at 5:06 AM on October 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Many years ago, I thought that this thrown-switch trigger was my righteous indignation kicking in, and that my saying mean things in response was right and called for. Until a good friend witnessed an outburst at a hotel clerk, and said, "Yeah, I knew it was coming, because that asshole look came over your face."

I was appalled... that it was visible, it was something I did often enough that a friend had a term for it, and that my reaction was witnessed/experienced as horrible, not called for, etc.

The strategy I developed worked pretty well: when I felt the trigger, I kept my mouth shut, telling myself, "You may be right, but if you speak right now, you will be revealing yourself to be an asshole, nothing more."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:37 AM on October 6, 2017 [29 favorites]

In your question, you don't give any indication that you recognize that this really is MEAN behavior on your part. Also you say that you are "very transparent," but your behavior suggests that you are not: lashing out when something makes you feel bad is not transparency, but is really almost the opposite. So I think that you have to start by saying something like "In each relationship I am mean to the person whom I claim to love - and then, even when trying on the idea that maybe I should change this pattern, I try to justify and normalize it. Surely this is bad for the people I claim to love, and therefore surely it is bad for me too." You won't change the pattern until you tell yourself that, and once you tell yourself that you will be well on the way to change. (You know the joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb, right? The lightbulb has to want to change.)
posted by sheldman at 6:20 AM on October 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

"I hate you so mu... hang on, I am having an anxiety reaction. I am lashing out. Hold on." * deep breaths * "Okay. Never mind what I just said. Sorry. Okay. Keep talking. What were you saying?"

Editing this script a bit:

If you're having an anxiety reaction, the first bit seems alright to me. *deep breaths*, ~then~ "it might be a good idea if I get a glass of water for a moment and take a break while I calm myself. I want to continue hearing what you have to say, and I am still learning how to hear you deeply."
I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to skip right to, "keep talking, what were you saying?" if you are having an intense reaction, because it's a bit like hitting the gopher with the big foam hammer again and again. It's a trigger/button for you, and mashing against it repeatedly will not be helpful until you understand how and process how to cognitively reframe your trigger/reaction in a way that is not harmful to you or others.

Not sure if this will be helpful to you, but I had your response a lot when I was a kid. I eventually developed new coping mechanisms as opposed to that response, and I can at least look over the arc of my life and say, "I *have* grown a lot, and I have put in the work to do so." Don't forget to give yourself credit! It's a key way to stay on track with this endeavor, because you don't want to beat up on yourself any more than necessary to helpfully grow!
posted by erattacorrige at 6:50 AM on October 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's really not appropriate to label verbal abuse as an "anxiety attack". Most of us struggling with anxiety manage to avoid berating people when we're anxious.

It's also not appropriate to tell your partner that sorry, you can't help but verbally abuse them because of your mental illness (that you have not indicated you've been diagnosed with, not that it would be ok if you had).

You might not be able to control your emotions, but you can control what you do in response. How often have you berated your boss? A police officer? A doctor treating you in the ER? That's what I thought.

Next time you feel like lashing out at your partner (or you already have), please realize that it's a decision you are choosing to make. You can leave the room, you can think about something else, you can say "I can't talk about this right now", you can self-soothe however works best for you, you can hold your damn mouth shut with your hands if you have to. You think you "can't help it" , but you do in fact have control of your own mouth and you need to start using that control more wisely and stop hurting people you care about.
posted by randomnity at 7:36 AM on October 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

You might not be able to control your emotions, but you can control what you do in response. How often have you berated your boss? A police officer? A doctor treating you in the ER? That's what I thought.

My mom has done all of these things. There does seem to be a spectrum of self-control, and some people fall on the far ends of either side of the spectrum. I agree that it is abuse, and also not just randomly happening, and that any form of mental illness does not make abuse acceptable.

The OP is seeking help, though, because OP wants to change. I think it does help for OP to learn how to label their feelings as they are experiencing them, regardless of whether it is anxiety or something else. OP telling OP, "have more self control" is not likely going to get at the root of the behavior, just as overweight people telling themselves "why can't you just stop eating?" would be more harmful than helpful.
posted by erattacorrige at 7:51 AM on October 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

OP has expressed wanting to change (which is great and laudable!) but has also described their perception that they "can't seem to process [in order to not be abusive.]" It's that "can't" that some posters here are pointing out is a lie OP is telling themself, and one which OP needs to address first.

OP, what do you do when you get angry at someone you DON'T let yourself abuse? Your boss, say? Do that.

It may be useful to think about "punching up" and "punching down." If you wouldn't pop off at someone because they're more powerful than you and there would be a penalty to it that you don't want to pay, remember that penalty is actually higher when you let yourself pop off at someone who is precious to you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:59 AM on October 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Steven Stosny's book Love Without Hurt has excellent techniques to deal with and change this. On mobile so can't link, but strong recommend.
posted by Sublimity at 8:04 AM on October 6, 2017

I was probably a lot like you in relationships in my younger years and I really empathize, and congratulate you on your open-mindedness. I now consider some of my behavior abusive. I'm not saying that's the case for you, but after a lot of time, reading, reflection, and most revealingly, being in the reverse situation, I think it's true for me. Bottom line, my partners had to walk on eggshells, or suppress themselves, to avoid and manage my emotional reactions, which I now understand were extreme and inappropriate.

I'm here to advise you not to seek partners who take it in stride. Yes, there are those who will put up with it, some who even seem to function well with it, but they don't deserve it. And it won't help you grow into a healthier person. This could be a turning point for you; I'd encourage you not to turn back.

I was surprised to learn that I could control my reactions. Or that they even needed controlling. In fact, during my extreme emotional reactions, I felt my most righteous, honest, and in-control. Frankly, I felt more advanced than others, more in touch with my emotions, more willing to state my truth. I was surprised to learn this was bullshit. I was surprised to learn that an explosive adult is seen as at best ridiculous and immature, and at worst, terrifying. Of course I knew that, but I was in some kind of denial that it could apply to me.

I want to tell you the good news, which is you don't sound like the the person seeking to harm and control, the batterer, the monster that the word "abusive" can conjure. You sound instead like someone who could stand to reconsider some things, and brush up on how healthy and kind adults process, identify, and express strong emotions. I'm here to say this can be done.

DBT helps tremendously (even reading about it helped me.) Anger management is a term most therapists will be familiar with and they should be able to direct you to resources that can help. You just need to be able to recognize the danger zone, and a toolkit you can draw from when you're in the danger zone. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Good luck.
posted by kapers at 8:52 AM on October 6, 2017 [23 favorites]

One warning about partner-seeking: just as you shouldn't be with someone who takes your inappropriate explosions in stride and reinforces your unhealthy behavior, neither should you be with someone who wishes to play psychologist/control you, or who characterizes ALL of your natural feelings or anything he doesn't like as abusive.
posted by kapers at 9:22 AM on October 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can outline some of my steps:

1. I had to really draw the line with myself. Had I ever hit someone in anger? No, not in my adult life. Well, then, I did have some control. It wasn't that I couldn't keep to a line. It was that on some level I thought it was okay/"genuine"/"normal" to "lose it."

2. My mantra in relationships is that I would rather be happy (and protect the happiness of my partner) than right. What that means is that my goal in communication is not to present myself as correct, but to seek mutual understanding.

3. I had to learn to intervene with myself waaay earlier. Don't get to the screaming stage. Take breaks, etc. Learn to recognize your pre-meltdown signals (I guarantee there are some) and also look for tired, hungry. Etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:55 AM on October 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

This is a problem I used to have, and I believe it was among the symptoms of my ADHD. I was very reactive to my partner's tone of voice, oftentimes regardless of what her actual words were. In situations where I felt tense or stressed out, I could easily be provoked into lashing out in a brief, but white-hot burst of verbal anger. After a particularly bad outburst, I started a meditation routine, which I describe in this very recent AskMe.

I'm happy to report that two months later, I haven't come anywhere close to experiencing this kind of uncontrollable anger. I can now recognize the things that used to trigger me and can separate my response from the stimulus. Best of all, my level of general happiness has increased significantly since I started.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've personally experienced being the person who lashes out in some relationships and not at all in others. I'd offer my perspective of making sure you aren't being subject to gaslighting by your partner. In my case the "lashing out " was a very natual and valid response to feeling insecure and unsafe in a relationship where I continually decieved, lied to and betrayed. It served to create a safe distance for me from the partner in question who was at that point intentionally hurting me by constantly bulldozing my feelings regarding violations of trust and then pointing the finger back at my reaction as the cause of the violation. The more I identified my reactions as issue and adressed them and worked on them in various ways, the more my partner felt entitled to his deceptive ways and absolved himself of any accountability in the matter. He simply was never going to be or become, nor had any desire to be, the upfront, transparent and honest partner I was looking for and I simply was not going to deny, minimize, negate, and medicate to supress my needs any longer and so it ended.
If you find yourself doing this in all relationships, by all means do the work on yourself, but if it happens only in some then you simply may incompatible with reserved, secretive or very private people.
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:26 PM on October 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

My previous partners took it more in their stride and didn't react to it even though it wasn't easy

my reaction to all this is very different from the consensus because it's so weird to me that this is your desired or expected partner reaction. How does it make you feel when you lose control and say very emotional things and get a blank unmoved wall in response? that would make me, personally, feel more hurt and insecure than very much else. I am not -- to my knowledge -- verbally abusive, but to not be reacted to in moments of heightened emotion would probably bring me closer to it than I ever have been. it's like ghosting someone without actually physically leaving. so it's interesting that this is what you want/expect, or at least it's something that doesn't make things worse -- like you want your outbursts to be regarded as a catastrophic thunderstorm or something, that's unfortunate and unpleasant but impersonal; some people are scared of it but nobody takes it personally.

and this is what you're asking: do I need someone who will tolerate me like this and not take it personally? whereas for me, not being taken personally would be the unforgivable thing.

which makes me very curious about what exactly happens to make you feel hurt and insecure, the feelings you name as triggers for this behavior. Do your partners do or say things that you interpret (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) as hurtful? or does it come from inside you and you recognize it as irrational as soon as the storm passes? I ask because everyone seems to be assuming it's the latter, that you're blowing up for no reason and are oversensitive and uncontrolled in the particular way that inspires the DBT recommendations.

so I don't even know how hard it feels.

but -- you do! you said so -- it feels so hard to be hurt and insecure that you explode every time you feel that way.

there's something missing or confusing here -- like, is it not even the partner who makes you feel hurt? if it's not them, why do you attack them? I don't mean: it's not fair; you already know that. I mean: why does it feel, inside, like they must witness your lashing out, it has to be them who's the target, if all you want in return is to be treated like the weather, and basically ignored? are you sure that's the ideal response that you're after, if you could design a perfectly understanding partner? whatever the reason for that desire, it seems to point to whatever is the underlying issue, much more than mere temper and impulse control issues. even if those things must also be dealt with in the immediate short term.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:26 PM on October 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

While being angry is a valid emotion (as all emotions are), lashing out is often an explosion caused by the cristallization of a lot of things not necessarily related to the moment you lash out. To me, lashing out doesn't mean being transparent, au contraire... no one really understands what's going on, it is not constructive, people walk on eggshells, fear to be authentic with you, etc.

I would consider two things, that go hand in hand : make sure you are able to be affirmed (that is, to put boundaries) and explore non-violent communication. A lot of anger comes from one's inability to express their needs and desires and to be heard. Make sure you know how to be heard in a non-violent way. "xx happened, I felt yy, would it be possible to [offer a solution]". This way you can express why you're hurt or insecure and give a chance to your partner to understand (or not, maybe, but that's another story) what's happening to you and be, you know, your partner.

NVC doesn't feel natural at the beginning but it gives you the assurance that you can express anything you need without it causing unnecessary trauma, guilt, broken relationships.

Good luck!!
posted by Ifite at 5:30 AM on October 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

As someone who has been labelled as "abusive" by a partner who was utterly emotionally irresponsible but yelled less, and shut down much more - I wonder if you want to look at what triggers you. My conclusion from the deep dissatisfaction of my relationship and the related resentment was that I get very upset when I'm not treated fairly, and I should not allow myself to be in that sort of romantic relationship. It's takes a while for me to get there, things simmer before they blow, and I know now that I put out a lot of signals of my distress but the other person has to be receptive, which he wasn't. Oftentimes with a highly reactive person the reaction clouds the trigger, do you serially date people who don't treat you well? I'm not saying you do.
Do you have trust issues? Do you misinterpretation things? Or do you allow yourself to be taken for granted and then get angry when you realize that's what has happened? Did you grow up in an explosive household?
Behavior modulation is definitely good, surely you hear yourself and as you're talking you can tell yourself "now I'm going to stop" it has worked for me. Or leave the room preemtively, and return when you've calmed down. My ex was so defensive that holding him accountable for anything was branded as abuse , and that infuriated me.
It's actually self reflective of you to seek help but the yelling is a manifestation of something else. Also tackle that underlying problem.
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 4:26 PM on October 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! I'm not going to answer each question that was asked, but I realise that I was being rather self-critical and the picture that "verbally lash out" brought to many of you was a little more extreme than the real situation. Also assumptions of irrationality, etc. Anyway, this doesn't matter because all the advice was just what I needed!
posted by miaow at 11:57 PM on October 7, 2017

learn to intervene with myself waaay earlier. Don't get to the screaming stage. Take breaks, etc. Learn to recognize your pre-meltdown signals (I guarantee there are some) and also look for tired, hungry. Etc.

Doing this kind of self-examination also pays off bigtime if you ever get around to raising kids, because kids typically have nowhere near enough life experience or self-insight to do it for themselves

It's not as if you'll actually avoid every meltdown by doing this, so you're not depriving your kids of the experience of melting down, dubious though the value of that might be; but it can certainly tip the balance over to the safe side of the line that marks the maximum meltdown rate you can live with while retaining your own equanimity.
posted by flabdablet at 6:54 AM on October 8, 2017

I just got out of a relationship with someone like this. She was very insecure, and would lash out at me at the smallest provocation. I'm an even-tempered guy, and recognized the behavior for what it was: that she was in ways lashing out at herself, in others finding release in making me feel as bad as she did, and ultimately, no matter how unproductive, trying to express love and affection. I tried to be patient. But ultimately I realized that my patience was just a form of enabling this behavior. Looking back, I wish I'd been more like your boyfriend, pushing her to know this wasn't okay and wasn't going to do anything but drive us apart. Maybe, then, she'd be asking the kind of questions you are.

I don't have a prescription, but I have my own temper issues. Yoga and meditation helped for me. They taught me to observe my emotions before reacting to them, to pinpoint the moment when they explode and observe that for what it is: just a moment that will pass. It took some awkward training to really allow this to settle in, but eventually my instinct to react was replaced by an instinct to observe.

If you can, in that observation state, try to ask yourself what your goal is of this behavior. If it's expressing frustration, instead take a deep breath and say, "Hey, I'm a little frustrated because..." If it's expressing affection, even affection laced with concern, express the affection first. "Hey, I love you, but I'm a little worried that..." That's more honest. Your boyfriend won't need to read between the lines, and he won't feel attacked.
posted by bluecastle at 6:13 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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