The World We Live In
We live in a world where we are forced to be confronted with opinions and beliefs other than our own on a daily basis. Social media inundates us with tirades, articles, and pictures that depict various positions on things such as politics, race, and religion. People have to manage disagreements on a regular basis at the workplace, and disputes, whether occasional or frequent, are a component of personal relationships.
Managing feelings of anger that emerge following such situations is a vital component of successfully navigating life and relationships. However, many of us shut down when such situations result in intense feelings of anger. This is very common, and this shutting down can impede opportunities for dialogue, resolution, or any productive outcome.
Why Do I Shut Down?
Some people may wonder what the big deal about shutting down is anyway. What some people may not realize is that in most situations shutting down can be harmful to one's sense of confidence and agency. Obviously there are situations where shutting down is protective, like during moments when you may feel physically threatened, in which case being silent and walking away is the appropriate thing to do. However, in non-violent every day situations there are other options.
Before exploring options other than shutting down, it is important to think about the various reasons why people shut down in the face of anger. One common reason is that the anger may feel so intense that the person experiencing it is frightened that s/he will lose his or her temper if trying to speak. Another reason may be that the person experiencing the anger may be afraid that s/he will not be taken seriously, understood, or heard by the other. Similarly, there may also be a fear of verbal retaliation or anticipating being unable to "win the argument." Sometimes a person's personal history with experiences of anger during childhood within their family may also be contributing to a shutting down. For example, if you grew up with a parent who had an explosive temper and who would verbally assault you for expressing any feeling of anger.
So how do you feel when you find yourself paralyzed by anger? Typically it does not feel good. Regardless of the situation, one is usually left feeling unacknowledged and unseen, and maybe even defeated. In some occasions anger that has been shut down and not verbally expressed may erupt behaviorally in acts of violence, or may be displaced onto someone or something else in an inappropriate or harmful manner.
What Can I Do With My Anger?
There are a few things that can be done to maintain a voice in the face of overwhelming anger that makes one want to shut down. Something that underlies all of them is the importance of letting go of looking at the situation as a "win or lose" but rather look at it as a moment in which you would like to assert your position, regardless of whether or not the other person can take it in. You are not sharing for the other person, but rather you are sharing because you have a right to demonstrate that you and your beliefs have value.
1. Ground Yourself with Breathing:
Becoming overwhelmed by anger and shutting down really means disconnecting from the present moment and situation. You cannot stay connected to your thoughts and opinions if your mind starts moving in other directions. If you notice your mind starting to wander or go blank, try focusing on your breath. Begin to count your inhales and exhales starting with one and ending at ten. If you lose track of the counting, go back to one and do it all over again, until you have successfully managed to make it from one to ten without flaw. Once you reconnect with your original thoughts and feelings, then you will be able to communicate them.
2. You Don't Have to Respond Immediately:
Sometimes people freeze up in the face of anger because they find themselves clueless as to what they want to say. Not having an immediate response towards the person or situation that has resulted in the anger can leave some people feeling as if they have lost their opportunity to respond accordingly. However if one really thinks about it, in most cases the opportunity is not eternally lost. Staying connected to the thought that you can respond when you are ready takes a lot of pressure off, and gives you some time to really think about how you feel about the particular circumstance and how and if you would like to express that. For some people, simply knowing this and keeping it in mind is enough to minimize or even prevent shutting down.
3. You Can Use Different Mediums:
If you find yourself connected to your anger and to a particular response to this anger but struggle to express it verbally, you might just keep it to yourself and then begin noticing yourself starting to feel shut down. It can be helpful to keep in mind that one's voice can be heard using many different mediums. Some people struggle to say what they feel out loud when angry but are able to say what they feel on paper. Many people write poetry, short stories, or song lyrics in order to express anger or a reaction to a situation that angered them. Others find their expression in movement, like dance. Some people write blogs or take pictures. The mediums are endless. Find whatever works for you.
4.Do Not Have Expectations for Change:
Oftentimes people feel like, "what's the point" of expressing anger or reactions to a situation that has caused anger if "nothing will change anyway." The truth is that something may or may not change as a result of you sharing your voice and expressing yourself. However, that really isn't the point. If a person expects change every time s/he expresses themselves, they will be greatly disappointed and will likely feel shut down and discouraged in anger-provoking situation. Expect nothing other than the right to honor your voice and your experience by finding the right medium for you to share it. Again, this is not about "winning" the argument, but rather about feeling good about asserting your feelings/thoughts and acknowledging your presence.
If you find yourself struggling to manage feelings of anger or are overwhelmed by experiences of shutting down, it might be best to reach out for some professional help.