2012-09-09

The problem with being fearfully non-confrontational

I have been very fearful of confrontations all my life. My friendships, marriages and work relationships, all reflect this. I avoid confrontations because I am afraid of the consequences: anger, disapproval, rejection.

The first eight years in school were steeped in fear. There were nine girls in my class and friendships were strictly pairs, you and your best friend. The compositions changed, you'd be best friends with one person one month and another the next, but at any given time one person was left out.

I did not have a lot of self confidence, my (very) low vision made me the kid who got picked last for sports. I was very sensitive and always took teasing very hard, which seemed to invite more bullying.

I was hyper-aware of my inadequacies, especially in the face of the traits that made some people popular. I wasn't pretty (in fact I was certain that I was ugly), I wasn't good at anything, and I knew that my touchiness was off-putting.

I worked very hard to keep my best friends. Partly by trying to undermine the other girls, partly by trying to foster traits that seemed preferred (but always, always convinced that I could try, but being funny, popular and having "it" were innate abilities). In this environment becoming angry was unthinkable. I couldn't confront bad behavior, or stand up for myself. To my bullies, because it led to retaliatory behavior, physical and mental, to my friends because they'd leave me. I was too low on the totem pole to afford integrity or pride.

The only people I could confront were people equally low on the social totem pole. When I did, the purpose was simply to try to raise my own status at the expense of someone else's. Knowing it was wrong didn't make me like myself more.

As a teenager the very thought that someone would be angry with me made my stomach hurt. I'd resort to pleading to placate.

When I got married the first, and the second time, I had no facility for holding my own. It was reasonable to me that any and every confrontation could lead to the end of the relationship. Which obviously made all arguments catastrophic. Confrontations were very dangerous and that I lived in constant fear. I'd make very bad decisions, at the cost of my dignity and my self-confidence to make arguments end. I was always trying to define the difference between letting someone walk all over you and letting things go, for whatever reason. And I could never convince myself that I was doing the latter.

My friendships as an adult have been flavored by this too. It's hard for most people to stand up for themselves, I realize that, but for me it's been inconceivable. To take a hard stance on anything I'd have to be perfectly in the right, know everything about everything, and be unassailable.

With Frank the fear has often taken a very specific form, if I make him feel bad, why would he want to hang out with me, or be friends with me? These are threats he used against me and I have only recently managed to defuse them. I realized that when he behaves certain ways I don't want to hang out or talk to him either.

The fearfulness has had a weird and unexpected consequence: anger, lot's of it. When I started being angry and expressing that anger, it felt like an accomplishment, it set me free. Anger became the fuel I used to overcome my fear of rejection and be able to stand up for myself.

But anger is not an energy easily controlled. Letting the anger take over made me react way out of proportion to the context. It boosted my courage and reduced my ability to be constructive and rational. And once it had been unleashed it didn't want to be leashed again. I learned, to my detriment, that you can get away with abusive behavior.

I have oscillated between whiny, deferential pleading and fury every since.

For a while I was highly volatile at work, i'd yell and scream and be outright abusive during meetings, while too afraid to tell my boss that I wanted more challenging work.

I couldn't tell someone to not skip ahead of me in line, but getting startled by walking a screen door would set off a barrage of fury directed at my husband.

And of course, getting angry made the fear of rejection stronger once the anger subsided. I suddenly had a lot more to apologize for, plead about and then circle around and feel oppressed about.

Probably the worst part of low self esteem is the way you hold it against the other person, you resent him or her because you always feel at a disadvantage. Everything is a power struggle, because you are always clawing yourself out of a pit. The other person might have felt some empathy if your self hate wasn't so aggressive. It's a snake biting it's own tail.

After the initial surge of elation subsided my relationship to anger became ambivalent, it was the freedom from fear and the destructive force standing in the way of growth.

And it remains a problem, i'll proudly tell people how bad behavior in traffic have made me chase down cars so I can shout more abuse at their drivers, in the same time I am ashamed that I cannot politely ask someone to turn down the volume on their iPad. In order to confront anyone I still have to be angry, and because I am angry I am brusque and rude.

If I had a cane, I'd be recognizable as the old crone I've turned into. Disapprovingly grouchy, rapping the leg of anyone that gets too close. Anger is my constant companion.

Last night I got physical at the roller rink because some kids were behaving badly. I wish I had had the courage to go tell them that,"yes, they were right, I should not have shoved anyone". I didn't, I went home so that I wouldn't attack anyone else and knock him or her off her skates.

Anger may once have set me free, but now it's become a liability. I need to work on my sense of self worth instead.










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