Perspective in the face of other people's anger

This is a thing that happens with some people:

  • People get angry
  • They tell you off in mean ways that make you feel horrible
  • Or their anger scares you, even if they’re not actually being mean
  • You feel like the way you’re feeling is evidence that you’ve *done* something horrible
  • Or you’re afraid, and feel like you have to grovel for forgiveness in order to be safe

It’s really, really hard to tell whether you’ve actually done something wrong when someone is being mean to you. (Or when you’re terrified by anger or conflict.)

If you’re afraid or hurting, or especially both, it’s hard to have perspective. Especially if you feel like acknowledging that you’ve done a horrible thing might make that person stop hurting you. *Especially* if you’re really good at reading what someone wants to hear.

This is doubly true for people who have been abused. If you’ve been hurt by someone who demanded that you stop thinking in the face of every conflict, it’s hard to think when other people are angry with you. 

There are countermeasures. It’s possible to learn to deal with anger and conflict without falling apart.

Countermeasure #1: recognizing feelings that indicate that your perspective is off, and creating distance

  • If you’re panicking and feeling inclined to make an abject apology, it’s probably time to step back
  • Even if it turns out that you were in the wrong, a panic apology is unlikely to make the situation better
  • Because when you’re panicking, you’re not really capable of apologizing sincerely anyway
  • It’s ok to need time to think
  • It’s ok to realize that you’re panicking and need to back away from the situation to be able to think
  • Someone who won’t let you do this is probably not someone you should trust

Countermeasure #2: considering reversal:

  • Think about what you did, and how the person who is angry at you is reacting
  • What do you think you’d do if the situation was reversed?
  • In light of that, do you think their reaction is reasonable?
  • And do you think you actually did something terribly wrong?
  • (The answer to this might be yes even if you think you would have reacted differently. But thinking about reversal can still make the situation easier to understand)

Countermeasure #3: Think in concrete terms:

  • What, specifically, does the person who is mad at you think you did?
  • Do you think you actually did that thing?
  • If not, do they have a reasonable basis for thinking that you did that thing?
  • Are they understanding correctly? Are they listening to your explanation of what you think you did? (eg: if they think you said a slur and you actually said a different word that they misheard, are they screaming at you and saying you are just making excuses?)
  • If you did do the thing, why are they angry about the thing?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are offended?
  • Do you think it’s reasonable that they are *as* offended as they are?
  • (Think about this seriously, especially if they think you are being racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, etc towards them. Your initial reaction to this kind of thing is likely to be off base. But it is also possible to be wrong about these things, and ultimately, you have to think for yourself about whether you think you’re guilty of what you’re accused of.)

Countermeasure #4: Considering the perspective of someone you respect:

  • Think of someone who you know well and respect as someone who treats people well
  • If you’d done the thing to them, how do you think they’d react?
  • Does that match how the person who is angry at you now is reacting?
  • If you’d hurt the person you respect in a similar way by accident and they were upset with you, how do you think you’d be reacting?
  • Does it match how you’re reacting here? (Eg: are you more afraid? more inclined to panic-apologize? more defensive?)
  • In light of all of that, what do you think about what’s happening now?
  • Do you think that you did the thing you’re being accused of?
  • Do you think it was wrong? 
  • Do you think that the way they are reacting to you is unjustified or otherwise objectionable?
  • Do you think you should apologize? 
  • Do you think they should apologize?
  • (These are all real questions. Considering the hypothetical perspective of someone you know doesn’t give you automatic answers, but it can be helping as a way of getting unstuck when you’re afraid and inclined to panic about something you’ve been accused of. You might find that, even after you’ve stopped panicking, you still think that you have done something wrong and that you should apologize for it.)

Countermeasure #5: Outside perspective:

  • It can help to discuss the situation with people who know you well (especially if they’re not parties to the conflict)
  • Particularly if they are people who you can trust to tell you when they think you actually *have* done something wrong
  • Some friends are mutual check in people for one another. 
  • Some people get outside perspective from therapists. 
  • When you’re panicking, it can be hard to tell from the outside that you’re panicking. Panic in response to conflict can feel like you’re just accurately recognizing that you are terrible or something. 
  • It’s much easier to tell from the outside when that is happening
  • So, if you have people you trust to help you check your perspective, it is tremendously helpful in staying oriented and figuring out what’s actually going on

tl;dr: Some people find other people’s anger terrifying. If you experience that, it can be really hard not to automatically try to fix things by conceding that you are terrible and did a terrible thing. There are countermeasures that can help. It helps to work on noticing how you are feeling so that you can get distance when you need it. It helps to think about what you’d do if the roles were reversed. It helps to think as concretely as possible about the specifics of the situation. It helps to think about what you think someone you know well and respect would do (and what you would be doing if the conflict was with that person). It helps to get outside perspective from people you trust about what’s going on.