The Wisdom of Silence

You’ve heard it often, particularly at work, “Just let out that anger [frustration, fear] and you’ll feel better.” Or, “Go ahead and [vent, cry, scream, throw a tantrum] it’s better to get those feelings out.” I’m raising my hand, politely, to say, “Please don’t.”

It’s considered common wisdom that letting your feelings out makes you feel better, lowers your blood pressure, avoids ulcers. Time Magazine said we are hard-wired to swear when we hammer our fingers, just as dogs yelp when you step on their tails. I humbly point out that until we can speak dog, a yelp is just a yelp. If the dog bit your foot, that’s a different thing.

Back to humans. I’m convinced that giving yourself permission to scream and yell is not a good idea. Ever. I’m all for expending anger and frustration by physical release–running, jump-roping, swimming–after all, there is adrenaline involved. But I am against slamming pots and pans, throwing pillows or plates, and other displays of drama.

Here’s why: After the adrenaline rush is over, there is clean up. If you throw it or break it, you are the one responsible to clean it up or glue it back together. This is easier with plates than with another person’s emotions.

In one job I had, my boss had a horrible temper. His raised voice and angry tone always made me feel diminished. That often led to me feeling angry. I had to struggle to control yelling back. I think yelling begets yelling. Yelling also begets escalation, and what started out as a pea-shooter event grows into pouring boiling oil over the ramparts right before the cannons fire and Napalm drops out of the sky. In other words, the whole event heads in the wrong direction. A completely different take on this, well worth reading, is Bret Simmons post on workplace civility. He uses Rush L.’s (I’m not spelling out his name so I don’t get Google hits relating to that man’s name)  lack of civility and says, “Even if I agreed with his views, I’d choose not to listen to him because of the way he conducts himself. It’s more a matter of my character than of his.” Perfectly said.

I have also lost control of my temper. I felt hot anger and words pouring out of me, and another me was watching in horror. I never felt good afterwards. I never felt relieved. In truth, I felt sick. Sick at what I had just demonstrated about myself. Sick about how I showed up in the world. Mostly, sick of how I had driven the solution away and brought out the worst in the situation.

A few weeks ago, I had a woman in a class, who vehemently insisted that what you were thinking should be said. “It’s better for me!” she said. It may have been, but it was torture for the class and for me. Whatever I said, she disagreed with, topped the story, told a story that proved the opposite point. During the break, I spoke to her privately and asked her to please let me move the class ahead so I could keep on time. She snorted, “You just want me to shut up.” I ached to agree. Instead I said, “There are 14 hours of material in this class, and the class won’t end until I’ve taught it. If you disagree at every turn, we’ll be here a long time.”

She looked at me and agreed. And as the class came back in, she stood up, came to the front of the class, faced the group and said, “Quinn told me to shut up, but I bet you want to hear what I have to say!” I suppressed the urge to zip my plastic lunch bag over her head and looked apologetic but said nothing. I could have defended myself, but it may have turned the whole class against me. Instead, by her bold assumption, she had lost the approval of the class.

Winning is not having the loudest voice, the longest endurance, or the biggest punch. The winner is the person who walks away feeling proud of their behavior. And that’s hardly ever achieved by screaming.

--Quinn McDonald rides a motorcycle and used to make smart mouth comments to bad drivers. She quit when she noticed that one of the drivers she’d snarked at had a gun on the passenger seat. Gun trumps opinion, every time.

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27 responses to “The Wisdom of Silence

  1. Standing up for yourself is one thing, playing drama queen is another. For the sake of the other students, I think I’d have invited her to leave and refunded half of her fee (all of it if she refused to leave). She ruined the other students’ experience, no matter what you were teaching! I’m surprised that one of the students didn’t stand up and say “I agree with Quinn.” (I would have, if I was given such a large invitations to shut up a show off!)
    The studies have actually proved that contrary to earlier thought, “letting it all hang out” increases your blood pressure, histamines and other things that are all very bad for you, and doesn’t dissipate your anger at all! You are better to take a break, cool down, and then calmly express your disssatisfaction to whoever has the power to be the most effective in solving a problem.
    We received horrendous service at a restaurant the other day and when I followed the waitress to tell her to bring back the beer pitcher she’d removed with a glass-ful of beer still in it, she threw a temper tantrum at me all the way back to the table! My having a fit back would not have worked: my husband calmly confronted the manager and we got a discount on our meal (tag-team confrontation: when one person is upset, the less-upset one takes over). We still weren’t happy but at least we didn’t turn the restaurant into a brawl or escalate her tantrum! Some of my friends have said, “I would have decked her,” which would only have gotten ME arrested for assault! Our solution was more satisfactory and resolving not to return to the restaurant because the appeasement wasn’t enough for us makes us feel better.

  2. you’re so right, quinn… there have been new studies that disprove the concept of catharsis (which is essentially what these temper tantrums are).
    they’ve found what actually happens when we indulge in a fit of rage is that we are practicing being angry. not “making you feel better, lowering your blood pressure, and avoiding ulcers”. so no gain there…
    took a lot of practice to get to the point of not flying off the handle, but i always feel worse if i do throw a fit. it’s a great feeling to maintain your self-control and move the situation to a positive conclusion.
    kudos to you for keeping your feelings under control and letting your “problem child” sink her own ship… vicki :)

    • Yes, you are right. I can see how practicing being angry is what blowing off steam looks like. Better to breathe and walk away, and hope the river wears down the rocks.

  3. Yes, yes, yes and AMEN!

  4. I’m more for the dignified approach too, yet I do let these feelings out in my sketchbook…I draw them out, in both senses of the word, so I can get relief, perspective and distance from them. It’s very cathartic and I learn so much.

  5. In the face of another’s disapproval or anger, I ask myself if it’s my problem – it seldom is and helps me to retain calmer in the face of it. When I’m feeling angry about something I ask myself if I can do anything constructive – sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. If I can’t I find a way to release the adrenaline.
    I recall my mother saying “don’t go down to their level, lift them up.”
    My own little mantra is “water around rocks” and yes, I know that water wears the rocks away eventually but the rocks remain in a more refined form.

  6. Kristin McNamara Freeman

    Thank you for this blog post, Quinn. My stance today, developed through many years of doing otherwise, is simply to walk away. The last word serves no purpose, and definitely yelling only raises my blood pressure. Breathing in deeply, exhaling….three or more times… does serve to lower the power and pressure of a negatively inspired action or outburst from another. Then moving about a bit, and just recently I learned about placing a drop of love on the situation and the person…it all works for what is best for my body….
    You have described precisely what keeps each of us on a good path, without adding negative “juices” to the flow of our body’s walk along this miraculous, marvelous, beautiful personal journey. I do so appreciate your wisdom and your sharing with all of us who take the time to read your well-crafted words.
    Kristin

  7. Choose kindness over anger. Wow, that is THE hardest thing, but maybe we could all start a movement, make it go viral….

  8. May she see herself as others see her. In the meantime, I admire your self-control immensely.

    • Dr. Wayne Dyer’s attitude is that you don’t have to accept the negative energy someone throws at you, you can just let it go by, as Quinn did and exude the positive energy that changes the world instead.

    • It’s so much part of class, it’s not that unusual–everyone wants to be a star. People are lonely. She was tougher than most because she wanted to run the class.

  9. Your student was behaving as if she truly believed that she was the belly button of the universe. What a nightmare it must be trying to manage attention seeking drama pots. It gives me so much respect for teachers.

  10. You’re onto something life-changing here, Quinn. What popped in to my head was the notion that God created our physical form to, among other things, serve as a vehicle to release the mind’s negativity. Sounds woo-woo, I know, but it offers food for thought, re the body-mind-spirit connection.

  11. Gees, Quinn. Here I was, hoping you gave up snarkiness because it was the thing to do, not because of the gun. :-)

  12. I too have always wanted to smash something against the wall (a la in the movies!) but like you I realized that I would be the one to clean it up, which kinda makes it moot??? Of course I am a great one for the principle of the thing, but not when I have to clean
    it up.

  13. Oddly enough I’ve never heard anything like “let out that anger” at any work I’ve done. I was at my most recent job for at least 6 years before I heard a raised voice at all, and that was from a guy who had just arrived (from Microsoft). I think you may have been unlucky in companies!

    Besides, expressing your anger just increases it and habituates you to anger.

  14. I flew off the handle the other night, but it was said before I even had time to stop my mouth! Perhaps nearest and dearest know which buttons to press and wind me up!

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