Illustration: Dan Page
So your best friend at the office is suddenly let go, and you spend the rest of the day dreading that the ax is about to fall on you, too. Later, at home, you hold it together—until your 6-year-old pops out of bed for the fifth time, asking for another glass of water. At which point you hear yourself roar, "Oh for heaven's sake! Would it kill you to just go to sleep for once?!"
Or maybe as soon as you leave the office, you head to your parents' house for your second shift. Your mother suffers from Alzheimer's, and your father recently broke his hip. You manage to stay cheerful with both of them, but at home that night, when your husband innocently asks where to find the peanut butter, you snap, "Figure it out, Sherlock."
Or perhaps one morning, without even meaning to, you notice a series of intimate texts between your boyfriend and someone named Tiffany. You drive to work, glance through the papers in your in-box, then blast into your assistant's cubicle like a hurricane. "When will you learn to conjugate the verb to lie? Am I paying you to write like a moron?"
Psychologists call this phenomenon displaced aggression. Often when we feel powerless, we dump our anger on someone else—someone we know won't fight back. Military folks have a charming phrase for displaced aggression, which, for the sake of politeness, I will euphemize here as "stress rolls downhill." I'm sure you can recall times when people rolled their stress onto your unprotected head. And unless you're a saint, I'm sure you've rolled your stress onto others'. Learning to stop stress-rolling is one of the best things you can do for your relationships and your general life satisfaction. Let's start now, before someone else gets hurt.
Know How to Roll
The cause of stress-rolling is always the same: You experience a situation in which you feel too overwhelmed, confused or scared to express your true feelings. You're fighting for your life, and you're losing. The enemy may be a change in your work situation. Or your parents' increasing fragility. Or a shaky relationship. Whatever the problem, if it seems too big to solve, you may believe you have no choice but to internalize your fear and anger.
Unfortunately, feelings don't want to stay hidden. Like water held back by a dam, they are always pushing, seeking a crack to leak or entirely break through. The "cracks" in our ability to suppress negative feelings are relationships in which our defenses are lowest, our fears smallest. Our hidden feelings seep or burst out when we're with people we trust or who aren't in a position to resist us. This dynamic explains why upstanding citizens who never shout at a stranger will scream curses at a lover, and why people who take an undue share of grief from their boss bully their underlings in turn.
To eliminate a tendency to stress-roll, you first have to notice it in other people: the man who yanks his dog around every time he gets the shaft at work; the brand-new ex-smoker who shouts at her husband when she runs out of nicotine gum. Watch these people and get a feel for how disproportionately intense their behavior is. Then honestly identify the same sort of overreactions in yourself. Where does your temper flare? When do you weep hysterically? What situations frustrate you to the point of physical violence?
One excellent sign that you're stress-rolling may be a hint of sheepish guilt or shame. This will show up after you've rolled your negativity onto someone, or even while you're doing the rolling. Deep down, your conscience will be whispering, "I'm not being fair. This isn't about Priscilla eating all the toast. I'm just venting because no one's watching my kitten video on YouTube."
Unfortunately, many people, embarrassed by this tickle of conscience, actually increase their stress-rolling as a method of self-defense. They'll bring up old arguments and mutant grievances to justify the stress-rolling. For example, you might follow up your outburst toward your son by saying, "You've got to stop bothering Mommy all the time." You might keep pounding your husband: "If you ever cleaned the kitchen, you'd know damn well where to find the peanut butter." You might point out every grammatical goof your assistant has made since the day she was hired. This is like a general who opens fire on his own troops, then decides he'd better shoot a few more so they'll be too scared to stand up to him. Don't be like that general. Instead...
Next: How to identify the real enemy
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