Woman of color looking fearful, with tear falling on her cheek.

Fear and Anger and What Happens When They Intersect.

Fear and anger are two challenging emotions, especially for people-pleasers. Last week at a hair salon, I faced them both.

I sat in my chair, barely able to peek out between the highlighting foils falling over my face. My new stylist was not very talkative, and I became aware that the customer in the booth next to mine was bloviating about one conspiracy theory after another. 

You know the type. He talked loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, whether they wanted to or not, whether they cared or not.

Internally, I rolled my eyes. I had no intention of engaging with the “gentleman” because:

1) I fear and hate conflict

2) He didn’t seem interested in what anyone else might have to say.

Then the stylist spun the chair to do the back of my head and I came face-to-face with the loud mouth. Assuming I had willingly joined his audience, he talked right at me.

Hillary has been executed. Child sex rings. Illuminati diamonds on dollar bills.

Seriously? But, for the purposes of this blog, it’s less important what he said than how I felt. And how I felt was personally attacked. My heart pounded so hard it hurt.

It’s a common response for me—this mix of fear and anger—and I’ve been paying more attention to when it happens so I can learn to manage it better.

Fear of conflict 

Fear of conflict is common to people-pleasers. In her book The Disease to Please, the late Harriet B. Braiker identifies three people-pleasing types, based on underlying causes:

  • Mindsets, characterized by distorted thinking, like “Everyone has to like me.”
  • Habits, characterized by doing too much, too often, and never saying “no.”
  • Feelings, characterized by the avoidance of uncomfortable and frightening feelings.

Most people identify somewhat with each type, but with a “preference.” I’m clearly a feelings type, and even the anticipation of interpersonal conflict makes my skin crawl. In my memoir, I describe it like this: 

In-person, in-the-moment, face-to-face conflict feels like walking into a spider’s web. The sticky strands covering my face, glued to my eyes, pasted to my lips make me panic. I can’t stand the feeling. I have to get it off me, unable to think or reason until I do.

You’ve probably heard the phrases “conflict averse” or “conflict avoidant.” That’s me.

Fear of anger

Conflict usually involves some level of displeasure on the part of one or more parties, so it makes sense that fear of conflict and fear of anger go hand in hand for people-pleasers. If you try hard to keep everyone happy, anger means you’ve failed.

Anger has always been a tricky emotion for me. I feel it, and I know it’s normal and healthy, but I don’t always know what to do with it or how to express it in a constructive way. Centuries ago, Aristotle described me so well:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Not easy, maybe, but important to figure out. And when the two powerful emotions of fear and anger intersect, we usually feel the fear and stuff the anger.

When #peoplepleasers fear anger, we feel the fear and stuff the anger. www.karendebonis.com Click To Tweet

Feeling anger is growth.

I don’t remember in the past being in touch with my anger in a conflict situation. Maybe it was there, but I was too focused on keeping the peace to know what was going on inside me. I tended to shut down–a fight, flight, or freeze reaction–where I definitely did the latter.

The fact that I now feel and acknowledge anger in response to conflict means I am pushing back internally against being intimidated, that I am fighting the fear. It means I am stronger. If I choose “fight,” I can do it with more confidence. If I choose “flight,” I do it from a position of strength.

Which brings me back to my response to the guy at the hair salon.

When the ranter said–in all seriousness–“Donald Trump is still president,” I couldn’t help myself. With a disgusted smirk, I said, “No he’s not.” 

The guy leaned toward me.

“Do you want to put money on it?”

“I’m just here to get my hair cut,” I said, my chest throbbing.

“Right now,” he said, “Let’s put money on it.”

“I’m just here to get my hair cut,” I repeated with more force. 

And here’s where I see my own growth that I’m sure is invisible to anyone else: I asked my hair stylist to turn my chair away.

I didn’t care if it was rude. I didn’t smile and make excuses. I didn’t care what my stylist or others in the salon thought of me.

Sadly, in the past, although I would have been justified in being rude and unsmiling, my compulsion to be nice would have interfered with my taking care of my own needs, which at that moment were simply a cut, color, and relaxing afternoon. 

My truths about fear and anger and conflict

I thought a lot about what happened and came to some conclusions:

  • When someone forcefully expresses beliefs or values that are contrary to mine, it does not constitute an attack on my values or on me. I don’t need to make it personal when it isn’t. 
  • I have no obligation to engage with someone to whom I have no personal connection. Refusing to engage is a sign of self-confidence, a reinforcement of self-worth. 
  • Feeling mad when someone is obnoxious is normal and healthy. What I do with that anger is my choice. And this is where I still need to grow. I need to figure out how to feel my anger without feeling like I’m going to have a heart attack.  

Here’s one strategy I’m going to try:

I’m going to envision a two-way mirror between myself and whoever is being an irksome jerk. They don’t really see me anyway—they’re just yelling out of their own fear or personal issues—so I can pretend I’m invisible to them and that nothing they say touches me. I can walk away or turn my head, and they won’t even know the difference; they’ll just find someone else to yell at. My two-way mirror makes me invincible.

In real life, I may never be invincible against fear and anger, but having tools to manage these powerful emotions will help me make rational choices about how to respond. With practice, I know fear will lose its grip on me. It’s part of my practice of Becoming Emboldened.

Do you have a strategy to manage fear and anger when they intersect? What would you have done in my shoes?

Author

  • An emerging writer in upstate, NY, Karen DeBonis tells her story on her website, in publications like the NY Times, (a Tiny Love Story), in her “Become Emboldened” projects, and elsewhere. "Portrait of a People-Pleaser and the Son Who Paid the Price", Karen’s transformational memoir about a woman’s quest for authenticity and the courage to speak her truth, is currently available for representation.

15 Comments

  1. Jack Herlocker on May 23, 2021 at 3:42 PM

    You’re way ahead of me, Karen. I would have smiled and nodded and acted like the guy wasn’t there, even if he addressed me directly. I have worked hard the last thirty years or so to not get angry, because when I do, I have an angina episode with pain levels from “a weight on my chest” (okay, that’s more discomfort than pain, but still not pleasant!) to “somebody just whacked me on the right side of my chest and DAMN it hurts!” So it’s easier to just not get angry, which means avoiding confrontation, usually. But I admire the way you’re handling your anger — brava!

    • Karen DeBonis on May 23, 2021 at 6:26 PM

      Thanks for sharing that, Jack. I haven’t seen a lot of research on this panic (my word) element to confrontation, and I’ll have to look into it more. I can get the reaction just seeing someone’s number on my phone, or their email address pop up. Sheesh. But thank you for the encouragement! My therapist says it will get better and I’m going with that.

  2. Kathryn Henningson on May 24, 2021 at 11:13 AM

    Good job, Karen! Not sure I would have handled it as you did. He’s a fool, and as you know, I don’t suffer them lightly. I think I would have channeled Julia Sugarbaker and cut him down where it would hurt the most.

    This is definia problem for me, at the other end of the continuum…

    • Karen DeBonis on May 24, 2021 at 8:35 PM

      I would have loved to see you in action, Kathryn, and loved to see the reaction on his face. Sadly, he seemed like the type who was so entrenched in his misinformation, he’d probably only have dug his feet in more. Thanks for commenting!

      • Kathryn Henningson on May 24, 2021 at 8:50 PM

        Haha, you are probably right. I would have ended up with more “stuff” to decompress from. One of these days I need to figure out the Julia response that leaves them speechless as I float off on a vanishing cloud or something ☁️☁️☁️

        • Karen DeBonis on May 25, 2021 at 5:07 AM

          I don’t know what the Julia response is, but I think that’s what most of us envision–leaving “them” speechless. I wonder how often that happens?

  3. Eileen Vorbach Collins on May 24, 2021 at 1:49 PM

    Oh, this is a good one. My own heart was racing just thinking about what I might have said or done.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 24, 2021 at 8:37 PM

      I bet your heart-racing would not have been in fear, though, Eileen. That’s my goal, and I’m glad I have role-models like you to emulate. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  4. Carol La Civita on May 24, 2021 at 2:18 PM

    Really good read! It made me give serious thought to something that happened to me last week that made me feel both fear and anger. I decided ultimately to not engage. In the past I would have engaged and hated myself for doing so. Not engaging made me feel strong and powerful.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 24, 2021 at 8:39 PM

      Thanks for commenting, Carol. I love that NOT engaging made you feel powerful. I think so often we feel it’s a sign of weakness, but it’s not – it can be a sign of self-determination, too. Bravo!

  5. Laura on May 24, 2021 at 8:16 PM

    I think your two-way mirror analogy is spot on, in more ways than one. Usually when someone is a jerk, or raging, or rude, it has nothing to do with you. And in lesser ways, a friend who doesn’t call back, or falls away from you, it’s usually not about you, it’s them. We are all self-centred beings and we don’t think as much about other people as you or I might think. On the topic of anger, I just read Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly, and it was eye-opening. Strongly suggest it to anyone wanting to read more about anger—women or men.

    • Kathryn Henningson on May 24, 2021 at 8:38 PM

      Thanks, Laura! I’ll get the book.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 24, 2021 at 8:44 PM

      Thanks for commenting, Laura. Agreed – we tell ourselves stories about the motivation behind other’s behavior, but so often, it’s not as complicated or ill-intentioned as we believe. And thanks for the book recommendation – I just added it to my to-be-read list!

  6. Andromeda C Romano-Lax on May 31, 2021 at 5:37 PM

    I like the two-way mirror concept. My problem is that even when I’m ok with whatever behavioral choice I make, I keep stewing about these moments later. I know the answer is to not let other people take up real estate in your own mind, but it’s hard, and the chemicals involved (fight or flight) give the memory of even a small confrontation more saliency. UGH.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 31, 2021 at 7:21 PM

      I hear you, Andromeda. I have a hard time letting go of the anger once it’s taken hold. I want so badly to have the zinger of a comeback that will shut the loudmouths up. But that only happens in the movies. Since I’ve been consciously working on managing my role in these situations, though, the lingering anger does dissipate more quickly. It’s always easier said than done.

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