I have always had a really hard time dealing with angry people and lately, I’ve once again been subjected to the projected anger of others. I react by apologizing repeatedly and trying to run away or become invisible. And the entire event triggers my PTSD, resulting in nightmares, higher anxiety levels, and other undesirable reactions. I am triggered because of major childhood traumas and in fact much of my life has been spent with very angry people, first my father, and later, my husband (although his anger was much more subtle and it wasn’t until recently that I learned what his effect on me had been).
Unfortunately, our society is driven by fear and its resultant anger. Politicians and big business, especially advertisers, work to increase our fears about everything. The results speak for themselves. Our world is becoming increasingly angry. After my latest experiences, I started thinking about all the people I come in contact with on a regular basis, and I realized that I find many of them to be scary because I can feel the anger they are radiating. I know that I am much more sensitive to this than most people, both because of my own trauma and because of my high levels of empathy. I am finally realizing that this sensitivity and my PTSD require me to look at the big picture and see what I can do to protect myself.
I think my first step has got to be to learn to set better personal boundaries and to learn to say no. I need to keep myself out of situations which I find intimidating. One example of this is our island duplicate bridge game. I have very nice and well-meaning friends who keep trying to get me to play. I am now being much more honest about my reactions to those games. I talked with my bridge class and let them know that I am always on edge during the game, never relaxing, because there are a few people there who are, in my opinion, too competitive and who tend to yell at anyone who does something they don’t like. I have been a recipient of that anger several times and it wrecks the game for me. But even more so, the fact that I never know when I might inadvertently trigger another person means that I am always tense and worried. This is obviously not healthy.
At the same time, I love to play bridge and many of the players, especially those who also come to my class, are great. So when I get asked to play, I find it difficult to say no. I am ambivalent about the entire situation. But after the last game, where incidentally nothing bad did happen but I was still highly on edge for over five hours, I’ve decided I need to find another solution. So I’m setting up another game, this time as part of my class. Once a month, instead of class, we will have an ACBL sanctioned bridge game, but a very low key one, designed to encourage those who find duplicate bridge intimidating, to give those who feel their game isn’t good enough a safe environment to play in, and to give those who never can find a partner willing to play with them a chance to play. The game will have fewer hands and it will be a more social duplicate game with the aim being to encourage more players. I will feel more comfortable and I will also get a chance to play. And then when I receive the next pressured invite to play in the “regular” game, I will have an easier time saying no, because I will be able to point to the monthly Wednesday game to say that is enough for me.
I can avoid many potentially hazardous situations, but obviously I can’t avoid them all. Thankfully I am an introvert who would really much rather be on my own with my fur friends doing what I enjoy. I don’t care to leave home most of the time, so that helps a bunch. But still, I do have to go out to teach, shop or run errands. And with all the anger in this culture, I do run into incidents where I say or do something which triggers someone else. My anxiety in dealing with others lies primarily in the fact that I never know when that will happen, so I am always on guard. And I can just feel it when I am with someone who is obviously a powder keg waiting to explode. My therapist is working hard to teach me that becoming invisible is to lose my identity and having done that for nearly sixty years, I don’t want to keep doing it. I need to learn to speak my truth from my heart without judgement or blame and also to ask for what I need or want, always being prepared that the answer may be no. However, whoever is on the other end of the communication may or may not hear what I’m saying, but rather hear what they perceive from whatever place I have inadvertently sent them.
So what do I do when someone projects their anger onto me. I am starting to believe what my therapist is teaching, that the anger has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the person who is angry. I can’t know what triggers anyone else. But I need to keep myself safe in such situations and not just abandon myself. What I need to do is remove myself from the situation as gracefully as possible, showing compassion for not only the other person, but for myself, which I find much harder. I need to speak to the little girl inside me who was so horribly wounded and reassure and comfort her, just the way I do so successfully with my students. I need to let her know that the adult me will keep her safe, something she never experienced as a child. And I need to be kind to all parts of my psyche.
My plan now is then a two-fold approach, both of which require me to set my own boundaries in a respectful but firm way. I need to be able to say no to situations where I feel that the potential for harm far outweighs any possible benefits. I need to keep from associating closely with those whom I term walking powder kegs. It is not healthy for me to be around such energies. And the second part of this, which is the biggest and hardest, is that I need to develop more compassion for myself as well as the ability to comfort and protect that part of me, the little girl in me for lack of a better term, who is still so vulnerable, and to reassure that part of me that I will keep her safe and out of harm’s way. And my next post will deal with how my being an outlier compounds my problem as it means that I trigger many people just by “being.” More on that next time.