When Walking Away Is Standing Your Ground

woman-screaming-during-business-meetingYou’ve probably seen videos of big, furious guys going after little guys. It doesn’t look like a fair fight at first, but there can be surprises—and sometimes the little guys win. I’ve been studying tai chi, learning how people can defeat themselves by misusing their energy and losing their center of balance.

Sometimes life feels like a wrestling match. We’ve all been there—stuck with someone who is just relentlessly on the attack, who pushes all our buttons looking for a fight. “Arlene” grew up like that, and for a long time she equated rage with strength because her parents did. In her family, people fought to prove that they were powerful and in control. They did this because they needed to take their anger out on other people, and because they believed they lived in a dog-eat-dog world and they wanted everybody else to live there, too. Arlene couldn’t bear to live in a world like that. She worked hard and long, and with therapy, yoga, and the help of her husband’s patience and good nature, she learned to have better control of her anger. She found out that the world can be very different. She learned how to walk away from meaningless fights.

Sometimes, anger is justified. If someone stomps on your foot, you might yell. If you grew up in a bad neighborhood anger can be a protection, but if you stay angry long enough, everywhere you look you’ll find something or someone who makes you mad. For some people, getting mad can be a circular process—the madder you are, the madder you get—until there’s just no stopping. A few people seem predisposed to anger; they are just born that way.

Which brings us to “Ramona.” She thinks everyone is against her, so she fights with everybody, which turns people against her and kind of proves she’s right. If someone makes an innocent joke, she often takes it the wrong way; she gets upset if she thinks people aren’t paying her enough attention or giving her the admiration she feels she deserves. It’s all about her. She takes everything literally, feels threatened, and has little sense of humor. She’s controlling—it’s her way or the highway. Ramona is always angry and disappointed.

This is tough on her friends, family, and coworkers. Ramona needs to be adored and obeyed, and if she doesn’t get what she wants, she goes into a rage. Some people admire her; she is smart, talented, and can be very funny. Many people are scared of her; they don’t tell her what they think because she yells long and loud, so they just clam up and ride out the storm.

One day Arlene was hired at Ramona’s workplace, and the two of them were put in the same unit. When the unit met for its weekly conference, their supervisor, “Alonzo,” led off the meeting, saying the company needed to make more sales. Ramona spoke at length about improving the business and had plenty of ideas, some very good ones, but she wasn’t interested in listening to anyone else and interrupted when other people were talking. She interrupted Arlene, too, who called her on it, and then Ramona went on the attack and yelled at Arlene. Other members of the group tensed up, anticipating a shouting match, but Arlene had a different tactic. She said she admired much of what Ramona thought, but wanted to hear what others had to say and to share her own ideas, too. Ramona got very angry and screamed even more at Arlene, who just listened. The other members of the meeting were watching Arlene. After the meeting was over, Arlene told Ramona not to yell at her anymore.

There was another meeting. Ramona yelled at Arlene again. Arlene had previously warned Ramona that the next time Ramona started yelling Arlene would leave the meeting, which is exactly what happened. Arlene got up and walked out, ending the meeting.

Alonzo called Arlene into his office and asked what happened. Arlene said, “Ramona never stops talking and yelling, and a lot of people don’t like it but they’re too scared to say anything. I tried over and over to get her to stop, but she didn’t listen. She’s always like this. So I just walked away.”

“Why didn’t you yell back?” Alonzo asked. “Were you too scared?”

Arlene answered, “No, she doesn’t scare me. I just refuse to be yelled at, so I walked out. Yelling back at her would never work; it would be a shouting match, and I don’t like yelling anyway. I simply told Ramona that if she yelled at me I wasn’t going to shout back or stand around and listen to her scream, either—I was going to leave, which is exactly what I did.”

“Don’t you stand up for yourself?” Alonzo said.

“Leaving was standing up for myself,” she replied. “This argument was basically meaningless. If we don’t agree, we can discuss things, but not Ramona. She just likes to yell. I mean, yelling? What are we, in junior high?” Alonzo agreed that Ramona was out of line.

Alonzo transferred Ramona to a position where her intelligence and creativity were called into play, but where she didn’t have to work with others. It was a horizontal move, not the promotion that Ramona thought she deserved and that Arlene got—she took over Alonzo’s job when he was promoted.

Arlene won. Ramona defeated herself.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • garner

    garner

    August 22nd, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    sometimes it takes a much bigger person to not fight back and to walk away than it does to swing fists and to engage in meaningless fighting

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 22nd, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    Hi Garner-
    Thanks for that!

  • Alli

    Alli

    August 23rd, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    I would like to be able to walk away, but I admit that I can’t I like to have the last word. wrong or right, and I know that this usually puts me ina pretty lousy position with both friends and co workers. But I feel like if I back down then I am giving up any power that I amy have once had and that power can be pretty hard to come by. I don’ t think that everyone will take advantage of that but you know that there are plenty of people who will and I work in a field where I have to take it when I can get it. So where do you find that balance of not giving up when you knjow is yours and when you know you are right but not getting tangled up in an all out war either?

  • RG

    RG

    August 24th, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    and then when you walk away someone assumes that you are weak, yeah I don’t like that either

    turning the other cheek is a great lesson in theory but I know that I like so many others have a hard time mastering that in the real world

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 24th, 2013 at 6:48 PM

    Hi Alli and RG- thanks for writing in.
    It is really hard to know when and how to walk away. Some may see you as weak when you know you are not. When you can stay centered and collected while others are shouting you show serious strength.

  • SanFran

    SanFran

    August 26th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    It always seems to be those people who are so needy and so unsure of who they really are who really let this kind of rage and anger become their undoing, don’t you think?

    I find that someone who is a little more confident in who they are and their own abilities then they don’t have all of these anger management issues and they are better able to have some control over their feelings.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 26th, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    Hi Sanfran-
    You’ve got it right on the button– I totally agree. Thanks!

  • Ugo

    Ugo

    October 19th, 2013 at 6:31 AM

    I have found that walking away is a term that tends to put people off. Another term that seems to get people’s attention is disengaging. By disengaging the aggressor finds him or herself alone in the boxing ring.

  • Cierra H

    Cierra H

    October 19th, 2013 at 7:39 AM

    Well I jhave come in contact with both kinds of people, and I myself was angry until i began dwelling in psychology trying to figure out what was going on with me. My mother had taken me out of therapy after they mentioned a need for medication. They had also mentioned manic depression. So i started studying, and later my psychology teacher had mentioned my issues seemed like more, and i started to dwell more.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    October 19th, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Well said,”diengage” is better lanugage, Ugo. Thank you. Love the image of aggressor alone in the boxing ring.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Fake

    Fake

    July 7th, 2019 at 7:04 AM

    Personally, my experience with walking away from arguments comes from people who are incapable of learning, because they learned to walk away. They walk away whenever things get tough, if they did something wrong, instead of staying to discuss and learn how to improve for next time, they’ll walk away because they can’t handle being wrong. If I try to bring something up that they did wrong in an effort to improve it for the future, they’ll walk away because it wasnt immediately temporally relevant. I see it as a childish way to back out of a conversation, a way to never solve any problems and feel like you’re the better person for it. I do not have an appreciation for such tactics.

  • lils

    lils

    July 30th, 2019 at 3:28 PM

    Walking away seems to be the last resort especially when an individual is unwilling to discuss ideas and solutions with me. I rather not stand around and listen to yelling. It hasn’t worked in the past and still isn’t working now when I calmly state, “Please stop yelling at me and I would like to be treated more kindly”. This usually results in more yelling , cursing, and the challenge to be dominant in a dog eat dog world. In those situations, it is just best to leave than end up being verbally abused because some people are incapable of listening when they are angry about what should have happened instead of curious about the solutions to the idea.

    Yes, they may see it as weak, but is it really weak, if the yelling has continued for thirty years and the individual has to have a shouting match to get the point across because someone doesn’t understand their communication style. or financial issues? I think not. Isn’t it better to speak in a calm manner rather than having shouting match and maybe change their thinking pattern, which only the shouting individual can do?

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