You’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.
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