Dear Dr. Yael,
I read your column this week and, although I don’t hold grudges, I really related to the idea of letting someone live rent-free in my brain. Baruch Hashem, I have a good marriage and happy healthy children. However, I grew up in a tense home with two angry parents. I was so intimidated growing up and have a very hard time dealing with other people’s anger. My husband says that he sometimes feels like he is walking on eggshells around me. That’s not what I want.
I want an open and emotionally healthy marriage. I want to learn how to be more assertive. Is there any way you can help me learn how to deal with conflict instead of just avoiding it?
A People Pleaser
Dear People Pleaser,
Let’s begin by stating two truths: There is nothing wrong with wanting to please people and there is nothing wrong with having an argument. Avoiding conflict because it makes you uncomfortable is not a great way to act; arguments are fine as long as both people are respectful and appropriate.
Anger is a difficult thing to mediate; most people think being angry is a bad thing. However, it can help us be assertive and advocate for ourselves.
You grew up believing that anger is something to be avoided at all cost, rather than something which helps resolve conflicts. Baruch Hashem, you married someone different from your parents. As you know why you avoid anger, the next step is taking action. Instead of holding all of your anger inside, begin practicing what you are going to say when you are upset. This is a good baby step.
The next step is finding a small issue to address. The more positive the experience is for you, the greater the chance you will be willing to speak up gain.
Role-playing is a technique therapists use to assist clients in dealing with challenges. Create a scenario in your head and then act it out. For example, you can imagine your husband saying something hurtful and then practice saying, “I feel uncomfortable when you express yourself to me in that manner. I would appreciate it if you could talk to me differently.”
Another idea is assertiveness training. That is where you learn to express your feelings in a constructive manner. For example, you can say something like, “I know you want to have dinner at 5:30pm, but 6:00 works better for me.”
As I said, start with something small and, once you get comfortable expressing yourself, you will find that conflicts and arguments will not upset you.
Regarding letting your parents live rent-free in your head, you’re going to try to have to figure out a way to deal with your buried anger towards them, possibly without even talking to them about it. Since you mentioned that they are angry and intimidating people, it may not be helpful to speak to them. It may be more productive to speak with a professional about how you’re feeling and to work through your past on your own. This will help you feel stronger and more confident.
Hatzlocha in learning how to be more assertive.