I’m Just Blowing Off Steam… Is That Okay?

We tend to get a little confused about anger, and how to express–or not express–it. While delivering a workshop recently for a group of healthcare leaders, a participant asked my business partner and me, “Is it ever okay to be angry in the workplace?” This led to a rather spicy conversation which led us completely off topic–but which was also brilliant, because it got people to the core of what rattles so many of us on a daily basis.

My husband comes from an Italian family where emotions aren’t just worn on one’s sleeve; they are flung at other people’s sleeves like pizza dough being hurled to a perfect circumference. Speaking loudly and passionately–about everything from who died recently and where they will be buried to whose pizza is worth dying for–seems to be both a rite of passage into human-hood and a means of proving one’s worth and existence.

I come from what he calls a “Hippie”West Coast  family where no one ever raises a voice let alone an eyebrow to anyone else. He jokes that if someone were to steal my mom’s car, she’d probably utter in her loudest whisper (because she doesn’t yell), “Be careful when shifting from second to third; it sticks a little.” An Ivy League school once studied the area where I grew up because it houses such an array of extremists from every walk of life who somehow peacefully coexist with one another. No one thinks to yell about the weirdo with the dreadlocks and braided armpit hair because right next to him is a guy streaking for the right to bear arms or holding a sign announcing his purple vow of silence. It doesn’t have to make sense, but somehow it does. One never knows what to expect, but because of that, no one is shocked enough to waste a breath.

My husband calls it “being Italian” when someone gets angry. …”But the PASTA!!! It’s TOOO COLD!!!!” such a person might yell.

…”And by the way, YOU STINK LIKE ANCHOVIES!”

To which I would cry, because I would call that a rage. From my walk of life, we tend to mill on our feelings like they are an odd herb which may or may not make us healthier or sicker after time. If it works through our system, we might benefit and learn a lesson that leaves us with a lighter step. If it doesn’t, we might end up constipated with toxins–emotions–we can’t purge.

So back to the workshop, and how we addressed the question… Is it ever okay to get angry in the workplace?

  • If anger looks like telling someone she is a stupid bandanna (my new, made-up curse word) and her fingernails are ugly too, then no.

  • If anger looks like stewing so deeply that you fail to address the needs of your patients–or customers or children–then no.

  • If anger looks like saying something that will play over and over again in someone’s head and change the relationship dynamic in an irreparable way, then absolutely not.

Here is what I’ve learned about expressing anger–in and out of the workplace:

1)When you stuff it without processing it into a “lessons learned” or “let it go” phase, it typically creates some other symptom in your relationship or life–whether it be feeling stifled to act authentically or developing a strange health issue like insomnia or unexplained restless leg syndrome or simply lashing out at your innocent partner as if he/she were a copperhead waiting in the reeds to strike.

2)When you blow off steam anytime it boils up, you give no regard to who it might burn in the process. You create a wake around you that changes your relationships and sometimes your life. Have you ever suffered a steam burn? Yeah. It makes you never want to drink tea again…or come into that person’s frame of view. A blistering welt is not something your colleagues, peers, or loved ones will seek to experience twice. And if they do, there are probably bigger problems.

What can you do instead?

1)Ask yourself what you want from the situation or person. Is it peace? Is it for someone to start meeting deadlines? Is it to be heard for five minutes? Express what you want, even if silently. But don’t use the words “not, no, don’t, and never.” My good friend and colleague Marlene Chism states that real growth begins when we state what we DO want.

2)Manage your emotions. If you are ready to throw rattlesnakes at someone, you are not ready to talk to that warm body. Walk a few miles. Drink a Kool Aid (or Orange Tango, if you are British). Write a manifesto.An attorney once told me, “You can’t unsay something you’ve said.” It’s better to wait to make sure you really want to be on record having uttered those words. Chances are, you don’t.

3)State your truth delicately. Expressing that you are angry is okay, and maybe even a tad vogue. But if I were a futurist, I’d say that the next trend will be to speak your truth with love. Rather than say, “I’m fuming because you stink like mud,” make it behavior based; “I feel angry when you miss deadlines.” And make it solution oriented, “I would love it if you could use the checklist to ensure your deadlines are met.” Or, “I feel upset when you walk out of the room after I’ve asked a question without answering me. Could you, in the future, provide me with a one-sentence reply, even if it’s to say that you need to exit to think things over?” It’s okay to feel constipated for two seconds while crafting a response if it saves you from two hours of heartache later after blurting out a hurtful slew of slurs.

4)If the other person accepts,  walk away with gratitude. Emotions were hurt, yes, but they can be healed much more easily if you don’t get into the muck together by bringing up, “And by the way, seven years ago, you forgot to thank me for pouring your coffee.” Dirt never helps to a wound heal. And blowing off steam into someone’s direction never helps her have a good (and happy) skin tone.

How do you blow off steam, without burning someone else? I ask this question because as entrepreneurs, leaders, or humans, it’s something we face.

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