I am SO Upset!!!

No, I am not.  I am actually a little giddy at the prospect of telling you about a conflict workshop I helped test for a colleague.  The workshop itself focused on situations that make us upset, angry, annoyed, irritated, p….. off, and generally negative.

So, play along with me here.  What makes you annoyed and irritated?

From the annoyances either mentioned in the workshop or picked up in the grapevine since, here is a sample of what makes other people upset:

  • Being cut off in traffic
  • Getting interrupted
  • When other people “speak for me”
  • Public littering
  • Injustice
  • People not walking their talk
  • Inconsiderate behavior

Does anyone of these irk you more than your first thought?  Focus on one that really gets under your skin.

What does it feel like in your body?  Do you feel a clenching in the stomach?  A tightness around your chest?  How about your jaw, neck, back?

Just notice – we are playing here, so right now there is no reason for you to react to these signals.  Don’t punch your monitor/toss your phone in the dumpster. I am sure you have a story that plays in your head with many more details than just these few words.  Some event or events that you revisit in your mind.

In the workshop, we had a chance to tell that story to the other participants.  And then we heard it told back to us by the facilitators.  It is powerful to hear your own story told back (as some readers will know if they have been part of the Listen-360 workshops.)  We had our emotions and expressions mirrored back, and that, too, is powerful because sometimes others can hear fear, pain, or longing where, on the inside, all we feel is anger and frustration.

If you are still clenching your jaw or feel tightness in your abdomen, please take three deep breaths into your stomach and exhale slowly between each breath.

There is no reason to stay in an activated “fight or flight mode”.

What did the workshop achieve?

  • It heightened my awareness of the signals my body sends when my boundaries are crossed. The body knows if our boundaries are crossed. We are not always aware of it; when we are, we don’t always acknowledge it to ourselves – and even less to the person crossing them. But if we keep allowing this to happen, chance is that we will have less self-respect, and either we will have pains and ulcers from eating our anger or we will take it out in unproductive ways: through aggression or by retaliating through passive-aggressive behaviors, sarcasm, or backstabbing.
  • It allowed a “cleaning up” of the incidents that were in the story. Unprocessed stories are a bit like driving on an unpaved road.  Particularly if we ruminate on them.  We keep digging the trail deeper and deeper into the soil, and eventually, the rut we have dug is where our minds go by default.  Our repetitive thought patterns have created a neurological highway.  Even with stories that could have gone in so many other directions, our “mental translation” of what is happening follows this well-used trail to a not-very-happy place.

This is the neurological underpinning of the Anaïs Nin quote “we don’t see the world as it is but as we are”.
Cleaning up is like taking a plane to the ruts and it allows us to think fresh thoughts.

  • Combining the two points above, we can become more aware of when we react to a trespassing happening here and now, or whether it is loaded with a lot of old hurts – that do not necessarily come from the person now triggering us. If we don’t clean up, we may become a link in the chain of “hurt people who hurt people” when we dump our reaction to years of held-back frustration on the wrong person.

By chance, I was in another workshop the following week where one of the participants said of his childhood self “I was furious that I couldn’t feel anything.”  That sounds like an oxymoron, but it is a fairly normal experience among people who have been ridiculed for being “too emotional” – particularly boys living under the requirement to “man up”.  Not seeing modeled or being valued for showing tenderness and vulnerability, learning that exuberance is childish, (and for boys being highjacked and scared by their own aggression, triggered by testosterone-spikes during puberty), many and especially boys/men have put a lid on their emotions.  The only emotion with enough energy to “burst through” the lid is anger.  So that is the only emotion they become aware of – and how terribly empty that must be.

Getting somebody to pay specific attention to their facial expressions, tone of voice, and demeanor when recalling events can be extremely helpful, as an observant listener may be able to hear emotions and help guide the speaker’s awareness of those moments.  That said, sometimes a licensed professional is a safer outlet than a hack like me.

The story this participant shared illustrated one of the factors that often influence how we deal – or don’t deal – with our frustrating experiences: what is the power differential between you and the person crossing your boundary?  Is it physically and psychologically safe to stand up for yourself?  Do you have any allies to stand up for you?  And how much of this is real vs a story you tell yourself because of your personal backstory?

I want to recognize that some people think these kinds of workshops are somehow frivolous.  That they contribute to a culture of disempowerment and fragility where people are too focused on how they have been wronged, and instead they should build up some backbone and resilience.  To this, I can only say that speaking your truth to another human being and facing your ghosts in front of others take considerably more backbone than spewing sarcasm and contempt anonymously in a spiteful Discourse group.

It has the added benefit that it actually works.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE