Friday, January 6, 2017

I Don’t Want to Be a Curmudgeon Before My Time

Sometimes I feel like an old man, sitting in my rocking chair, threatening to shoot kids with rock salt if they come close to my yard. Not the racist part. I’m not going to claim my mind is lilywhite, of course—it’s pretty filthy—but I pride myself on working every day to not judge people for their appearance or the actions of their forefathers. I think I do a decent job of keeping an open mind.

I can, however, be filled with anger, and especially in the last few months, as many of my ongoing readers can attest to.

Today, I discussed with a stranger online my irrational obsession with a singular conversation I had with one horrible little man. He wanted my attention and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Though it had a finality to it—me blocking him and never hearing from him again—I continued to run the argument through my head nearly every day. Why did he anger me so much? Why couldn’t I let go?

This stranger suggested looking for techniques for conflict resolution. Most people focused on what I could have done differently, often blaming my behavior on his refusal to leave me alone (par the course). But this stranger hit on something for me, and reading her response, I burst into tears of relief. I was shocked.

If you had asked me if I was a pushover or had issues with conflict, I would have told you absolutely not. I still see myself as my teenage side who tended to be oblivious to the needs of others and badger her way into getting what she wanted. I was aggressive, opinionated, and confident.

These days, not so much. I am kinder and more empathetic. I know better how to make people happy, comfortable, and trust me. I’m a fantastic team player, but less of a shark. While learning how to improve my skills in writing, I lost some of the originality, the personability, and the voice. I make better crafted work, but it’s not as interesting, it’s not as me.

I no longer assert myself. I often argued that it’s not that I don’t stand up for what I want, it’s that I’m flexible what I want. Which is partially the truth. However, I started typing in “techniques for unconfrontational people” and found that anxiety caused by a fear of confrontation is a common issue.

I was a pushover in my last relationship. I neglected my feelings, happiness, and satisfaction to keep from conflict, and I am willing to bet I didn’t make it clear that that was happening either.

In a strange way, I think I was mimicking my first boyfriend. In college, I felt I had made a mistake. My professors didn’t think much of my abilities, and because of that, I wasn’t offered the opportunity to create anything. I had to fight them, which made me even more of an outcaste. My boyfriend was the darling of the apartment, a go-getter, dependable, and, of course, a doormat. I suppose in some ways, I wanted to be like him, though I didn’t exactly realize it.

As I was reading about being a pushover, the people in a study were described as grossly misreading their aggression levels, often thinking an appropriate level of aggression was too much. The subjects were often far, far less aggressive than they thought they were being.

I read a blog post written by someone just turning fifty and being sick of being afraid of confrontation. She described how she misread most interactions as having conflict when it was really just a discussion or a reasonable request.

Today I have been writing a scene in which I recognized two characters should be far more hostile and untrusting with each other than they were. They should have been afraid. They should have made less room for the other to speak and act freely. It didn’t read as true. I wondered if this cautious banter was really the best choice for me to make. I knew very well that I had a problem with conflict in general. Most of my characters don’t express true hostility towards others. They don’t get mad—but they get even.

I don’t like shouting or arguing. I am afraid of the ramifications of rubbing someone the wrong way. I care what others think more than I want to. I don’t know when or how that happened. But knowing that does make me feel more relieved.

Older men can be pretty aggressive. When it comes to writing, I’m in my zone. I know how I feel, I have opinions, and I have a knack for reading the intention behind a criticism. I’m still pleasant and diplomatic in the early stages, but when it comes to having someone bulldoze me over, they’ll find a very different person before them. I rarely get into aggressive arguments in collaborative situations, but when I do, you can bet it’s with an old curmudgeon. Why? Because we are the same, him and I.

There’s a lot of retired lawyers in the writing world, many of whom want the same respect they had in their last career, use tactics to “win” the argument no matter what the truth is, and attempt to bully their opinions into accepted fact. Sometimes, it works.

I’m afraid of being like that.

I’m afraid of being a shark, the sort of person who is successful due to confidence but severely lacking in solidarity. I’m afraid of spewing rhetoric where I am blissfully aware of how foolish it sounds. I’m afraid of speaking in anger and coming off as a loudmouth hate-monger. I’m afraid of speaking my opinion and getting torn to shreds for it. I’m afraid of speaking my opinion and it being proven irrevocably wrong. I’m afraid of doing or saying things that will come back and bite me in the ass. I’m afraid of getting famous and having my staff take away my Twitter account because I’m coming off as heinous bitch. I’m afraid of being surrounded by Yes Men who don’t care about me enough to tell me that my face is orange and I need to find a new tan spray.

I want the people around me to be happy, confident, and free to express their ideas. I want to be free, happy, and confident to express my ideas. When you’re angry, when you are feeling sick and tired, when you’re struggling to gain credibility, and when you know that being successful could be so easily achieved by letting those feelings loose, bullying your way into respectability, it’s hard to swallow your anger and pride and do right by those who don’t do right by you.

And it’s hard to tell when “snapping” at a disingenuous personal attack is not you being sensitive, but standing up for yourself. When are you a curmudgeon, and when are you just exhibiting self-respect?

Conflict and confrontation is not always that big of a deal. In many ways, it opens up a dialogue, it discusses ideas, and it makes for an interesting story. If, however, you are like me, the unpredictability of stress coming from confrontation can cause an insane amount of problems, whether you want it or not.

However, being aware of how keeping silent has affected me, I feel a great deal of relief off my shoulders. I censored myself because of a reputation I wanted to maintain. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or bitter or whiny, I didn’t want to be bossy or condescending. So, I kept my mouth shut. I ignored my own rule: Say what you want to say in a way that makes people want to listen.

I don’t know how to make people listen, of course. But I do know that it’s not by keeping silent. I’m going to work on that.

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