When is it OK to confront?

Resentful feelings and anger towards friends and family members very often stem from a fear of confrontation. We’ve been so brainwashed into always being ‘nice’ that we can allow emotions and bitterness to build up and erupt into major conflicts and, quite possibly, psychological problems. Many of us have been convinced that anger is somehow evil, anger means confrontation, and all confrontation is bad. Right? Wrong!

The value of confrontation depends on the circumstances. If somebody does something wrong, and if not doing anything will be harmful to your peace of mind (or that of a loved one), then it’s foolish not to confront the issue head-on.

Consider, for example, if somebody gets credit for an important project that you actually did. Do you just humbly swallow it and say nothing, or do you let the appropriate person know that you, in fact, did the job? Fight the knee-jerk reaction to humbly hang your head and skulk away! Any choice other than defending yourself will result in a festering resentment that will impact your work and your mental health. There is no virtue in that.

The value in confrontation has a lot to do with how well you handle the situation. While it might seem sensible to deal with a family member by saying, ‘You idiot! How could you do that?’ it probably makes more sense to say something like, ‘I’m really concerned by how you handled that. Please tell me what you were thinking.’ If your goal is to reason and persuade, then it makes sense to communicate reasonably. If the person you’re confronting can’t be reasoned with, then don’t bother. It’s a waste of time. 

Sometimes anger is nothing more than a feeling. People who act blindly on those feelings can hurt themselves and others. This is why anger gets a bad name. But it’s not anger itself that’s to blame; it’s how a person handles — or mishandles — that anger. Anger based on facts and logic is the appropriate response to an injustice. The facts and logic may be debatable, but at least there’s some kind of reasoning behind the feeling. To not be angry would be to deny the reality that the injustice exists. There is nothing desirable about denial and bitterness.

So the question becomes: What do you do with the anger? Do you take suitable action, in proportion to the nature of the injustice? Or do you determine that, for various reasons, it’s not worth it, and let it go? Facts and reason must be your guide. Sometimes we experience what mental health professionals call ‘displaced anger.’ Displaced anger occurs when you express anger over one situation when you’re actually angry about something entirely different. A mother blows up at her son for leaving his toys on the floor. She’s understandably irritated, but it’s not the toys that are making her feel explosive with rage. It’s something else — something going on in her marriage, her work or whatever. The point is that we’re not always angry for the reasons we feel we are. Long-standing anger that doesn’t get expressed can latch itself on to some entirely unrelated person or situation. ‘Anger management’ therapy (when explosive rage has occurred in inappropriate situations) can help an individual understand why he or she is really angry.

Another source of anger is hurt feelings, masquerading as rage or irritation. For example, a parent’s disappointment in her child’s behavior or performance in school might really be feelings of hurt. Maybe she feels that she worked hard to raise the child properly, and this is the thanks she gets. The disappointment comes out as anger. But instead of blowing up at the child (which rarely accomplishes anything), she should consider telling the child how hurt or disappointed she is. This type of anger frequently plays out in marital and romantic relationships. The classic example is a feeling of betrayal resulting from the discovery of an affair. People who feel hurt and betrayed lash out. ‘Hell hath no fury’ not only applies to ‘a woman scorned,’ but also to anyone who, deep down, is more hurt than angry. It can blow up into prolonged legal battles, hateful diatribes, nasty emotional exchanges and even physical violence. These demonstrations of anger, as vicious as they can be, are often nothing more than a manifestation of hurt. A skilled anger management therapist can help separate the feelings of hurt from the feelings of anger.

If people better understand how anger can be displaced or disguised by the mind, there will be less verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Psychological help is worthless unless you’re first willing to acknowledge that maybe you don’t know the true causes of all your emotions. Stop and think about how you feel and why you feel that way. Calmly insist that angry loved ones do the same. The results may surprise you.