Aggression Part II: Writer manage

06 Sep

In the past two blogs, I’ve touched upon stress exhaustion and interpersonal aggression (AKA bullying). Many of us experience or observe both. As writers, when personally vulnerable to one or the other, we can translate the attendant emotional, physical, and psychological effects to enrich our plots and characters.

Using Stress in Writing skimmed the basics of eustress and distress along with a survey of the physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and relational symptoms of stress exhaustion. A writer can apply these symptoms to enhance POV and conflict even while s/he exercises a little self-care to manage personal stressors.

In my first blog on Aggression, I wanted writers to see and name psychological aggression in various scenarios and offered ways to show this phenomenon in stories through dialogue and behavior. Now, let’s consider how we can bully-proof our characters and, possibly, manage these situations in our lives.

People bully others for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, people aggress against others because they can and the organizational/family culture may even encourage it.

Whether bullies are simply thoughtless or intend hostility to assuage personal anger or frustration, the same harms apply. Consider the symptoms of stress exhaustion AND add the following sample of research-supported outcomes of bullying for all parties – bullies, targets and bystanders.

Physical – direct injury (bruising, cuts, nerve damage, broken bones, etc), indirect injury (high blood pressure or blood sugar imbalance), suicide, cardiovascular disease

Emotional/Social – decreased job satisfaction, isolation, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder,

Economic – rising costs of employee benefits; premium increases, productivity costs declines, absenteeism, doctor’s visits, therapy, employee turnover

Helplessness exacerbates the harms. The best response is a zero-tolerance environment for aggression. Unfortunately, with human beings that’s damn near impossible.

Your next best option? Set limits.

How can I establish boundaries and borders?

Susan Forward coined the phrase ‘emotional blackmail’ in her 1997 book with Donna Frazier (Harper Collins, New York). The concept was intended to capture manipulation by intimates (e.g., family, partners, friends) who withhold love and approval to exercise control.

For psychological interpersonal aggression – especially indirect and passive aggression – we are vulnerable without firm boundaries. Social expectations, cultural mores, gender roles, and a host of other influences contribute to our hesitation to establish barriers between us and other people.

Does anyone remember battles with siblings along the lines of ‘Mom, she’s looking at me’?


Maybe it was only our family, but the answer was always to hang a blanket between warring factions. Capturing the more insidious forms of aggression is difficult. But without boundaries – or in the case of nastily difficult people, steel borders — you’ll continue to suffer.

In her discussion of emotional blackmail, Forward introduced the notions of fear, obligation, and guilt as feelings that hamper our ability to challenge manipulation. We don’t set personal boundaries because we fear repercussions. We may feel obligated to subvert our interests to others or experience guilt for considering our needs as important compared to the needs of others or the organization.

Women seem to struggle with confronting such aggression. I suppose we fear being labeled as bitchy or recalcitrant (ok, maybe mostly bitchy, but don’t you love how ‘recalcitrant’ rolls off the tongue). Let’s redefine the term ‘confrontation’ to the more innocuous – boundary. It’s healthy to establish the point at which your feelings and opinions begin and end and where those of other people do likewise. In response to sneaky aggression, it is NOT rude to say:

I don’t want to _________.

I’ve decided not to ____________.

I understand your point of view and I’m taking the position to _______________.

Yes, I do mind _________________.

I’ll think about it. (I love this one because you don’t even have to fill in the blank!)

What can writers do with tools to manage bullying?

Although we’ve many approaches to managing conflict, only a few will fit into the limits of a blog. Consider using these strategies, the notion of boundaries, or the various outcomes of unchecked aggression for your characters.

Most importantly, take care of your personal and professional interests. If you’re a target, take action. If you witness bullying, please recognize the effects upon you are also significant. If you bully unwittingly, take responsibility and establish boundaries. Targets, bystanders and aggressors all suffer in these situations.

Remember, you should make your characters suffer,
but you shouldn’t have to.

Self-care is vital to a creative mind.


Posted by on September 6, 2011 in conflict, Idaho, stress, writing


Tags: , , , , ,

15 responses to “Aggression Part II: Writer manage

  1. johannaharness

    September 6, 2011 at 5:16 AM

    Thanks for this insightful series, Liz! I’m looking at anger in new ways.

    • Liz Fredericks

      September 6, 2011 at 7:28 AM

      Thank you, Johanna. One of the ‘aha’ moments for me was considering that ‘bullies’ are harmed in the process as well. As a former target, I wanted to demonize the aggressor, but human relationships are too complicated for that.

  2. Janis McCurry

    September 6, 2011 at 7:23 AM

    I like the replacement of confrontation with boundary. Confrontation sounds so ugly and inflammatory.

    I also like the fact that expectations of how you want to be treated need to be established. Many aggressors start small. The more they get away with, the more empowered they feel, and they escalate to increase that addictive feeling of power.

    Great article. Thanks!

    • Liz Fredericks

      September 6, 2011 at 7:37 AM

      I’m so glad you like the article, Janis! You raise two very important points – escalation and the importance of ‘confrontation’ (as ugly as it sounds). When I hear people say ‘pick your battles’ it brings to mind the story about two generals I used to tell my brother in a bedtime story. “There’s no point in battling over an inch today. We’ll grant them this and wait until they take a mile . . . . no point in battling over a foot . . . a yard . . . etc etc until soon the opposing force was at the gate, but then, of course, it was too late.” Sometimes, we have to set the boundary immediately and firmly, without reciprocal aggression (associated with confrontation). Writers: please forgive my -ly words.

  3. Carley Ash

    September 6, 2011 at 7:43 AM

    Great blog, Liz. Thanks for the valuable info.

  4. Meredith Conner

    September 6, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    “you should make your characters suffer, but you shouldn’t have to.” Too true. No one should ever have to suffer through bullying.Thanks for another great blog Liz!

  5. Peggy Staggs

    September 6, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    In my family when the old she’s-looking-at-me scenario got going, my Dad would say, “Do you want me to stop this car and let you both out?” We never took him up on it. Probably because by the time it got to that point we were halfway between where we were moving from to where we were moving to.
    Passive aggression is the one I struggle with the most. I always doubt myself and think, they don’t really mean it that way, when they probably do. When I try to confront it…let’s just say I’m not as aggressive as I’d like to think I am.
    Great blog I’m keeping it along with the others.

  6. Liz Fredericks

    September 6, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    Yeah – the old ‘stop this car’ threat. I don’t recall the car ever stopping, but I do remember my dad reaching to the back seat, flailing madly, hoping to smack one of us. Luckily, he didn’t take his eyes off the road so his aim was poor. 😉

    I’m with you on passive aggressive – I find that I’m not near the tiger I envision in the face of indirect aggression.

  7. Clarissa Southwick

    September 6, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Great series, Liz. It’s very hard to set boundaries and/or break away from a group, even if you’re the one being bullied. As you said, wonderful conflict for a novel, but a horrible thing to deal with as a writer.

    • Liz Fredericks

      September 6, 2011 at 11:51 AM

      Thanks Clarissa! I think the material blends well with several of the comments on your blog yesterday in terms of why judges offer less helpful suggestions.

  8. Mary Vine

    September 6, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Thanks, Liz. Loved the last line.

  9. Lynn Mapp

    September 7, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    Liz, what can I say? You’ve written a blog that makes me think. I do like the term boundary. Women are pleasers and may have some problems with this. It’s important you realize what you can and can’t deal with, and go from that point.

  10. Steph

    September 15, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Since I work for a company where bullying by the bosses is rampant, this was an especially interesting blog for me. I do stand up for myself but it is very upsetting. Most of the guys that work here, don’t defend themselves and that is nerve wracking for them and me. It is a family owned business and the acts are passed down from generation to generation.


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