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.