In Annie Armstrong Miyao’s therapy practice, she helps people who have difficulty standing up for themselves—because of trauma or for any other reason—build back their natural defense response. She stands at one side of the room, and her client stands at the other. She takes one step at a time toward them. They give her permission to do so. And when it starts to feel like Armstrong Miyao is getting too close, they hold up their hands and tell her to stop. It’s simple, but it builds people’s confidence when saying no is hard to do.
Practicing social self-defense isn’t always easy, but it can help you manage difficult interactions with strangers, coworkers, loved ones, and anyone else who might cross the line. And for the times when you can’t hold a boundary in the moment—maybe you’re holding back tears instead—Armstrong Miyao has advice for that, too.
Angry Pesto: How to Process Stressful Situations after the
Fact and Help Yourself with the Next One
by Annie Armstrong Miyao
In my twenties, I assisted a whip-smart, successful, chic, and creative woman. I loved her. She would make me laugh with her dry sense of humor. She supported my career ambitions. We commiserated through a juice cleanse before they were a regular thing. She treated me to lunches and would sometimes offer me a hand-me-down purse that even at used cost far exceeded my budget. She was impressive and extremely busy. She was also prone to fits of rage. She would sometimes make her employees cry—myself included. Now I think about how overwhelmed she must have felt all the time. She packed herself so full to the brim with obligation that when her support system faltered, she tipped, her anger spilling out onto those around her.
In the instances when I became flooded with emotion after receiving some of her anger, I began to learn how important it was for me to have a good hard cry in the bathroom stall or position myself in just the right way so that no one noticed I was closing my eyes, imagining myself in a place I felt safe and calm. It was also at this time that I really began to develop my cooking. I would daydream about meals from my desk, tending to my need to shift my focus away from this amazing but very stressful job. Later on, at home, I would have imaginary conversations with my boss about a recent heated interaction while aggressively mashing pine nuts for pesto with a mortar and pestle.
Eventually I became adept at mollifying my boss before her stress spilled over. We would then sometimes laugh together, grateful to have avoided a blowup. A few colleagues began to refer to me as the horse whisperer. (Little did we know I would become a therapist years later.) Meanwhile, it was not uncommon to witness people tremble as a meeting began to go wrong. They’d fumble their words, making things worse, and I would empathize. They were under pressure to perform, and they were scared. If they dropped the ball in a moment when her bucket of obligation was too full, a tidal wave of upset would send them out of her office, shaken. I would wonder: What did they do next? What did they do with all the anger projected onto them or with the emotion that must have been building up in them as they silently took her aggressive critique? Were they making angry pesto, too? Were they also escaping work by imagining themselves on a lake dock, surrounded by mountains?
We are all prone to lashing out when we are stressed. I have had to apologize to my kids for losing my patience, explaining, “Mommy has a lot going on today, and when that happens, sometimes I get upset at the wrong stuff. I’m really sorry, and I’m working on it.” Then we hug and take deep breaths together. My husband is sometimes my horse whisperer, tempering me as he gently reminds me that I’m overwhelmed by a recent crisis with a patient, not the mess in the kitchen, and that maybe I don’t need to be so hard on him about why he hasn’t done the dinner dishes yet.
We have all had moments on either side of this coin. Self-regulation skills and self-awareness can help us manage both. But it isn’t always about finding our place where we feel safe and calm and letting the frustration, anger, disappointment, or fear wash over us.
Sometimes it is about connecting to and consciously moving the feeling through us after the fact. I’m talking about the emotions that don’t get to come out when we have to, for whatever reason, cut ourselves off. There’s the time you don’t curse back at the angry man who just shoved past you and told you to “move” down the wet subway steps. The time your boss lost their center and started to rant. The time your family member passive-aggressively criticized your parenting style at a holiday dinner.
We remain quiet in these moments for different reasons. Whether for personal safety, social niceties, or work politics, we are unable to stand up for ourselves in the moment. But we still feel the feelings. Maybe you feel your jaw clench and turn into a migraine. Maybe the shock of the interaction tips your mind into a spinning, ruminating machine that tries to work through why that happened and what could or should have been said.
When we can’t respond, or when it’s not safe or appropriate to do so, what happens with that stifled natural defense response? Emotions live in the body. And when the big ones aren’t processed, it’s hard to feel relief or safety; it can diminish our sense of self-worth, and it can lead to more stress and exhaustion.
Here are some simple ways to help yourself process some of that stifled emotion, ward off chronic stress, and find space to think clearly about how you might manage the next situation that arises.
Have compassion for yourself. Tend to the part of you that is scared, angry, or hurt. Go ahead and lick your wounds. Sometimes we need a good cry after an intense experience. I will sometimes turn on a sad movie to let myself access some of that stored-up frustration or sadness and let the tears flow. Terms of Endearment gets me crying in the opening credits.
Move. Take yourself for a run or turn on some music and dance. Imagine that your anger is moving through your body out of your feet, stomping into the ground, your exhalations releasing anger.
Use your imagination. Write a letter to say all the things that you wanted to say in the moment but couldn’t. Don’t hold back. You can also try imagining that you had some sort of magical power that allowed you to mute the person, or maybe you sprouted wings and were able to fly away from the moment of conflict with ease.
Pay attention to your dreams. It’s normal for us to dream about situations that we haven’t been able to sort through. Look for the people who show up in the dream who might be a resource of strength for you—people who embody qualities of character that are comforting or courageous.
Live outwardly. Connect with that person whose hug makes you feel grounded. Snuggle your pet. Connect in small, simple ways that feel safe and benign, giving your nervous system a reset. Say good morning and discuss the weather with a neighbor. Get out in nature. Go to the place that soothes you. For me, it is the ocean. When I smell the salty air, I feel my heart slow down.
Tips for Moving Forward
Be prepared. The holiday season, for all its togetherness and generosity, can also be stressful, with end-of-year deadlines, complicated family relationships, and the worry of too many (or too few) social obligations. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris talks about having a go-to list of ways to manage stress when we are set off-kilter. She talks about this in relation to people who have a history of adverse childhood experiences, but creating a list like this is smart for everyone. Make it particular to you. My list includes soaks in our cedar tub, long morning walks with my toddler where we listen for the birds and say good morning to the trees, saying no to the things I think I should engage with but don’t actually have to, and making sure I don’t live off of just cookies, coffee, and a nightcap. I also spend time on the weekend trying a new recipe with some produce that came in our garden box that I otherwise wouldn’t have bought. When I make this dish I remind myself to go slow and enjoy the experiment. These things create more space in my bucket.
If you know you are going to have ongoing conflict with a coworker or boss, think about having a conversation in a calm moment. Imagine saying something like, “You know, when we had that conflict, the way it played out shook me up. I know that you were disappointed with the work I turned in, but I am hoping we can find a better way to communicate about that stuff.” And the next time conflict arises and someone’s anger is spilling out all over you, what if you held up your hands and calmly said, “Stop.” What would that be like?
If that doesn’t feel possible, before you go into a room with that person, imagine a someone or something that loves you unconditionally and protects you. Connect to that energy and emotion and bring it in the room with you. When I am going into a high-conflict or vulnerable-making situation, I often imagine my husband sitting calmly but focused with a furrowed brow, ready to step in when someone crosses the line.
When you’re stuck at the dinner table and that one family member begins their annual assessment of your children’s behavior, imagine that you are a sociologist or a biologist observing a tribe of animals. Objectively notice the cause and effect of a comment or gesture. Observe the emotions they evoke in you and others. That little bit of objectivity might release you from being so deeply rooted in the immediate stress of the emotional experience.
I often excuse myself from the table, wander into the kitchen, and put my frustration into whipping cream for the pie. I imagine myself in that place where I feel calm, give myself a gentle hug, and return when I am ready.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.