Telling someone exactly how you feel may be empowering, but not always rewarding.
About 15 years ago, when I worked for a county outpatient mental health clinic, my colleague Barbara told off a high-ranking administrator of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. He had supported the firing of therapists who had large caseloads of highly vulnerable clients, and had refused to re-staff those positions, but proclaimed in an all-hands meeting, “Although we disagree on many issues, I think we share the same value of truly caring about the people of this community.”
Barbara responded, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that we share that value at all.”
She told me later, “I have never felt more satisfied in my entire life!”
“Yeah, but what about the look of death he gave you?” I responded. “He’s probably thinking, you’ll never work in this county again.”
Is the euphoria of righteousness worth the consequences?
Barbara’s statement was accurate. She felt justified to call out the administrator’s hypocrisy, looked back on her actions with pride, and became a folk hero to her colleagues. At the same time, she created a huge career barrier for herself with one dramatic statement that she did not have to make. Was it worth it?
Before deciding, consider the possible outcomes if she had said nothing. Keeping quiet and suppressing her feelings, Barbara would likely have felt angry and bitter toward the administrator. Left to fester, those feelings could have potentially affected her health over time, ultimately leading to burnout and physical health symptoms. This scenario supports the argument for confronting the administrator: she may have damaged her career, but at least she preserved her health.
However, righteous confrontation is only one way of dealing with strong feelings, and in Barbara’s case, she had alternative forms of emotional expression that would have been far more advantageous.
Better ways to blow off steam
To cope with her anger, Barbara could have done any of the following, without risk of provoking a person with the power to limit her career:
- Vented to her colleagues
- Written down her feelings
- Screamed into a pillow or cushion
- Talked out her feelings into a recording device (sounds unusual, but people do it)
- Created a sarcastic cartoon (like Dilbert)
- Engaged in a physical activity to release aggressions, like tennis, weight lifting, kickboxing, or batting practice
- Practiced breathing or relaxation exercises
- Expressed her concerns privately and professionally to the administrator
Ironically, Barbara could have given him a similar message—that she did not believe leaving mental health service consumers short-staffed of therapists was supportive of the community—without suffering any consequences. Any of these strategies would have been sufficient to help Barbara cope with her feelings, prevent the accumulation of negativity, and avoid burnout, while never threatening her career.
Perhaps they would not have delivered the euphoria and satisfaction that her confrontation provided, but those temporary rewards do not seem to justify the long-term hardship of unemployment. Even when the stakes are lower, and the person to be confronted is less powerful than the administrator in this example, the advantage of finding alternatives to telling someone off—and ultimately maintaining relationships—will almost always outweigh the temporary rush of righteousness.