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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

"Why Didn't I?"

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 9th 2006

How many times have you been in a situation where you were confronted by someone about something, felt shocked and treated unfairly and were unable to think of or say anything? Then, five or ten minutes later your feelings and thoughts crowded in on you about everything you could have and should have said? You end up berrating yourself for having been silent by saying to yourself: "why didn't I?" Does it sound familiar to you? If it does you are not alone. Many people complain about all the assertive and annoyed things they should have said at a particular moment. This essay is about some of the reasons why it is do difficult for people to express their angry thoughts and feelings.

Studies show that some people feel hopeless about expressing their anger. This hopelessness stems from one of several beliefs:

1. Some believe that expressing anger will not change the situation or influence the other person.

2. There is a fear of devastating retaliation if anger is expressed.

3. Many fear they will be judged negatively if anger is verbalized.

4. For some individuals, there is a fear of loss of self control.

5. Among some people there is a concern that they are not able to think and react quickly enough to engage in a verbal interchange.

6. Related to # 5 some individuals complain that they become so anxious during a difficult interaction with another person that their minds become blank and they feel unable to utter a single word.

The difficulties in the expression of assertiveness and anger have consequences for the lives of the individuals plagued with this problem. Daily functioning is affected for those who cannot assert themselves or express their needs and wishes. For example, it becomes overwhelmingly difficult for these individuals to ask the boss for a raise. In addition, these people will agree to do things they do not want to do. Often times, they fear that if they express their preferences no one will like them. For instance, when going out to lunch with co workers the fearful person may fail to openly state their choice of restaurant or type of food. Instead, they just go along with the crowd, accompanied by feelings of resentment and self pity for not being able to influence the group. This is sometimes seen among family members who, when a decision has to be made about what movie to see or restaurant to go to, everyone shrugs and says they have no preference. Of course, this is often not the case because no one is willing to make an assertive statement about what their choice is. This scenario, so familiar to so many, can be either humorous or exasperating at the time.

There are studies that show that many women can be prone to the malady of going along with the crowd because of the way they were socialized into their roles of being female. It is commonly known that girls are raised to be nurturers who must deny their own needs in favor of their husband, children and family. While a lot of this role definition has changed in many parts of the country, there are still many women who view themselves in terms of the old stereotypical female roles.

Whether male or female, people who fail to assert themselves, express their anger or state their preferences, often feel frustrated, angry and depressed as a result of pent up and unexpressed needs.

Looking at how we are socialized it is also important to note that whether we are discussing raising girls or boys, there is a prevailing attitude conveyed to all children that anger is something negative. It is common to hear psychotherapy patients talk about and describe their angry feelings as their negative emotions. When we are children it is common to experience our parents being angry with us about some sort of misbehavior. However, it is only the most enlightened who can tolerate a small child expressing their anger and outrage at their parents. The old biblical command of "Honor They Mother and Father" holds persuasion over the more psychological principal that the expression of anger can be helpful. The same holds true for adult attitudes towards children expressing anger at one another.

It is also true that much of the negative attitude towards angry emotions and their expression is that they are mistaken for a complete loss of control. In fact, those children who come from families where there was a lot of uncensored and uncontrolled anger there is an understandable fear of anger. For those children who come from families where emotions of any kind are held in reserve there is an automatic fear about the expression of emotional issues from anger and hate to love and fondness. At each end of the spectrum of the experience of expressing emotions there are problems.

Simply put, there are positive and socially acceptable ways for people to express their emotions and be self assertive.

Your comments and opinions are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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