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Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

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Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

Handling negative emotions

“Let it out,” goes the common wisdom. “If you don’t vent your anger, it will just keep bothering you.” This kind of advice dates at least back to Freud, who believed that negative emotions build up like water behind a dam and must be released if a person wants to get relief. But psychological research in more than a century since Freud’s time has not supported this idea: instead of letting go of anger, venting may really be a way to hang onto it.

The problem with theory that venting anger helps stems from the idea that emotions build up and are retained in some kind of raw state. But emotions consist of a variety of kinds of activity throughout the brain and the rest of the body (see “How emotions work“), especially in the specific thoughts we are thinking (like “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive!” or “I look like an idiot in this shirt”) and in various chemicals released in our bodies, like testosterone, which tends to increase aggressive and arousal; adrenaline, which kicks off our fight-or-flight response; and seratonin, which helps regulate mood–to name just a few. Realizing that emotion is largely made up of fleeting thoughts and temporary chemical states, it begins to be clear that we can’t really “store” emotions in the same way that our bodies store nutrients or even in the same way we store memories. It is possible to keep anger (and other kinds of damaging emotions) going over a long time through self-talk, but this is just another form of “rumination,” the same kind of thing we’re doing when we vent anger.

Rumination, what we’re doing both when we vent anger and when we keep reminding ourselves of it, means “chewing over” an emotional experience we’ve had–re-experiencing it. Acting angry to vent an emotion is therefore a way of dwelling and obsessing on the emotion that we’re trying to get rid of. Even doing nothing is, it turns out, a more effective way to deal with anger than venting.

There’s a good body of psychological research to support this idea, much of which tries to find the benefit of venting anger and finds no evidence of it. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, for instance, you might want to the Dr. Brad J. Bushman’s paper “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding.”

So if venting doesn’t help to fix anger, what does? Focusing on someone or something you love is one approach: see “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.” Another is to become aware of your self-talk and to repair broken ideas: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”

Look for more articles on the topic of anger over coming weeks. I’ve dug up a variety of information on the subject that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I find it.

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How to Not to Get Into an Argument

Handling negative emotions

If you ask people what their favorite thing about the winter holidays is, one of the most popular responses is “family.” But if you google (for instance) “worst thing about Christmas,” one of the most common complaints–right up there with overcommercialization and the stress of having too much to do–is also “family.” Holidays sometimes throw us into difficult, uncomfortable, or undesired situations, and they sometimes provide a perfect setting for everyone to regress and get in arguments.

But arguments and other clashes with family and non-family alike are mostly avoidable Taking a few pages from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s time-tested and surprisingly practical system called Non-Violent Communication (as described in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), here’s a nutshell version of a way to stop arguments before they start.

Only one grown-up needed
You might very reasonably have the concern that no communication method will help if the other person is acting like a nincompoop. If so, you may be relieved to know that non-violent communication can help solve problems regardless of how emotionally mature the other person is acting. Anger, fear, irrational accusations, complaining, and depression are all perfectly OK for the other person to present, as long as you can swing being the grown-up in the conversation.

Listening with compassion
Heading off arguments begins by listening a different way. It’s easy and natural to listen to what people say to us–especially when they’re talking about us–and to think of their words as being about ourselves. If someone says “Why do you always try to run everything?” or “Didn’t you even stop to think how he would feel about that?” or “I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!”, the obvious thing to do would be to think of what those things mean to us and respond with something like “If you ever got off your butt and helped, I wouldn’t have to run everything!” or “Don’t my feelings count too?” or “I slave over this gift of love for thirty hours, and this is how you repay me?” If you respond this way, unfortunately, you are then in an argument.

My mother used to always say “It takes two to fight.” Skipping right over my smarmy childhood comebacks, I’d like to point out the usefulness of this statement: one person can shout, threaten, insult, or complain, but if the other person responds compassionately, then there is still no argument. In an argument, two or more parties go back and forth, each saying things that add fuel to the fire. If either person takes another approach, the argument eventually gutters out.

Here’s how to listen compassionately: accept whatever the other person says–even if it’s unkind, unfair, or untrue–as an offer of information.

What you’re trying to find out–the information you’re trying to glean–is these two things:
1) What emotion is the other person feeling? (Be careful what you consider an “emotion”: this list can be useful to sort true emotions out from false).
2) What essential thing does the other person need? This doesn’t mean what they want or are asking for, necessarily, but rather what deep-seated need is being brought up.

When you think you may have figured out the answers to those those two questions in conversations, try to say them back to the people you’re talking to so that they understand they’ve been heard. If you need more information in a particular conversation, ask questions to get that information.

Don’t worry about guessing wrong about someone’s emotional state or needs: generally speaking, if you offer a kindly-meant attempt at understanding how someone feels, they will automatically correct you if you’re information’s wrong, giving you exactly what you need to defuse the argument.

Sometimes people will keep spouting negative comments or repeat the same point over and over in a conversation even when you make it clear you understand where they’re coming from and care about their needs. This generally means nothing more than that they have a backlog of anxious feelings about the topic at hand, and/or they don’t feel confident that they’ve been heard. Patiently continuing the process we’ve talked about should in most cases eventually allow these situations to wind down.

I’ll continue this topic in my next article with some examples.

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 3

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 3 of the quiz on mental schemas. See Part 1 for more information about what this quiz might be able to tell you and why mental schemas are worth understanding, along with the first set of questions. You’ll find the second set of question in Part 2.

Do you feel as though you are set apart from the rest of the world in the sense of being superior?
Do you often feel as though you should be able to have certain things despite those things being impractical, harmful, or unavailable?
Does it sometimes seem to you that the rules that should apply to other people shouldn’t apply to you?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may be struggling with an Entitlement Schema.

Do you often find yourself making impulsive decisions you later regret?
Do you notice yourself making choices that you know at the time are bad ones?
Do you have trouble suffering through boredom or frustration, even for a worthy end?

These kinds of experiences may point to a Lack of Self-Control Schema.

Do you find you prefer to be told what to do rather than having to decide yourself?
Would you have trouble feeling loved and valuable if important people in your life did not approve of your actions, even though you felt your actions were right?
Do you often feel controlled or rebellious?

Feelings like these may suggest a Subjugation Schema is at work.

Do you tend to feel that meeting your own needs is less important than meeting the needs of others who are close to you?
Do you feel guilty when you spend time, effort, or resources taking care of your own needs?
Do you find it very hard to ask for or receive help?

If so, you may want to read about the Self-Sacrifice Schema.

Do you find you aren’t happy unless other people are happy with you?
Are you constantly working to win other people’s love?
Do you find rejection extremely painful?

These kinds of attitudes are common in people who have the Need for Approval Schema.

That completes the quiz. Did you find one or more schemas that you felt were descriptive of you? Seeing these schemas clearly can be the first step in overcoming them once and for all.

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 2

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 2 of the quiz on mental schemas. See Part 1 for more information about what this quiz might be able to tell you and why mental schemas are worth understanding.

When you were young, did your family seem not to fit in with the other families? At school, did you feel as though you weren’t part of what was going on?
In social circumstances, do you feel as though you have little to do with the other people around you?
At times when you’re unhappy, do loneliness and a feeling of separation have a major role?
If so, it can be worth reading about the Alienation Schema.

Do you often feel like you’re not good enough for the situations or roles you want in life?
Are you acutely aware of making major mistakes on a regular basis?
If someone tells you that you suck, do you tend to believe them, at least a little?
These feelings can be indications of an Incompetence Schema.

Do you regularly find yourself worrying about terrible things happening to you, or to your friends or family?
If something goes mildly wrong, do you begin to imagine how that might be the start of a disaster?
Do you have trouble putting aside worries over situations you can’t change?
A Vulnerability Schema can cause these kinds of issues.

If you were going to consider a major life change, is there someone else whose opinion on the matter would feel more important than your own?
Apart from your children, if any, is there a relationship in your life without which you feel like one or both of you couldn’t survive?
Do you ever feel smothered in one or more of your relationships?
If these questions hit home, you might well want to learn about Enmeshment Schemas.

When you were young, were you often told that you were doing everything wrong?
Do you regularly feel that no matter how hard you try, you have no chance of being a great success at anything?
Think about something you’ve done well in the past. Do you tend to regard that success as a fluke rather than as evidence of your abilities?
If you answered yes to some or all of this set of questions, you may be facing a Failure Schema.

The quiz continues next time with the final fifteen or so questions.

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 1

Handling negative emotions

Learning about mental schemas can be powerfully useful in that they seem to be very common, so knowing schemas can help us see ourselves and others more clearly and in more useful ways. I’d stop short of assuming that absolutely everyone has at least one mental schema to deal with, but if that turned out to be true, I wouldn’t be surprised. Throughout childhood, and as we grow and refine our attitudes and ways of being, there are so many things we would need for everything to go perfectly that it’s no surprise human beings tend to come through the process with some quirks or hang-ups.

Schemas in action are patterns of thinking that hurt us rather than help us–that is, patterns of “broken ideas.” For instance, a person with an Abandonment Schema might regularly have the thought “This person isn’t going to stick with me” and make decisions based on that idea even when there’s no real reason to believe that the other person will be leaving. Or a person with an Entitlement Schema might think “I should be able to have that!” even if “that” is something that will ultimately be harmful.

A person might have one schema or several, related or not, suffering severely or mildly from or having overcome any given schema. The following questions are an informal attempt to describe what each schema is like so that you can investigate schemas that seem to strike a chord. This isn’t an official approach to determining schemas, just a way to try some ideas on for size.

I’ll do this quiz in three parts. Here’s part one:

Do you feel that people are basically unreliable?
When you’re in a relationship, do you feel like it’s only a matter of time before the other person leaves?
Do you find it very difficult to trust that people will provide what you need?
If yes, you may want to take a look at the Abandonment Schema.

Do you find that you’re often doubtful about other people’s good intentions?
Do you tend to suspect that people will do you harm if you don’t protect yourself?
Do you feel safer keeping people at a distance?
These kinds of feelings may point to a Mistrust Schema.

Do you tend to feel that other people don’t understand you, and that they don’t want to understand you?
Do you find the way other people see you discouraging?
Do you feel as though you never get enough emotional support, or that people don’t really see you?
If so, you may want to read about the Emotional Deprivation Schema.

Are you highly sensitive to criticism compared to other people you know?
(Did you feel a strong twinge of defensiveness at reading that question?)
Do you often have the feeling, deep down, that you’re broken or unworthy?
These can be signs of a Defectiveness Schema.

More questions follow when the quiz continues with my next post.

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Mental Schemas #14: Need for Approval

Handling negative emotions

This post is the fourteenth in a series that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The Need for Approval schema is all about appearances and other people’s opinions. This might make it easy to think of it as just being shallow, but a person with a Need for Approval schema has gotten deeply involved with and affected by the idea that love needs to be won from other people, that it is not something that they deserve or are entitled to automatically, and that they can’t fill that void themselves.

Need for Approval schemas often arise in childhood, when children feel that a parents or other important figures in their lives only show love or affection when the child is behaving a certain way.

The schematherapy.com site elaborates on some of the ways a Need for Approval schema gets expressed: “Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement —  as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention  (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying;  or in hypersensitivity to rejection.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting others to think well of us as a rule. Approval-seeking only becomes a problem when it gets in the way of something more important. Dr. Young and colleagues describe people with this schema seeking approval “at the expense of fulfilling their core emotional needs and expressing their natural inclinations,” though I wonder if the same thing sometimes happens where the damage is to someone else, as with bullies or people who perpetrate hate crimes. My sense is that a bully might feel such a desperate need for approval from peers that they might victimize someone else to get it, or that someone with a phobia about gay men might hurt a gay man just to get validation from similarly homophobic friends or acquaintances. But this is just my own speculation.

Overcoming a Need for Approval Schema
The key problem in a Need for Approval schema is an inability to feel emotionally self-sufficient, to be happy with who we are. My understanding is that when we learn this skill as children, we gain a sense that we are worthwhile and good from parental love. If a child is powerfully convinced of the importance of their parents (as most children seem to be), then the parents’ attitudes toward us would seem to be the most important clue we can take as to our own self worth.

But if this ability isn’t developed as a child, we can still develop it as adults. As is the case with many kinds of personal change, often a good cognitive therapist can be a big help, and while self-worth isn’t something we can prove inarguably, it is something we can demonstrate to ourselves. When we focus on the things we’ve accomplished that we’re proud of, or the things in our lives that we’re happy to have, we’re more likely to feel good about who we are than if we spend a lot of time reviewing what we see as mistakes, shortcomings, and flaws.

That’s not to say we should ignore any negative thoughts we may have about ourselves, but it certainly is a caution that letting negative thoughts about ourselves become broken ideas is especially harmful to our ability to be emotionally self-sufficient. It’s one thing to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do, and that’s a problem.” and another to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do: what a loser I am” (labeling) or “I never do what I say I’m going to do.” (overgeneralization) or “I forgot to do that errand: now everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” (mind reading).

Thus this process of building a sense of self has two parts: consciously reflecting on good things about ourselves and our lives, and being aware of our thinking processes to be able to stop broken ideas from forming regularly. Over time this gets easier, and our sense of ourselves changes.

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Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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Mental Schemas #12: Subjugation

Handling negative emotions

This is the twelfth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with a subjugation schema feels an overpowering obligation to submit to another person’s will, to be told what to do and be judged by someone else. Often such a person will believe in their heart that they need to do what another person says in order to be loved, valuable, etc., and/or will be afraid that they will be judged harshly or punished if they don’t fall in line.

Or a person may have the schema and act out because of it, accusing others of trying to be controlling when this isn’t the intention, or rebelling against other’s wishes regardless of the individual’s own feelings.

As a result, having the subjugation schema means burying or ignoring one’s own needs, desires, inclinations, judgments, and beliefs–whether this is happening due to giving in to others or to being preoccupied with rebelling against others, as in both cases the person with the subjugation schema is reacting to others’ needs, desires, and actions instead of their own.

A person with this schema may also assume other people are trying to take control or may tend to put them in positions of control even if they don’t want to be. Another common pattern with this schema is first complying with what someone else wants, then resenting “having to” do that thing. A person with this schema may have an overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

A typical way for a subjugation schema is to develop is through an overly controlling parent.

Overcoming a subjugation schema
As with other schemas, idea repair can be a key tool in overcoming a subjugation schema. Statements like “I have to do ____” or “I should do ___” are usually variations of “should statements,” which make it seem like something is necessary when it’s really only one of the available options. Thoughts about what will happen if a person doesn’t comply with what another wants are often fraught with magnification and fortune telling instead of being a true assessment of the likely results. Other kinds of broken ideas can also apply to this schema.

Communication is another a key skill for dealing with these issues. If a person wants to become more assertive without being destructive, it’s important to understand how to express one’s own thoughts and emotions without running over those of others. Two excellent books for learning how to resolve conflicts through communication are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Mindfulness is an important and powerful tool in overcoming subjugation schemas. In order to act on one’s own thoughts and emotions, it’s important to be in touch with those thoughts and emotions. This is also something that’s needed as a basis for idea repair.

Over time, the goal in overcoming a subjugation schema is to learn to recognize, value, and respond to one’s own thoughts, emotions, and needs, so any progress is becoming more aware of one’s own feelings, getting perspective, being constructive assertive, or communicating better will help.

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