Address the simmer before it gets to a boil
It will be fine. It’s no big deal. I’ll deal with it tomorrow. I’ll just be the bigger person and ignore it. Life’s just not fair. I don’t want to bother anyone. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t want to make it worse. I’m probably wrong. While these “famous last words” are often well-intentioned, they are also often deeply rooted in conflict aversion or fear, forces that I find to be destructive and hazardous to personal, professional, and communal well-being. In my experience, it is important to name, honor, express, and manage emotions rather than trying to suppress or ignore them. Otherwise, the feelings just simmer below the surface, waiting for a moment of weakness or tension to intensify into a frequently uncontrollable boil. This is the same with unresolved conflict, compounding stress, or unaddressed anxiety. The problem is that while we can be effective at ignoring the simmer, even sometimes convincing ourselves that it’s no longer there, we seldom do much to address or extinguish the heat source. But the heat source is the actual problem. Feelings of insecurity, frustration, judgment, or marginalization. Fear of failure, loss, or inadequacy. Aversion to conflict, risk, emotions, or change. Lack of trust, stability, security, self-worth, or self-respect. All these conditions underlie our justifications and excuses. Siphoning the fuel while also acknowledging and addressing the simmer, helps us avoid escalating situations, perpetuating unhelpful cycles of negativity, and getting to our boiling points. Once we’re there, it’s much harder and takes much longer to get back to room temperature.
Last year, a participant in one of my programs was fired. I was shocked. Every time I had spoken to him, he had spoken about how well he was doing and how grateful he was for the opportunity. Every time I had spoken to his supervisor, she had said that everything was fine. When I spoke to each of them after the termination, it became clear that he had not been doing well for months and everything had not been fine. The participant felt unsupported in the job, that he didn’t have the resources he needed for success, and that nobody affirmed or rewarded his tireless work. He also believed that he didn’t have it as bad as other people and felt like coming to me would have been a burden even though it was my job to support him. Finally, this participant felt like failing in this job translated to him failing in our program, making it very difficult to own up to his weaknesses and mistakes. His feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and frustration had been simmering for months, so when one of his coworkers criticized his work, he boiled over, screaming and cursing in front of a group of students. When his supervisor pulled him into the office and immediately told him he was suspended pending an investigation without asking about him or what happened, the boil blew the lid off the pot. His feeling of not being appreciated or supported was confirmed and he could no longer control his emotions or actions. He yelled in his supervisor’s face and was terminated on the spot.
On the other side, the supervisor had been frustrated with this employee for weeks because he seemed disengaged, uncommitted, and like he didn’t care. He had missed several deadlines, had been late for multiple days in a row, and didn’t even say hi to her when he came into the office. She didn’t say anything to me because she felt like I would judge her as a supervisor. She didn’t say anything to him because she avoided conflict at all costs. When this staff person was sent to her office after yelling at a coworker, all her assumptions were confirmed. Obviously, he didn’t care about his job and harsh discipline had to be the first step. I have been in her shoes and have no doubts that she did what she thought was right based on the evidence in front of her. However, I also know that if both parties had heeded the advice of addressing the simmer before it got to a boil, the situation could have been entirely avoided. Furthermore, if they had been self-aware enough to recognize their heat sources, there would have been far more room for conversation and de-escalation at the time of the incident. We all learned something about our triggers and how we could respond to similar conflicts in the future. In my program, I am also now far more explicit about how and when to come to me for help!
I think it’s important to mention here that addressing problems or our feelings head on will not always solve the problems or dissipate the feelings. Sometimes the heat source is beyond our control and is the result of structural inequity, injustice, poor leadership, or crappy people doing crappy things. In these cases, addressing the simmer might look more like self-care (going for a run, having a glass of wine, going to therapy, watching a good movie, venting to a coworker, etc.), or it might be about finding a constructive, safe, and positive way out or forward (looking for a new job, finding a great therapist, lawyering up, writing a seething op-ed, etc.). When I found out that I was being paid substantially less than the men on my team, the simmer became a catalyst for looking for new opportunities. I knew there was no way to restore my trust in the agency or in my supervisor, but that didn’t mean that I needed to give into the feelings of powerlessness that would just continue to fuel my anger. Another time, when I brought a group of elementary students (all low-income, Hispanic five-year-olds) to a country club pool because the public pool was closed, and the cashier referred to them as “those kinds of kids,” I let the simmer push me directly into her Director’s office. That simmer is very much still simmering and fuels my work every day.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that sometimes we boil before we know there is a simmer. We also sometimes mislabel or misinterpret the heat source, making it quite challenging to do anything about the simmer. In both cases, experiences of trauma, anxiety, or depression might quicken our fight or flight responses. In my experience, it is important to identify the trauma or emotional state as one heat source and treat it at the same time as other (sometimes many) coexisting triggers. Furthermore, we must work to know ourselves and improve our self-awareness so that we can accurately assess what is going on and support ourselves. This includes working to help others better know themselves so that they can accurately communicate how they are feeling and why. I think we can all come up with times in our lives when we may have snapped at somebody for or completely overreacted to something ridiculous because we were simmering about something completely unrelated—I don’t truly care how my boyfriend folds the laundry, and misplacing a notebook is not really a reason to start hysterically crying. Addressing the simmer means that we must acknowledge these moments, attune to what’s true rather than what we might perceive to be true, and learn from our mistakes and imperfections. I believe that this mindfulness and attentiveness helps to subdue the simmer and bring us closer to discovering what is fueling our feelings, conflicts, anxiety, and stress. And then I believe we will minimize the moments where we lose control, say or do things we don’t mean, or act in ways that are not aligned with our best selves. By addressing the simmer and targeting the heat source, we can reduce our boiling potential, thereby increasing our capacity to be compassionate and responsive leaders, partners, and people.