Over the last few weeks we have been discussing the idea of bitterness at work – starting with confessions from a bitter high performer. In the last post, we identified the need for effective coping mechanisms for handling anger or bitterness. So in this post we will explore some constructive coping mechanisms that you can use when you find yourself angry or combating that smoldering resentment we sometimes call: bitterness.

Anger – is it really all that bad?

Anger is one of the core emotions that all humans experience. And, in general, it is a valuable emotion because it brings to the surface when there’s something not ‘right’. The best description I’ve heard for anger is: frustration due to a gap between what is and what you believe should be. The strength of that frustration can be experienced as minor irritation to extreme rage.

There’s three ways humans can respond to anger. They can:

  1. Express it
  2. Repress it
  3. Calm it

The ideal way to handle anger is to express it. By expressing it, you have the opportunity to address the gap between what you expect and what is actual. By expressing the anger there is an opportunity to shrink the gap.

Presumably, if you are experiencing bitterness, expression hasn’t worked or you don’t feel ‘safe’ expressing the anger. Which leads us to the next two options of handling anger, which is to repress it or to calm it. Or, said differently, the need for coping mechanisms.

Coping mechanisms – Are we going to start talking about Freud now?

It wouldn’t be surprising if you immediately thought of Freud’s defense mechanisms when I mentioned repressing anger. In truth, Freud introduced the idea that we have subconscious responses that protect ourselves from experiencing anxiety or guilt.

Freud identified a number of defense mechanisms that you are likely familiar with:

  • Repression
  • Regression
  • Projection
  • Denial
  • Displacement
  • Sublimation

For the most part, these defense mechanisms work. But they aren’t the most healthy methods for coping with stress or anger at work. They aren’t healthy because they can hinder you from ever feeling ‘safe enough’ to deal with the situation. And ultimately, when we don’t deal with the anger…we end up with smoldering resentment. Also known as bitterness.

So let’s consider some of the more healthy coping mechanisms for coping with stress and anger at work.

The ABCs of coping mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are defined as cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980, p. 223).

There are a number of ways to categorize coping mechanisms. One categorization is active versus avoidant strategies. Active coping strategies are methods to try to reduce the negative outcome. Whereas avoidant coping skills are attempts to ignore or avoid the situation. Inherently, proactive efforts to reduce the negative outcome are going to be more healthy.

Now, if you google how to deal with anger, you’re going to find articles recommending things like sleeping more, eating healthy food, exercising, and the like. And, I agree. Those are all excellent methods of coping.

But as a recovering bitter high performer myself, I can say frankly that the last thing I wanted to do was eat a salad. And, insomnia is hard to argue with when the rumination of anger wakes you up at 3am.

So I wanted to offer you something more than the usual coping mechanisms. Or, as I like to call them the ABCs of coping. These include:

  • Adaptive
  • Behavioral
  • Cognitive

As I describe these mechanisms, I want to be upfront in saying that when taken to an extreme they can become unhealthy.

Adaptive coping mechanisms

One way to cope with a situation that causes you frustration is to accept it as the norm. This is not the same as bitterly thinking, “Things will never change around here!” This coping mechanism is an acceptance that this is how things are and then working within those constraints.

I worked with a client that railed against her supervisor. She told me that she never got to talk with him. She angrily talked about how she had so many ideas for how to improve their work. Yet, he refused to meet with her.

As I explored this with her, it came to light that her supervisor preferred written communication. She, conversely, preferred the face-to-face interaction where they could hash through ideas. In part, she interpreted this as her supervisor being unwilling to hear her. And, perhaps more of a subconscious thought was that she shouldn’t have to change her communication style.

To get past the anger though she needed to adapt.

By her adapting to communicating her ideas through emails and white papers, it didn’t change her preference for face-to face. She admittedly had to learn about how to be persuasive in a new way. But it did alleviate her anger over not getting to share her ideas.

Behavioral coping mechanisms

This style of coping is about changing your behavior to reduce your negative experience. For some, the go-to behavioral coping mechanism is avoiding the target of their stress or anger. And while this isn’t always a bad idea, used long term it isn’t the most healthy.

One way to use this mechanism to react differently. And, it’s probably where the phrase, “I’m laughing because otherwise I’d cry” came from.

I had a client who managed someone who communicated ineffectively via email – which happened to be the preferred method of communication for both of them.

As a result, tasks took much longer. There were tons of miscommunication. And, the manager spent a lot of time correcting the team members’ work. His natural tendency was to avoid working with this team member as it only caused him stress. He put off reading the team members email and many of them went unanswered. And, as you might expect a bitterness was developing.

In working with this client, we decided to go against the natural tendency. To respond entirely differently. The client set up reoccurring status meetings twice a week. This got them both out of email. And, it got this client away from the avoidance coping mechanism he had been using.

In the course of these status meetings, the two of them began to get to know each other on a personal level. They began chatting about things before the meeting like the team member’s rental property frustrations. They shared a love of the beach and talked about upcoming vacations. And, they began to truly communicate with each other. While it didn’t solve the whole problem, it shook up the status quo. And, it alleviated the repressed anger that had been building up with every email exchange.

Cognitive coping mechanisms

This coping mechanism is about consciously thinking about things differently. This is different from the coping mechanism called intellectualism. Intellectualism is a mechanism where the person separates out his/her emotions about the situation and only considers the logic or facts of the situation. On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good approach. In reality, it’s still repressing the anger – not changing the outcome.

A healthy method of cognitive coping is called reframing. It is a focus on the good in the situation or what good could come of the situation. Or, focusing on what is achieved rather than what was not.

Research has found that reframing is especially good for perfectionists who have a tendency to be dissatisfied no matter what is achieved.

Another client I worked with had what could easily be identified as a micromanaging boss. The client was someone who had been a high performer in previous jobs with very little managerial oversight. It wasn’t long after having document after document  revised and rewritten before smoldering anger grew. Especially since these revisions were what she called, ‘happy to glad’ changes. As she explained it, ‘happy to glad’ changes were ones that were minor word changes that offered no significant improvement on a sentence.

(For a somewhat amusing explanation of happy to glad changes, check out Bill Adam’s post on the topic)

So how do you reframe this?

In her case, we explored possible reasons for why the manager was micromanaging.

It might be the quality of her work. But, since she’d not heard these critiques before and the minor changes that were being made, this was quickly dismissed. It may be that the manager felt pressure from his manager. And, as a result he had become afraid of anyone on his team making mistakes. Another explanation might be that he felt intimidated by her and was compensating by providing ‘feedback.’

Now, it’s hard to know what the real reason was for the micromanaging behavior. And it didn’t entirely matter. What mattered is that the reasons we’d come up with together made it clear that it wasn’t about her. In the course of this exploration, she gained some unexpected empathy for the manager. But most importantly, she focused on the fact that her writing was actually improving. It became a game to see if she could reduce the number of edits that were made on each draft as she learned his preferences. And, as a result she had upped her writing skills during her time in that job.


I know this was a longer post than normal. So thank you for having made it all the way down here.

My hope is that through this series of posts on bitterness, that you don’t see this as a series of negativity. But rather as a means to help you be happier at work. To find a way out of, or to stay away from bitterness.

In case you missed the first two posts on bitterness, check out:

Confessions of a bitter high performer

Does forgiveness cure bitterness