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Please, Don't Yell

Yelling is not an effective way to communicate.

Key points

  • Chronic yelling has a negative impact on all relationships.
  • Yelling leads to activation of the threat system: fight, flight, or freeze.
  • Yelling often is learned either by being the target of it or witnessing it.
Oneinchpunch/ Shutterstock
Source: Oneinchpunch/ Shutterstock

“So I yelled at her. It’s not like I hit her.”

“He is just so frustrating. He came home an hour after his curfew. Of course, I lost my temper and yelled at him.”

And a teenager stated, “I told my younger sister to stop teasing me. And then I yelled at her to stop.”

The fact is yelling may occur even in the most loving and caring relationships. However, a raised voice can trigger our threat system—and by doing so takes it to another level. It can easily move us into a fight, flight, or freeze state.

The amygdala, hypothalamus, and polyvagal nerve become activated, so as to move our body from a state of calm to a state of arousal associated with increases in adrenaline and cortisol and an increase in physical and mental energy focused on surviving a threat.

A fight state might entail retaliatory anger and yelling. It creates hypervigilance to further anticipated threats and may only lead to defensiveness.

The fight state might also be reflected in the arousal of harsh judgmental self-talk, intensely criticizing oneself. The freeze state might be observed as physically turning inward, averting one’s gaze, and shoulders curved inward. This state may be associated with shame, that overwhelming feeling of being defective or inadequate as a person. And flight may entail physical or emotional withdrawal.

The negative impact of yelling

Such behavior may lead to empathy, avoidance, counterattack, or an attack on the self—incriminating blame and shame as the target over-emphasizes their role in such a scene.

Whether the yelling occurs between two adult partners, a parent and a child, or a supervisor and her supervisee, it robs an individual of a sense of safety and trust. It fosters constriction in thinking, real problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Additionally, such behavior may only trigger intensely negative feelings and thoughts in someone who already has a history of emotional or physical abuse and neglect.

Yelling is especially impactful on children. When frequent, it can lead to anxiety, moodiness, shame, frequent crying, fear, guilt, withdrawal from parents, confusion, and powerlessness. Additionally, it can contribute to behavioral problems.

Contributing factors to yelling

Yelling may result from feeling overwhelmed, hurt, and fear and is often an attempt to feel heard. However, it actually undermines listening by both parties, as you become focused on gaining a sense of safety and control.

Yelling may provide you with a sense of control and power in the short term, but it undermines genuine intimacy in the long term. It diminishes trust and the sense of safety that allows for more candid communication.

Like much anger, yelling may arise as an unconscious attempt at self-compassion. It reflects a longing to feel heard and understood. However, like much anger, it is a temporary distraction from experiencing the rawness of more vulnerable feelings. And, as with physical aggression, it’s important to remember that yelling is a form of verbal abuse.

Childhood yelling

We often treat others how we’ve been treated. As a parent, you might automatically respond with yelling if you were the target of such behavior as a child. You might yell at a partner if you observed yelling between your parents. Certainly, there are other routes that culminate in the habit of yelling.

And certainly, yelling in an effort to gain attention when observing the potential for harm, is very different than the negative impact of routine yelling.

It's very easy to say, “Well, that’s how I was treated as a kid. It’s no big deal.” However, I’ve observed in my clinical work that such statements often reflect a blurring of memory. It’s often the case that a child might try to tell him or herself that it is no big deal, when in fact it feels demeaning, hurtful, and is experienced as a betrayal.

And, all too often, it is what some of us do when we have suppressed just how hurtful it was to be the target of yelling.

Overcoming the tendency to yell calls for self-monitoring, an essential ingredient in changing any habit. Some strategies are proactive, and by engaging in them we cultivate the capacity to pause and reflect, rather than simply react. It requires effort, practice, and time to change our habits.

Proactive strategies for reducing yelling

The following is a list of skills that you can learn to help reduce yelling.

  1. Become aware of your body’s sensations, specifically the tension that arises when you experience conflict. Learn ways to calm your body, which may include body relaxation and breathing exercises, mindfulness, mindfulness self-compassion, and exercises to calm your polyvagal nerve, a nerve that is very much involved in causing arousal or calmness.
  2. It's important to remember that it is easier to calm your body first than to try to calm your mind. It requires awareness of your anger and being able to pause and direct your attention inward—to recognize the specific hurt you are feeling. And when you can identify those feelings, you can share them.
  3. Much of emotional regulation also entails being able to identify and recognize those negative feelings behind your anger, such as anxiety, fear, betrayal, shame, powerlessness, or feeling devalued. You can cultivate this skill by performing an emotional check with a feelings list, or wheel, several times daily. These are available online.
  4. Learn skills in assertive communication, which highlights stating how you are feeling impacted, and sharing those feelings that have triggered your anger. It calls for actually being vulnerable if you are to enhance intimacy in any relationship.
  5. By cultivating self-compassion and compassion for others, you can become more attuned to your core desires, as well as enhance your capacity for empathy with others.
  6. Cultivate the habit of setting aside some time each week to share something positive about your partner and the time you have shared. This highlights the attention to the positive that can be more readily accessed in moments of disagreement.
  7. Identify a word that either one of you can say when you are feeling unsafe—with the agreement to stop discussing the issue until you both have had time to pause, self-soothe, and reflect on the issue. You might resume in an hour, several hours later, or even the next day. I recommend a word or phrase that might provide a humorous tone, such as turtle, squirrel, or guppy.
  8. Spend some time speaking in a low voice, as a rehearsal for times when you might feel like raising it.
  9. Recognize that you might resort to yelling due to frustration of expectations you have for the other person, some of which may be unrealistic or held on to too rigidly. Recognize that you may hold on to expectations that a partner should agree with you, rather than remember that you are two unique individuals with your own set of values, attitudes, likes, and dislikes. And when differences arise, you may need to have a discussion that can lead to compromise, an agreement to disagree, or even defer when the issue is not one reflective of a deeply held core value.

Yelling might arise in any relationship. However, it is destructive when it arises habitually. It might be easy to assume that yelling is just a part of who you are or that it is always ok because you were yelled at.

However, regardless of your history of yelling you can learn to have greater control of this tendency. And, if you take the time to do so, you will develop healthier and more rewarding relationships—with others and with yourself.

More from Bernard Golden, Ph.D.
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