Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Which I Preach About Anger

I think I can now say, six months in, that my new outlook is pretty robust. I recently went through a rough on-call three-day weekend, followed by a grant writing session that was like having ten term papers due all at once, and although I had some unpleasant moments/hours, it did not affect my overall sense of wellbeing.

One episode did rock my boat: I thoughtlessly embarrassed a student in front of another student, and this upset me for days. I apologized immediately, of course, but I bobbed around in a sea of self-flagellation for several days afterward, and the mix of emotions was far more Old Me than New Me: shame, fear, defensiveness, etc. If I had stopped to think beforehand, it was something I would never have done, and this is what made it hard to forgive myself. (What helped was to confess it to TH—and, fortunately, hear him say “That is NOT a big deal.”) (If he’d said it WAS a big deal, I’m not sure what I would’ve done—actual self-flagellation with a cat o’ nine tails?)

So I think I’ll have to work on self-compassion in this area. I just really, really hate to hurt people. I blew off visiting a penpal when I was in Europe the summer I turned sixteen—I chose to hang out with my new boyfriend instead—and I have yet to forgive myself for this. And there’s no way to apologize now; I don’t even remember her name.

Anyway. About anger. First I’ll talk about the few instances in which anger HAS helped me.

I think that the utility of anger is to motivate people when they’re paralyzed by fear. It tips toward the “fight” side of fight or flight, and sometimes this is the better course. For instance: I used to play the violin. I was never great, but I was proficient. Yet I had such paralyzing performance anxiety that whenever there was any kind of tryout, I would end up placed far below where I should have been. (It’s a vicious, dog-eat-dog world, high school orchestra.) Then one day something the director said just before tryouts really pissed me off—and I performed brilliantly. After that, I would try to work myself into a rage before any performance, and it usually did the trick.

Another time it’s helped me is when I’ve had to say something very difficult but important to TH. For instance, last year he was having serious trouble handling HB. It was hard to watch, and maddening, because everything I suggested he do, he ignored. Then, on his impetus, we paid a visit to a psychologist. That session REALLY pissed me off, because it felt like TH and the psychologist were inappropriately demonizing HB. What was going on was that TH had a very hard time setting boundaries and sticking with them; he’d engage in these endless debates with TH, AND he would change the rules on him—quite unintentionally, but still. (The ghost of Nana, I guess.) And HB was acting up with him in pretty horrible ways (e.g., kicking him). Yet HB didn’t do these things with me.

I was afraid to really say it straight: I’m doing it right and you’re doing it wrong. But after that appointment, I was seething. I was angrier than I remember being in a long time. Thank heavens TH responded the way he did: he said, “I know you’re angry but don’t want to say anything. I know I’m doing it wrong. PLEASE just tell me what to do.” And I did, and he did it, and it was all fixed. (He also read the book 1-2-3 Magic, which didn’t speak to me, but had the vital advice that TH needed and that he’d ignored when I said it: No Talking and No Emotion. This is quite easy for me, and profoundly foreign for him.) (I’m starting to see a pattern of TH and good responses here …)

So I’m not saying anger never ever has a place. Neither do I wish to imply that righteous anger is not righteous (some of the time). It just takes a much, much larger spirit than most people (including me) have to channel it safely. I call it radioactive, and I think it’s a good analogy: like radiation, it can be wonderful when used the right way, deadly when not. And when you think about it, most of the amazing things that people have achieved in the setting of righteous anger were done nonviolently.

But in my daily life, and I’m assuming many people’s, anger is a dangerous remnant of a primitive necessity, the root of which is an often irrational fear. Stopping the fear can keep the anger from even entering the picture.

Think about what you were most afraid of when you were ten years old. Fifteen. Twenty. Twenty five. I’m betting that when you think back on it, almost everything you were afraid about turned out to be the wrong thing. Bad things happen, but they tend not to line up with the things we most worry will happen. (YES there are exceptions, I know.) So what makes you think that you’re worrying about the right things now? Have you really learned so much? Or will you look back in another ten years and think, how na├»ve I was?

And don’t forget that most of your fears are, like anger, useless. Yes, putting your kid in a carseat and installing smoke detectors are wise fear-based actions. But not asking because you’re afraid someone will say no is not. Not speaking up because for fear someone will think you’re stupid is not. Not enjoying the now because it will soon be gone … these are all things I’ve wasted too much of my life on.

I know I keep dancing around the how. How did I give up the fear? I’m still unable to write that manual. I can tell you my mantra: I am not afraid. It is soooo soothing to me in a tough moment. (“No fear” is more pleasing esthetically, but it didn’t work for me. I kept forgetting it, strangely enough.)

Here are some other ones that work for me and might for you:

Zoom out. This too shall pass. Choose compassion. This is my one life. I am not a victim. Let it go. This can’t hurt me. I am not the center of the universe. What shall I do with this energy? No whining. Pay attention. Listen.

Cheesy, bumper sticker- (or kitten poster-) worthy, yes. But I am not afraid of what people will think!


Mama Goose said...

Well, I think you're pretty wonderful. Thank you for this. I may just have to tattoo several of these mantras on my arm like crib notes.

Old MD Girl said...

Not speaking up because for fear someone will think you’re stupid is not.

It's clearly been a LONG time since you've been in medical school. That item is solidly ingrained as part of the hidden curriculum. Perhaps your persistent fear was a result of being too well socialized during medical school?

It has taken me a full year of PhD-dom since being in the hospital before I felt even a little comfortable asking "stupid" questions again. I don't know if I will ever be as truly unafraid as I was to ask questions again as I was before I went to med school.

PS -- I'm sure the med student appreciated your apology.

L. said...

That's really interesting and feels so relevant--in the past few weeks I feel like I have gained a new understanding of how totally fear rules my life, and cripples it--but I don't feel able to get around it yet. I guess just the recognition helps so I'm hoping that if I keep on noticing fear when it comes up, and confronting it and/or putting it aside, I will beat it.

But if you ever do write that manual, please let me know!

I really do like your mantras and am finding them food for thought already, so I am going to try to use them.

amy said...

One of my mantras is "Is this WORTH it?" It works wonders. When I begin to react, I ask myself is it WORTH this reaction, and most times it is not.

I am rarely truly angry. I carry anger with me, but use it only when absolutely necessary (see mantra, above). I have had so many reassuring responses to my anger when used in appropriate manners. I am a very easy-to-get-along with person and this has been proven time and again. The same people that tell me these things realize that they'd never want to see me really, truly angry. That's the effect I want. I don't want to rule with anger and fear, but I want people to know that I am capable of being righteously angry and can harness it.

I also like to remind myself of "No Regrets"... am I doing something that I will regret? This is a good rule for me :)

zb said...

I too frequently need to remind myself that I am not the center of the universe. It helps me realize that a world perfectly designed for me is not the end result of the cosmic forces that shaped the universe. And, that, in turn, means anger is a lot less meaningful.

I'm still working on fear, though. I have not reached the stage where fear of reaching the certainty of no, rather than the uncertainty of not knowing, doesn't keep me from asking/doing. It's delusional, but there's a comfort to procrastination, and maintaining the illusion of possibility (even if ultimately one lets the possibility die). Working on it, though.

I love this post, and your others on self reflection of where you've come to a more stable existence. I'm thinking there's a book in it for you (perhaps when HB is older, or you're retired :-). I hope you're keeping notes! I'd read it.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded that I'm not the center of the universe, except my own tiny head, every day. I'm extremely grateful and humble, if I do say so my modest self (ha) ;-)

What resonates with me more, because I'm not a woman of means or a worshiped and pampered housegoddess, is the learning to let go of the anger or channel it productively and as lovingly as possible. I AM grateful and appreciative, but I AM angry some times. That's my conundrum. Maybe I'm not asking for what I need?

r3 said...

Hi DM,
Not to change the subject, but on an unrelated maggot tangent, I saw this today, and I instantly thought of you. This is so inspiring: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/19/sports/19racers.html?_r=2&WT.mc_id=SP-SM-E-FB-SM-LIN-SWR-071910-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

E. said...

I think that "I am not afraid of what people will think!" would be a good mantra as well (or maybe" I am not afraid of what other people think!" to make it less specific and more general).

This is related to the anger thing, in my experience, because sometimes anger in my daily life comes from a feeling (whether accurate or not) that a loved one has perceived me in a negative way. And if I'm not afraid of other people seeing me in a negative light, maybe I won't need to react angrily. That doesn't mean I don't care how others perceive me, but it doesn't have to be an issue of fear, of that sort of primal reactiveness that can spring up with the people I'm closest to.

E. said...

P.S. Re: cheesy and bumper sticker or kitten poster worthy: Your mention of AA slogans like "Fake it 'til you make it" in your original post made me think about how we smart people can avoid a lot of important truths through overintellectualizing. Sometimes a truth is so important and the problem it touches on is so difficult that we need a good old cross-stitchable aphorism to use like a mantra.

If you haven't read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, consider it. One of the most interesting aspect of this giant and amazing novel, in my reading, is his complex and vivid exploration of AA culture, and why it works. He has a particularly compelling meditation via my favorite character of the aphorism thing.

Artful Lawyer said...

I'm going to adopt all of your mantras, in a list. I've been up, but in the last few days I've gotten knocked way down and come up again.

And you know? This is my one life, and this too shall pass.

Artful Lawyer said...

Oh - and this is my response to fear now.

I'm not a very religious person but I keep hearing Kiri Te Kanawa's voice in my head from my Messiah CD - the "fear not" part of the Messiah.

Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy.

Heidi said...

"Zoom out". I love it. Will definitely be using that one.

Hey, speaking of David Foster Wallace, have you read this? (It's a little long and rambly, so wait until you have a minute...)


It's really stuck with me and is along the lines of some things you've mentioned here.

Kirsten said...

one of the platitudes i often remind myself about anger is something i saw on facebook of all places: mad = sad's blanket. and for me, that's often true. if i dig down to the root of my anger, it's usually really that someone has hurt me. anger is just such an easier go-to emotion most of the time.

Kirsten said...

one of the platitudes i often remind myself about anger is something i saw on facebook of all places: mad = sad's blanket. and for me, that's often true. if i dig down to the root of my anger, it's usually really that someone has hurt me. anger is just such an easier go-to emotion most of the time.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear. The advice of "think about the things you feared when you were twenty, or fifteen" didn't work for me. A lot of the most terrible things I've feared have come to pass, and were often worse than I thought, with much more far-reaching consequences than I could ever have anticipated.

My mother developed severe dementia in her 50s and lived fifteen years in a nursing home before she died; much of that time she was nonambulatory. My brother stopped talking to me and everyone else in the family when he was 22 and I haven't seen or heard from him for 23 years. My oral exam went so badly in graduate school that I was essentially told I should leave the program.

In each instance, I worried that I could have handled these things, or prepared, better. I feared that I wasn't coping well enough. In fact, I wasn't coping well enough, I didn't prepare well enough. I failed myself and others.

The fear wasn't helpful, but it was accurate.


Jennifer said...

I agree with the person who says "Is it worth it?"

I used to get all worked up about trivial things. Now there are a few things I care deeply about, but mainly keep to myself, and the rest? Meh.

Ozma said...

This is just a strange thing, that you've solved for yourself what I regard as *my* problems. I think I need to just read this blog every couple weeks until something in my brain snaps into place and I figure out how to do what you've done.

Toffee said...

Great post. I hope only my med school professors had that compassionate thought when they were cross with me. But as a student, you're so used to it, it's probably refreshing to have someone apologize to you. And I am 14 years post med school.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Mama,
It's time to post again....

Paige said...

Dr. Mama,

Could you give me your advice on running in the early morning or evening? Here in MN, it is dark in the morning hours now and is dark after supper. Do you have any thoughts on the LED lights that clip to the bill of a hat?

Dragonfly said...

Doctor Mama,
Any advice for running in someone who gets terrible shin splints? I've changed my running style which made it better but it still happens if I run more than twice a week.

A Would-be Better Maggot.