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!