There are two ways of getting anger wrong that I want to ponder today. One is the explosion of unhelpful, destructive or inappropriate rage. The other is the crushing of anger in the face of injustice, cruelty and the like. The more I think about it, the more certain I become that these two problematic responses to anger have similar underpinnings.
When anger comes as a sudden and disproportionate response, we didn’t get there all in one go. No one goes from calm to blind fury in a heartbeat because the loo seat was left up, or a small mistake made. Equally, no sane person ignores manifestations of tyranny, abuse, or mistreatment. Most of us may do one or the other, many of us do both. Consider our eco-suicide, toxic politics and the obscene wealth of the 1% and I suggest most of us spend a lot of time not getting angry about the right things.
The right things to be angry about are huge, terrifying, overwhelming. Little wonder if for some of us the process we prefer is to redirect all that fear and frustration into shouting at an employee, harassing a checkout operative, yelling at our partners and using bullying strategies when driving.
Other mechanisms are also available, and I think the most important ones are to do with the meanings we ascribe. We all tend to infer meanings from the words and actions of others. Most often what we’re looking to do is translate a situation so that we understand what it means for us. What do they think of us? Are they friendly, or hostile? Do they reinforce my sense of self or challenge my fragile ego? Is their world view comfortable? We can personalise our interpretations to a degree that really makes them wrong.
For example… imagine that my partner leaves the toilet seat up, and I don’t like it up. I have said so and he still does it. This is proof that he is ignoring me, does not care about what I think, need or feel. Every time I see the raised seat I treat it like a personal attack. It’s a slap in the face, a reminder that he doesn’t really care and feels he can treat me any way he likes. He’s just taking me for granted. And so each time I see the seat raised, I’ll get myself a bit more hurt and angry until eventually I explode. It may just be that he’s absent minded, and that when I explode over something he thought was no big deal, he will think I have had enough of him and am just looking for excuses to break up with him. (This is not my life, it is just a story.)
We can build towards explosive anger by telling ourselves stories about what situations mean. We can also go the other way. Here’s another illustrative story (also not Tom), also to involve toilets.
I’m the only one who cleans the toilet, and he leaves it in a terrible state. I have to clean it most days because there’s urine down the back of it and it’s covered in crap. He never flushes. Sometimes when there are guests he does this and I have to keep checking, cleaning, worrying. If I challenge him at all he gets really upset and tells me he’s ill and it’s not his fault or that I’m picking on him. I feel guilty about saying anything, and so each time I just clean up, and I feel a bit smaller, like my own worth has been chipped away at. Eventually I stop mentioning it. I stop asking him to change. He takes to pissing in the hand basin.
In both cases, what informs whether or not we get angry is the story we create for ourselves about what this whole situation says about us. The point at which you explode, or crumble, is not really the point to try and do any work with this. The trick is spotting the stories as you are creating them. Noticing the way you rack up offences and infer slights. Or notice the way you learn to roll with the blows and not make a fuss. Time taken to think about how we respond and why can help break the cycles of habitual thinking and behaviour that can make us needlessly angry, or powerless in our inability to express needful anger.