Tag Archives: anger

Working with Fear

Fear is a difficult emotion to experience, and is harder to work with. All too often, what we do with fear is to take it out on someone else in the form of anger. When you do this, you get a brief sense of having power and being in control. This can be uplifting in the short term because fear is usually underpinned by a loss of power, or the expectation of powerlessness. However, venting it as anger on whoever is to hand is a quick route to more stress and less emotional support. It also doesn’t solve the original problem.

Unprocessed fear can also turn inwards, and become an anger we take out on ourselves. Self-blame, shame, obsessing over what we can’t change, obsessing over the risks and spiralling into every more despairing thought patterns doesn’t really solve anything either.

Our bodies do a very short term fear response when we need to get out of situations. Fear should kick in our flight/fight responses to get us out of trouble. When we’re dealing with something other than immediate, physical danger, it needs a bit more thought. However unattractive a prospect it may seem to be, the best thing to do with fear is sit down quietly with it and examine it.

Fear is most often underpinned by love and pre-emptive grief. That love may be directed towards ourselves – we are afraid of suffering or dying. We are afraid of what we may lose that we value. We fear for that which we love – be that people, landscapes, wildlife, cultural features… Conscious that we are threatened with loss, we can enter into pre-emptive grief processes. We can go through grief stages over things and people that are not yet lost to us but probably will be. Sometimes this can turn out to be a useful coping mechanism, sometimes it brings the reason for fear into sharper focus.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to get to grips with what you are afraid of losing. What you’ll find there is what matters to you. Your love. And if at first glance what you find seems selfish and all about you, then it is simply your love for your own life and experience that you are afraid of losing.

Fear isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a ‘negative’ emotion to try and avoid. It can teach us about what matters most. It can show us the truth of what we value. It’s easy to lose your real values under layers of social conditioning, but fear can cut through that bullshit at a terrifying pace to tell you what is most important, least bearable and in that insight, is the scope to find your heart.

In the end, we all die, we all lose everything. We’re all on that trajectory together and there’s not much point being afraid of our unavoidable destination. But along the way, we can take care of what we love, make the most of it, cherish it while we can.


Delayed grief

There was never time. There was always someone or something else that was more important. Bills to pay. People to appease. Bullied for mourning the death of a friend because the person I was living with at the time felt that as a personal attack. Told there wasn’t time for me to cry when I lost my home and had to pack my stuff. The things I was not allowed to mourn. The things I did not realise at the time that I deserved to grieve over – harm done to me that I had been persuaded was my fault and no more than I deserve.

Grief isn’t just for bereavement. What I do know from studies into bereavement though, is that grief you don’t deal with at the time will haunt you, and reappear in unexpected shapes and be harder to deal with.

So here I am, and there’s a lot of it. I have carried this a long way. In my mind, in my body. There are so many implications, and so much I need to work through so odds are I’ll be talking about this on and off for a while. Hopefully there’s someone else out there who will find it useful.

What I’m noticing at the moment is the massive shift in thinking that allows me, for the first time, to see myself as entitled to grieve. I’ve stopped framing my distress as a failing on my part. It’s so often been framed that way for me. The idea being that what was happening was fine, and what was unreasonable was my response to it. Things that hurt me, were hard for me, frightened me, and stole away my confidence were not things I deserved. I was never that bad a person (is anyone?). “That’s not fair” was a statement I was not allowed to make for too long. Well, it wasn’t fair, and I can say it now, and in doing so change how I think about my former self.

It wasn’t ok that I was afraid for so much of the time. It wasn’t ok that my feelings were mocked and treated as irrelevant. It wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to have preferences or to express myself, or to have any and all emotional expression treated as emotional blackmail. It wasn’t ok to be put in situations that made it difficult for me to sleep, and it wasn’t ok that my sleep problems didn’t matter. It wasn’t ok to have things that should have been at least a bit about me arranged entirely for other people’s benefit.

I have lived with rage directed inwards and self-hatred because of how I’ve been de-personed and made responsible for what was done to me. I’ve lived with shame and fear, and stories about how the very nature of my body justified what was happening to me. I’ve lived with unspeakable, un-acknowledgeable grief that has been crushing me for pretty much my whole life. I’ve lived feeling unable to talk about it because I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable and there are people who, if they read this, could feel uncomfortable. But unless I square up to all this, I can’t change anything. So here, in this space that is my space I am making some room to assert that there a great deal of things in my history that really weren’t ok.

I’ve been giving myself permission to feel angry about this. It’s been a personal sort of process, I will not take that anger to anyone else, to do so would serve no purpose. But I can be angry for me, and for the person I was and the person I could have been. And I can grieve it, and keep saying that it was not justified, it was not my fault, I did not deserve it.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.


Contexts for depression

One of the things that makes it difficult to ask for help around depression, is that depression takes away any feeling that it is worth asking for help. It leaves me feeling that I am worth far less than anyone I might inconvenience with my distress. I feel that it would be better to make no fuss, to hide it, or to go away. However, alongside this it is worth noting that most depression is caused by experiences, not body chemistry, so not being able to ask for help usually means not being able to do anything about the source of the problem.

I blogged recently about anger and humiliation, and it’s become apparent to me how this intersects with depression. It’s often said that depression is anger turned inwards, but it is also the experience of dealing with people who get angry when you express difficulty. It’s being afraid to say there’s a problem in case you bringing it up is a bigger issue than you being unhappy. If the angry defensive response of the person who hurt you in the first place is likely to be even more harmful than the original harm, you soon learn not to say anything.

The person who has gone a few rounds with people who didn’t care, wouldn’t deal with issues, only wanted to be comfortable… that person learns not to make a fuss. They learn that their mental health is less important, while other people being comfortable at all times is more important. They learn that they are not worth as much as the people who get angry with them. The more exposure to this you get, the more you are likely to internalise it. The more you internalise it, the more likely you are to beat yourself up, not seek help, and view any situation in which your ‘illness’ has made someone else uncomfortable, as a potential threat to you.

As a culture, we make depression an issue for the individual, with cure a personal thing to sort out. I can say with confidence that it is nigh on impossible to fix this kind of dynamic while being in it. This is an example of the sort of thing where the behaviour of third parties can change everything. Do you encourage people to paper over the cracks, not make a fuss? Do you take people seriously if they admit they have a problem? Do you step in if one person seems to have far too much of the power in a situation? Do you challenge people who won’t look at their own issues or do you tacitly support their behaviour by staying silent?

When we do nothing, we support the person with the most power. When we do nothing, we facilitate the aggressors and bullies, and the people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and inaction. Not getting involved is not an act of holding the middle ground, it is not an act of neutrality. Doing nothing is how we help bullies carry on, how we let abusers off the hook, and how we fail to tackle people who, unwittingly perhaps, are really piling the shit on those around them. Doing nothing and saying nothing sends a clear message that we have no problem with what’s going on. If more people were willing to be a bit uncomfortable now and then, many people would not have to spend their lives mired in utter despair and misery.


Anger and humiliation

Put in the same sort of situation, some people respond with defensive anger, and others feel shame, humiliation and guilt. As far as I can make out, the response has more to do with the person than their circumstances.

The person who is defensively angry often won’t take responsibility for things gone awry. They don’t change, or it will take a great deal of pushing to persuade them change is in order. The plus side for them is that they maintain feelings of personal integrity and worth, they don’t end up doubting and mistrusting themselves, they are more confident and remain able to stand their ground.

The person who responds with guilt, shame and feeling humiliated will try and change themselves to fix things. They’ll take responsibility, even when there’s nothing they can really do. Humiliated people lose confidence and self esteem, and become less able to protect their own boundaries. There will be times when being able to learn and change things will be to their benefit, but often this kind of response will be costly.

Put together two people, one who does defensive anger and one who does guilt, and what will happen is that one party does not change at all, and the other becomes responsible for everything. If it’s easy to make the humiliation-prone person responsible for everything, then the defensive person may become even less inclined to keep an eye on their own responsibilities.

Put two defensive people together and you’ll get a lot of arguments and not much resolution. Point scoring and trying to blame the other will feature heavily, but things will only change if one person succumbs to being the guilty party. The most likely resolution is to pull away from each other.

It’s when you put two people who can be shamed and humiliated together that you can see what’s going on. Two people who take things to heart, take responsibility and are prepared to change in order to fix things, will negotiate. They’re more likely to try and figure out what the real issues are, rather than just trying to blame each other. As both are likely to feel responsible, they will look for ways to work together in order to create solutions. When two easily humiliated people are working together, the net result is often not one of humiliation, but of cooperation and real change.

I’ve noticed bystanders are often persuaded that the defensive anger equates to innocence and those who are shamed are guilty, and this doesn’t help at all. How people respond is a reflection of who they are, and not a reflection of what happened.

And most things, it has to be said, are better dealt with by working together rather than blaming, or making one person entirely responsible.

There is scope for choice here, in the moment of discomfort. Do we make space to look at it and see what we could have done better? Or do we throw up walls and refuse to engage, lashing back at the person who dared to make us feel uncomfortable? In practice we all need to be able to field both responses, but for many of us it’s one or the other.


Tips for angry arguments

Politics doesn’t bring out the best in people, and angry political exchanges can put strains on otherwise viable friendships. What to do if someone you thought was ok starts spewing hate, insults and what looks to you like madness?

  • Don’t respond in kind. You’ll just cause them to dig in and may confirm their prejudices.
  • If they respond to facts and evidence with insults and unfounded belief, you won’t shift them by hitting them with facts. Instead, ask for their facts and evidence. Ask for the underlying philosophy of their stance. The odds are they are regurgitating unconsidered propaganda. By asking them politely to explain it, you force them to look at it, and this can be rather effective.
  • People project. If greed and self interest are their major motivators, they may be unable to imagine that anyone else has other motivations. Thus it is normal for anyone defending the welfare state to be told that they, personally want a handout and that’s their only motivation. It is worth saying if you are secure and altruistic, but don’t expect them to believe you! Try asking how they picture their old age, how they feel about their own health care prospects, how confident they are that their families can pay the bills for them in an emergency. Keep it focused on them if that seems to be all they can think about.
  • Don’t rise to the insults, and don’t reply in kind. Insults can be undermined as conversation weapons by agreeing with them – I’ve told many an antifeminist that yes, he’s right, I am fat and ugly and that doesn’t bother me at all. When recently told I lived in a swamp I enthused at length about how fantastic swamps are for water management and wildlife. You get the idea. Laugh at the insult and say you’ve heard it before and they need to try for something more original if they want to cause offence. Give them points out of ten for creativity. Treat it like a joke. If they cross the line into hate speech, report them, but otherwise laugh until they lose the will to abuse you. This includes being called stupid, naive, gullible etc – don’t defend your politics to them, it doesn’t work. ‘I’m sure it comforts you to believe that’ is more effective.
  • Sometimes on social media you’ll meet someone who is working from a script. They may be a hired troll. They may be part of a group with unpleasant intentions. Their main aim may be to suck up your time, energy and hope. Unless you know them personally, I advise stepping away because they’re a waste of your time. Here’s some signs to take into account – no discussion, only insults. Incoherence – dropping things like ‘ah, the sweet taste of liberal tears’ in where it makes no sense, referencing irrelevant things (still banging on about Hillary Clinton for example) responding to all questions by calling you butt hurt…. if there’s no real exchange, there’s not much point and they may not be a real person anyway.

It is always ok to walk away from people. Even people you know in real life if they become unbearable to deal with. We are not obliged to try and save other people from themselves. There are some big, social conversations that need to be won, but we don’t win those by echoing the behaviour of angry trolls, or by getting lured under their bridges to play their games.


The Energy of Anger

Anger gets things done. It gives us the drive to rise up, making noise and change. If someone can tap into our anger, we can be persuaded to act in all kinds of unsavoury ways, feeling justified by the force of our emotions. As we live in a culture where anger itself is seen as a reason for violence, if we get angry, any physical or psychological violence we undertake as a consequence can seem justified. We may even be proud of it, our anger having told us that we have the moral high ground, and that the ends justify the means.

I think it’s always worth being wary about what we can be manipulated into doing. So much of what is nasty in politics right now comes from feeding the anger of people who feel squeezed and then telling them who to blame. And so the anger that should more rightly have been directed towards power and money is instead used to hate the poor, refugees and other powerless, vulnerable people who make easy targets.

The energy of anger feels powerful, but the trouble is that on its own, all we can use it for is to knock down. Sometimes a bit of knocking down is necessary, but it’s never a whole solution. If all we have to work with was anger then we are not prepared for dealing with the aftermath – again modern politics is littered with unfortunate examples. We go to war, we have no idea how to build peace.

In the short term, the rush of anger energy may seem productive, but it tends to emotionally exhaust people. It won’t feed or inspire you, and to stay angry you have to deliberately keep stoking the fires of hate, and this seldom does anyone much good. Groups whose unity depends on anger have to keep finding new things to hate in order to keep moving. When anger is your energy there has to be a bad guy, an enemy, and something to fight against. You can’t make anything better when your whole way of being relies on having someone to fight. You can’t smash patriarchy, you have to build an alternative.

It’s really important not to get caught up in anger, but instead to keep an eye on what we are fighting for. What’s the real goal? What are we building? How are we going to make things better? Anger used alongside this, for short term necessary bursts of action, can serve a cause well. Anger on its own can only lock us into more fighting and destruction.


Not Getting On With People

We’re all peace and love and light, yes? The idea that we are, and that we should be, causes no end of trouble and I think sometimes adds to conflict. The reality is that there are many people in this world who do not get on with each other. It need not mean that either party is a terrible person (some people do terrible things though, this is a real issue). Sometimes, some of us rub each other up the wrong way. Sometimes we’re too similar to find each other bearable. Sometimes we bring out the worst in each other.

If we don’t feel obliged to be all peace, love and light, it’s possible to just acknowledge the problem and step away from each other. Distance is a great cure for friction. It doesn’t even take much distance – a little facebook unfriending, a little staying away from each other’s blogs, a little physical distance in other situations.

I spent years struggling with the mad belief that I should be so lovely, so infinitely flexible, accommodating, helpful, patient etc etc that everyone would like me. Everyone.  Never mind how inherently nauseating that would be if I managed to pull it off – the human equivalent of a beige carpet with the inevitable stains covered up by equally beige rugs. The day I realised it was fine if people didn’t like me, my life got a good deal easer. I don’t have to please and appease everyone. I may be a people-pleaser by nature, but I can choose how and where to do that.

Giving myself permission not to like everyone has been liberating. I do not give myself permission to hassle, troll or otherwise give people a hard time though – with the exception of politicians and other people in places of real power who may need calling to account now and then. Other flawed, messy people doing their own things might not be to my liking. I allow myself to move away from them. The endlessly dull people, the mean spirited, the controlling, the self-important, the uncooperative and so on and so forth.

I have learned to walk away and try to make as little fuss as possible. When the focus of my irritation responds to me in the same way, its fine. We might even be able to grudgingly respect each other from a safe distance. If they stay out of my face, they can expect I will do the same, because conflict is exhausting and I don’t enjoy it in the slightest. I would rather have a quieter life.

Of course it’s not always that simple. Some people enjoy a fight, and the frisson of conflict. Some people get a kick out of drama, and the scope for being centre stage. Some people need others in their lives to act out specific roles for them so that their stories continue to function. Being cast as someone else’s villain, someone’s oppressor and abuser is awkward if you really don’t want to play. Refusing to put any energy into a conflict is often the most productive way, because the person who feeds on drama and needs a fight doesn’t get much out of the person who isn’t really doing that.

Would that I were an ocean of smooth calm, unsusceptible to waves, but of course I’m not. I have buttons to push, I can be wound up, harassed to the point of losing my temper. If I feel I’ve been treated unfairly, I don’t always manage to go with the conflict-reduction methods. I know from bitter experience that simply removing energy from a situation can mean setting up someone else to be the next victim of the same process, and I don’t always feel at ease with that. Sometimes I get cross, because anger is a necessary part of holding boundaries.

Getting angry with a situation allows us all to hold a sense of self intact and place the problem squarely outside of us. It can be a vital survival skill. Holding the edges is a good thing, but it’s so easy to let defending the boundary turn into attacking the (perhaps imagined) aggressor, and from there it isn’t such a huge leap to doing unto others before they can do unto you, and becoming the problem.

It is ok not to like each other. Another person’s dislike does not invalidate any of us as people. It’s what we do with the dislike that counts.


Coping With Fear

In the aftermath of Brexit, I see a lot of people frightened for the future. The feelings of uncertainty, the not knowing what could be lost or how they might be affected. Then there’s the grief compounding it – grief for the loss of the idea of Europe. I admit that what happened with Greece had already left me questioning my idea of Europe. The loss of a dream is always a painful thing.
I’ve been coping with anxiety for years, and I’m finding all the things I have to do in other aspects of my life are just as relevant here, and so perhaps worth sharing.

You have to manage your thoughts. This means noticing what you are thinking in the first place and not letting thoughts run wild and cause distress. It is important to make time for whatever emotions are coming up – fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment – whatever you’ve got. But the trick is to give those feelings time without letting them take over. Perhaps the best way to do this is to watch out for and avoid the idea that how you feel justifies certain actions. I am afraid so I can run away. I am angry so I can lash out etc. Not only does this cause trouble out there in the rest of the world, but it gives power to your feelings. Run away because you were scared, and you’ll stay scared.

There are physical situations that need running away from to stay safe, but that’s about changing your relationship with the rest of the world. If the problem is your own emotions, running away doesn’t work.

Denial doesn’t work, either. Complex mental loops that allow everything to be for your higher good can leave you unable to process, or handle, your actual life experiences and their actual emotional impact on you. Self honesty is best, but self honesty doesn’t have to get so involved with itself that it becomes dysfunctional.

While looking at how you are feeling, it is important not to escalate things. Those of us with more darkly creative minds can see a thousand and one ways to go to hell in a handcart. There’s a technical term for this in mental health, it’s called ‘catastrophising’. If you take how you were feeling and imagine the worst possible ways it could play out, you will feel much, much worse about things. The emotions you were feeling will grow to unmanageable proportions and you’ll make yourself ill. It is possible to control your own thoughts, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is very necessary indeed.
If you can stay in control of your own thoughts, it’s a lot easy to work out what you need to be thinking about. What, realistically can you do? What might be a useful investment against more likely troubles? When your head isn’t full of imagined disaster, it’s easy to get on with reducing the scope for actual disaster.

There’s a fairy tale about a bird who is so afraid the sky will fall on their head, that they aren’t paying attention to other things and end up eaten by a fox. Hold that thought. The sky probably isn’t going to fall, but there are plenty of hungry predators to avoid.


Contemplating violence

No one starts by killing someone.

There is a process of escalation, increasing levels of violence, or a psyching up to the attack. When we are going to be violent, we feed it, deliberately. We dehumanise the enemy, we hold our rage close and tell ourselves why the rage is justified, and why we are entitled to act on it. We feed our own fear, of what ‘they’ will do to us if we don’t act first. We attribute to ‘them’ the reasons for all the hate and fear we’re experiencing. ‘They’ did this to us. We’re just protecting ourselves.

Whether we’re talking about someone who beats their spouse, verbally abuses others online, murders, or we’re talking about violent action between communities, or countries going to war, there is a process of feeding the hate and fear first. I know of people who have been physically assaulted by other people who were screaming ‘you are abusing me’ even as they did the damage. The attacker is often invested in their own victimhood.

Not so long ago, I was witness to a person psyching up, but not alert enough to see what was happening until afterwards. They spoke at length about how they had been a victim, how everyone thought the aggressor lovely, but really the aggressor was nasty. It went on for some time, at the end of which the ‘victim’ went off in a state of carefully crafted rage to challenge the ‘bully’ over a matter of coffee. Shouting ensued, as the ‘victim’ hurled abuse at the ‘bully’. At the end the ‘victim’ stomped off, still shouting about how badly they had been treated, while the ‘bully’ still silent, stood shaking and tearful, shocked by what had happened over a mistake involving coffee. The ‘victim’ then later told us it’s a well known fact that the victim leaves the fight first. This is rubbish.

Stood outside of the situation, I saw one person invest enormously in becoming angry and feeling hard done by in order to feel justified in launching an intimidating verbal assault on someone who, at worst, might have been guilty of a trivial error of judgement.

When we act on anger, it’s because we feel justified. Verbal aggression online is common, and watching it, I notice that very few people are just having fun. Many are afraid, and see the ‘other’ as a threat and a menace. You will bring down society. You will destroy this country. You will make everything worse. You will let some even more fearful third party do even more terrible things. Go on the offensive in response to their terrible accusations, and all their fear and rage seems justified, to the person who will then consider themselves your victim.

Of course our anger is reasonable, well placed and appropriate. We’re acting for the best possible reasons, and on the other side there are narrow-minded idiots who cannot see how dangerous their ideas are, and what kind of trouble they are causing. They cannot see how wrong they are and it is our job to shout some sense into them. Scream it into their faces. Knock it into them. Beat them into submission.

And of course the easiest answer to this problematic, toxic expression of anger, is to rage at other people for expressing it. If we can’t get at them, we can lash out at those who were to hand, but made a bad call about the coffee, or other such infringements. Other people should not be angry. It’s all their fault. How can this change if we don’t face our own anger?

There is a relationship between verbal violence and physical violence. Mostly we start with words, with accusations and justifications, and we ramp it up from there. Perhaps if we want genuine solutions to matters of fear, hatred and violence, we’re going to need to start with non-violent language.