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Thinking about anger

I’ve spent most of my life trying not to be angry. I somehow got the message that anger was bad. Maybe it was more than anger was unfeminine? Either way, anger was not something I was supposed to express. Or even feel. How do you live without ever being angry?

I learned to smile when I wasn’t happy, demur when I wasn’t feeling particularly forgiving, be quiet when I didn’t have something nice to say, and generally fake always being happy. I didn’t feel like I was faking happiness, it just felt like some things were ok to feel and some weren’t.

As I got older, I learned to avoid situations where I would feel angry. I also learned to express frustration using sarcasm instead of directly addressing issues. That made me really good at hurting people who made me angry, but I was also hurting myself because I was trying not to be angry.

Anger is an interesting emotion. As children, we express it freely. We scream and cry and lash out when things aren’t the way we would like them to be because of someone else’s actions. When someone does us wrong, we don’t hesitate to let them know. Then around two or three people start calling it ‘throwing a tantrum’ even when that isn’t actually what we are doing. We learn that it’s not ok to be loud and demanding when we want something we can’t have, but it’s rare that we teach children that there is a difference between lashing out to be hurtful and standing up for ourselves and holding our boundaries intact.

This is where, for example, you see children being ‘teased’ or tickled, or poked and prodded for a reaction, and exploding in anger and frustration only to hear that they need to control themselves or that they are being rude or disrespectful. We don’t teach autonomy to most children because we don’t often think of them as people in their own right, but rather an extension of their adults.

So what am I thinking? Everything. I’ve been watching people lately, young and old, to see what happens when things happen that seem like it would make them angry. Some people withdraw. Some people get visibly furious, red faced and loud. Some people get an attitude. Some use their words to hurt the person making them feel uncomfortable. The one thing I have noticed is that regardless of who you are, you generally have a pattern. Sometimes it varies depending on the person you are interacting with, but most people have a pattern. It is rare to see someone who explodes and yells suddenly become quiet and withdrawn; the reverse is also true. The times it does happen, it is almost always because of a significant power differential, when the bully comes up against their boss, or when the person who would rather withdraw suddenly has to defend someone with even less power than they have.

That is what I find fascinating. When you think about anger, you rarely think about times when you have to step out of your comfort zone and away from your norm to handle it a different way. What I find interesting about it is that most people think they are who they are and nothing can change that. What I know from watching people and living through my own changes in how I experience anger, is that you may not like changing, but you absolutely can.

When you stop and think about it, there are actually few to no restrictions on how we handle most of the emotions that come up over the course of a day except those which we put on ourselves. Of course there are cultural norms at work, in our community, etc. But even those are something that a group of people has agreed on. When you think about anger, you realize it is a spectrum of emotion and actions going from ticked off, to furious, to livid. So how do you learn to live with anger? I don’t have the definitive answer but I do know it takes conscious thought, regular conscious thought.You have to dig deep into the muck and figure out what made you angry, and why it made you the degree of angry that it did. Are you really angry your partner made a dinner you don’t like? Probably not. But is it possible that you are angry because you told your partner you hate lima beans multiple times and they didn’t pay attention? Much more likely. Is it really traffic that makes you mad, or is it the driver who tries to zip along in the breakdown lane and then has to enter traffic and you have to watch as you get further behind when you were following the rules and the other driver didn’t? The world is full of things you can get angry about. The kind and degree of anger you feel and what you do with it is up to you to figure out.

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