August 17, 2015

Diary of a Former Mad-Woman (Or, Livid’s Not My Best Color, Anyway)

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,Roadpeace USA — Tags: , , , , , — Ann @ 9:59 am

[Editor's Note: I just found this essay -- something I wrote back in the late 1990s. It's not a bad essay on anger so I'm adding it to my blog.]

I’m a recovering anger-embracer.

I first began to be aware of the habit-forming nature of what I call “knee-jerk” anger in early 1996, when I founded RoadPeace USA, my nonprofit movement to promote kindness on the roadways. With awareness and commitment, I mended my ways and have become a gentle motorist, encouraging others to follow suit.
However, recently, and quite suddenly, I realized that although I was being peaceful behind the wheel, offroad I was skidding out of control: anger was becoming my reaction to almost everything unpleasant. If the weather turned uncomfortably hot, if the grocery store was out of the cheap brand and I had to buy the expensive brand, if people stood too close to me at the check-out counter, I’d feel the flare. I realized that anger and its cousins — bitterness, resentment, outrage, and self-righteous indignation — were destroying my personality. And, most importantly, I realized that the anger I was feeling didn’t stem from some huge unresolved inner conflict: it was simply becoming a bad habit. I was becoming one of the Angry People. For there are people I greatly respect and admire, and they are the mellow ones. And there are those I don’t admire so much — the blazing-eyed types who huff impatiently while waiting in line, slam the elevator button five times, and pointedly frown at boisterous children. I, who aspired to mellowness, was developing a permanent glare and jutting chin.

I was even getting angry on behalf of other people. If friends and relatives didn’t feel their own anger, by gosh I’d gladly feel it for them. And, what’s worse, I was getting angry with my husband when he didn’t join me in my wrath-bath. Anger is a lonely emotion. Like heavy drinkers, habitual fumers want company. “What’s wrong…too good to get mad with me?”

In a way, it’s not all that surprising that I was turning into a knee-jerk mad-woman: We have become a nation of angry people. I don’t need to consult experts or do research to confirm this — we see it all around us. We see angry shoppers in malls, angry drivers on roadways. We hear angry callers on radio talk shows. We see it in the heavy sighing, the rolling of the eyes, the profanity, the aggressive driving. We’ve become a people not merely quick to anger, but downright eager to anger. “I dare you to cut in front of me, buddy; just try it.” Too many of us are walking around with huge chips on our shoulders. And we’re not content merely to feel the anger. We nurture it, groom it, invite it home to dinner, add a room onto the house for it. There are alternatives. Have we lost our creativity and imaginations to the point where we can think of no other reaction than anger to the frustrating encounters in our day-to-day lives?

Therapists and others talk of ways of “processing” anger. But I’m beginning to think we already give entirely too much respect and air-time to those ordinary, everyday mad attacks. I’m not talking about deep-seated angers stemming from early life traumas and other such tragedies. That type of emotion is a different matter, and needs to be tended to by professionals. What I’m talking about — garden-variety irritation — is simply a bad habit and we need to remember what our grandparents were taught: count to ten until it goes away. Get over it. A shrug and a wry smile can serve well. We don’t have to “process” every slight, every oversight, every insult, every hurt. Part of my recovery means giving up trying to direct, produce, and choreograph every single person and event in my life. Much of anger stems from control issues. I was often impatient with people when I didn’t understand and/or approve of their behavior. The opposite of anger is acceptance.

Since deciding I don’t want to be an angry person anymore, I’ve been dealing with it the way I quit smoking after 17 years: I’ve recognized that reactionary anger, like smoking cigarettes and other bad habits, is a waste of time, life, and energy, and I’ve declared it no longer an option. Put another way: I’ve symbolically crumpled up and tossed my hard-pack of huffiness, and I’ve ground out my last smoldering butt of self-indulgent fury.

That isn’t to say that my temper won’t flare. I’ll get angry with my husband, my father, my boss, certain politicians. But I’ll be rationing it from now on. For real anger to get my attention, it’s going to have to result from an event worthy of all that roiling passion. Once I’ve decided that anger is indeed the appropriate emotion to be feeling — that is, once I’ve run my feelings through the filter of my creativity and have decided that there is no better way to deal with the situation (such as the liberal application of humor) — then I can get angry. But unless I plan to do something with that anger, like talk it out or take action, I will immediately release it.

For I’ve also realized that, for all its storminess, anger is an impotent emotion unless it inspires constructive action. Even where anger is wholly justified — where people are being denied rights, where grave injustice is being carried out — just getting angry alone is a waste. Anger is only good, I’ve learned, if you use the energy created by it to take action and do something positive.

In the 70s and 80s, many experts told us that anger was good. We were encouraged to acknowledge it, express it, and own it. But habitual, knee-jerk anger hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel miserable, lose sleep, treat others badly, jeopardize relationships, churn my stomach, and make my head ache. One of my new mantras is: “Save it for the important stuff.”

Yesterday, at the grocery store, a boy of about eight or nine was acting out, yelling “No!” when I tried to pass his mom’s cart in the aisle. Up until recently, I would have fumed. But yesterday, I just looked at the boy in amusement. When I didn’t do anything but smile at him, there was a shift. Suddenly, he smiled and said excitedly, “I’m gonna be Batman for Halloween!” And so it goes. I change, and the world changes with me.

So far, my rehabilitation has been as simple as that — awareness, followed by choice. And walking among my planet-mates with a much less narrow view of what constitutes “acceptable” behavior. Because that has been an important step in the recovery process. Part of letting go of useless anger is allowing another more desirable emotion to fill and soothe the ragged soul. And, although he was referring to much larger issues than those I’ve written about here, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this substitution technique when he said: “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

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