You Piss Me Off!! (Managing Anger, Frustration, and Vulnerability) - Blog#7 - 22 February 2019
We talked about love last week (because it was Valentine’s Day!) so let’s visit the darker side and examine anger today. For context, we’ll initially detour into a broader perspective on so-called “negative” emotions.
Feelings are the Holy Grail of consciousness, the ultimate target for psychological and spiritual interventions. Control of thoughts and behaviors is important to us, not solely, but in large degree because of their impact on feelings. Humans are largely driven by the need to produce pleasurable feelings, or to at least maintain a neutral emotional tone by eliminating negative feelings. In our zeal to create positive and minimize negative feelings, it is easy to perceive uncomfortable feelings as enemies to be neutralized as quickly as possible. By suppressing negative feelings, we can banish them from our conscious mind, and thereby regain a more positive or neutral emotional state, at least temporarily. But that’s the rub: the benefit is temporary. By suppressing negative feelings, we add to a natural divide in the mind, conscious versus subconscious. Unfortunately, the mind is not a bottomless pit, feelings do not disappear forever, and the problems that generate such feelings are not resolved by suppressing them from consciousness. Feelings resurface when they are triggered, or when the problems that generated them reappear. Eventually they must be dealt with. Otherwise, the subconscious mind increasingly resembles a toxic waste dump, whose fumes rise and pollute our conscious well-being, or accumulate and explode when sparked. Examined from another angle, our minds want to resolve and eliminate pain, both at the moment, and permanently. The problem is that these two goals conflict, and often require opposite approaches. On the one hand, we want to eliminate pain at the moment, and suppression, as well as other numbing techniques (e.g., distraction, substance abuse), are often quite effective for immediate pain relief. However, permanent pain relief requires an understanding of the problem that creates the pain, and a strategy for resolving that problem. This requires us to approach, experience and explore our painful feelings, as well as the thoughts, memories, and events associated with these feelings. In other words, temporary pain must often be tolerated in order to reduce and prevent more lasting pain. There is wisdom in selective vulnerability.
Furthermore, emotional pain can even be considered our friend, in the sense that it provides abundant feedback regarding the nature of our problems, which can potentially lead to solutions for such problems. When you accidentally touch a red-hot stove burner, the alarming, painful burning sensation alerts you to quickly pull your hand away to prevent more severe injury. Likewise, listening to our painful feelings helps us understand the nature of our emotional problems and the solutions needed to allow us to feel better in the long run. Anxiety alerts us to threats, sadness indicates losses, anger signals an injustice, frustration reflects a blocked expectation, and guilt notifies us of a conflict between our values and our behavior. But this healthy feedback function of emotions can also be perverted, as each of these emotions has a malignant version as well. We can manufacture false threats via “What if?” catastrophic thinking, thereby turning ourselves into anxiety-ridden worrywarts. We can excessively dwell on our losses, withdraw into isolation and hopelessness, and become depressed. Instead of expecting reality, we can expect the world to conform to our wishes, and thereby “should all over” ourselves, creating undue frustration. We can create excessive “codependent” guilt by taking too much responsibility for others’ feelings or outcomes. And we can imagine false injustices, pose as a victim, blame others excessively, and thereby manufacture excessive anger.
Healthy anger is a response to true injustice, and such anger motivates us to address that injustice, appropriately, without creating a new injustice. Malignant anger either starts out with a false, manufactured injustice, or it is expressed in an indirect or overly aggressive manner that is itself unjust. Think of the most macho guy you knew in high school. Some people consistently use anger as a defense against more basic vulnerable feelings. The macho guy doesn’t publicly mourn the breakup initiated by his very cool girlfriend in response to his controlling, critical behavior; he turns sadness to anger and trashes “the bitch.” If you make fun of him in a friendly way, he doesn’t laugh along; he turns embarrassment into anger and comes back at you nastily. Blaming creates anger. If you consistently blame others for your dilemmas, your anger becomes chronic, and “characterological,” i.e., used as a character defense, not just as a healthy response to true injustice. The purpose of characterological anger is to avoid feeling vulnerable, to turn a vulnerable feeling into a stronger feeling: anger. And anger succeeds in making us feel stronger – but only temporarily. The rub is that blaming others makes them responsible for our feelings, and then we have to helplessly wait for them to stop pissing us off.
We can use a few equations to describe anger. For the chronically angry person, the equation is Y>M, i.e, “You piss me off!” Alternatively, I would suggest VF+B=A, i.e., if I experience an intolerable Vulnerable Feeling, and Blame you for it, I make myself Angry. The advantage of this equation is that if I am the one that created my own anger, I can do something about it, rather than waiting for you to stop pissing me off. Specifically, I can learn to tolerate, soothe, and take responsibility for vulnerable feelings rather than suppressing them and blaming them on others. Frustration is the feeling that gets converted into anger most frequently. Frustration and anger are different. Frustration, like disappointment, is a feeling that results when your expectations go unmet, when the real and the ideal diverge, when your “shoulds” don’t pan out. The frustration/anger equation is E/R=F+B=A, i.e., when your Expectations are not met by Reality, you become Frustrated, and when you Blame your frustration on others, you make yourself Angry. To manage frustration, you can utilize the Serenity Prayer and either change reality to meet your expectations, when possible, and if not, you can reduce your expectations to fit reality. The more you expect reality, regardless of whether reality is desirable, the more you prevent or short circuit frustration. The less you blame, the less you create anger. The less you expect the unattainable, and the less you try to control the uncontrollable, the less out of control you will feel.
Sometimes your anger is a valid response to a true injustice, but you still have to figure out how to express your feelings and address the injustice in a healthy manner. This discussion goes well beyond the scope of today’s blog, but you can pursue this and related issues in Chapter 28: “Anger and Frustration,” in my recently published book, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available on Amazon. Thanks for listening, and for responding below. How do you think about anger, and what have you found useful for controlling frustration and anger?
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