Often times I would find myself in situations that would make me really angry. Somebody would say, assume or do something, that would infuriate me to such an extent that it would make me feel physically sick. I would play what they said in my mind for hours after our interaction feeling surprised that they could treat me they way they did and the built up anger would send me into a maddening bout of frustration akin to clutching your hair with your hands and screaming, except on the inside. The effect of such an interaction would make me feel off for days in a row and my head and stomach would hurt. And despite going through them, I would still not be prepared for the next challenge of the same sort.
For a while these things were happening quite frequently. Someone would say something and bam! I would start getting so annoyed that I’d have to stop talking to them for a while, block them on my phone or lash out at them. Being poorly treated would get me into a negative state very quickly and it would take very long to subside. The physical effects would be too intense for me and I would need some time on my own to recover. The effects would be problems sleeping, stomach aches, headaches, sweating, inability to focus, overthinking, irritability and a feeling like being under siege, like a psychic form of electrocution. I didn’t know what to do about them, but I knew I was getting tired of having my attention and energy consumed by these negative experiences.
I had experienced anger before, but never like this, sending me into a downward spiral of rage. So what was going on? Why was my anger suddenly so explosive? What were the thoughts behind it? There had to be some underlying beliefs that were causing that reaction. The beliefs are the ingredients after all, and the other person triggering me is the stimulus that set everything into motion. Chemical reactions. Just like if you store potassium in mineral oil, it will stay in its original state, never knowing its potential, yet if you put it in water, it will produce heat/energy.
Each such experience would give me the opportunity to observe myself and understand what was going on in those interactions. One of the things I observed was that the reason I was experiencing that kind of anger is that my sense of boundaries were beginning to change. Things that I had allowed in the past were beginning to feel not good enough for me. I wasn’t going to tolerate being mistreated anymore. Yet people were still relating to the image I had built over time. And it made me angry because I felt I couldn’t change it. I hated feeling disrespected or being taken for granted or being shown a lack of consideration. I wanted to remove these people from my life because I couldn’t deal with the fact that this is who they wanted me to be.
I also didn’t respond to the things they were saying to correct their perception. I either got angry at them and said something mean or I would just not say anything in the moment, but would stop talking to them afterwards or make radical decisions about them. Not saying anything turned out to be a terrible idea, because to that person you are agreeing to the perception they have of you and they don’t get a chance to learn who you are, who you’ve become. So you don’t get to express your point of view, and the other person doesn’t get to learn about you. Not very helpful. Lashing out wasn’t a very good solution either, as it just transfers the negative energy to the other person who is surprised by your reaction since you didn’t take the time to fill them in on your new developments. But since I didn’t know what to do and since the emotions were too powerful, all I had to do was wait and see.
And soon after that something did happen. It was an experience that had a big impact on me and opened my eyes to these dynamics. So this is what happened. I was talking to this person who I wasn’t on very good terms with. The problem was that we had to share some things and she clearly claimed the best for herself even though they were available to be used for a chunk of time by anybody. She asked me if that was OK and I reluctantly said yes. Needless to say I got really angry. That day I started crying, because I felt I wasn’t making any progress with these kinds of situations. And I felt helpless and hopeless, yet it was then that a revelation arrived in my mind: the reason I get angry is that I expect people to act by the same moral standards that I do.
I often find that the revelations I get are very simple, yet they somehow manage to elude me. Of course! If I weren’t so adamant about people behaving the “right way”, then I could just respond to their actions instead of getting hurt by them. If I didn’t expect people to behave the way I would, then I wouldn’t be met with surprise when they don’t and I could focus on the actual interaction. But instead of being present and answering to the demands of the situation, my attention was drawn to the emotions it triggered and so I became perplexed, angry, displeased, resentful.
If instead of taking it personally I would have turned it around and called out people on their bad behavior, it would have been a service to everyone involved. The truth of the situation would have risen to be seen. This would have dispersed the negative emotions that would otherwise have settled in the mind/body/spirit.
The tricky bit is that you need to cultivate that awareness of the moment so that you can respond accordingly. Therefore it is important to let go of expectations or history so that you can judge a person’s action by what it is, not by what you expect or want it to be. I think it helps to get into an exploratory mindset and not rely on preconceived notions of how things are or should be because otherwise one of two things is likely to happen if there isn’t a good connection between thought and emotion:
- either you get angry and you lash out at the other person
- or you get so lost in your emotions because of the surprise (caused by the cognitive dissonance between what you expect and what actually happened) that it has a dizzying effect on your mind and you accept the bad behavior but build resentment
“By giving up a little of what you want — most often unconsciously — you are willing to see what is. With such an attitude, you can perceive the reality of the situation. After that you can discriminate intelligently and you will respect yourself, not only for the ability to give up something you want freely and without hostility, but also because then you will be able to rely on your intuition. By being willing to see what actually is, you can deal with the situation. Therefore you will trust yourself, your judgment, and other people. In not overestimating them, due to your forcing current, you will be able to see, observe, sense, and feel what is true, and not merely believe what you want to be true.”
– Eva Pierrakos, The Pathwork Lectures
It is quite a feat to overcome expectations, wishful thinking, history and experience, but cultivating awareness really helps. When you are confronted with a thing whose image you have built in your head, you’re still trying to relate to that thing by your mental projections, despite the evidence that it’s something different. It’s like…the mind takes a while to catch up, it’s confused in its planned reactions to things, like new input that a computer program doesn’t know how to process. Every new experience is an opportunity to develop a new framework for dealing with the new input. In essence, a new lesson is learned which has the potential to free the mind from its underlying pattern. So yeah…wow…I thought I understood cognitive dissonance, but it’s amazing what ramifications you can find to an idea.
After that lesson, I thought I understood how this worked and then something else happened a few days later. A friend asked me for advice about something he was going to do. I analyzed the situation and I told him that I didn’t believe it was a good idea. I didn’t want to tell him directly what to do so I tried to suggest different aspects that he wasn’t considering, yet he dismissed them. I think I was rather insistent. Instead of listening to him and ask questions, I kept trying to illustrate my point of view through my own experiences and the things I thought I understood. I wanted him to see the truth of what I was saying. And I got really angry when he was still settled on his original intention. The good thing is that I had the presence of spirit to realize that this was not about him, but that I was bothered by this because of something within me. What was it?
I realized I got angry when people don’t do what I believe to be the right thing…the fair thing. It’s not just when they hurt me, it’s when they don’t acknowledge the truth that I see. It pissed me off! I found that I had very high standards as to how people were supposed to behave and it bothered me when they failed themselves and engaged in what I considered to be bad behaviors. And then it hit me! I figured out that the root of this was somewhere in childhood. The wound that was being brought up to the surface was the fact that I felt that my truth had not been acknowledged growing up, and I had to fight for it. It felt like truth had no say in the matter and this feeling spilled into my standards for other people and being disappointed in them and trying to control them into making the right choice. It felt like that would give me back my dignity and power…and the revelation was that there’s still a degree of power that I derive from other people’s attitude towards me. It felt like their acknowledgement of what’s fair would validate me.
I also found that this need for people to act on your moral standards is an expression of narcissism, wanting everyone to act the same, by the same ethical code as you, without considering that they have different backgrounds, different lessons learned. But what works for you may not work for another and when you hold people to such high expectations you are not accepting them for who they are but only for who you want them to be.
Trying to control others is not only an affirmation of the other person’s reality, it is also a way to immerse yourself in it. It’s declaring yourself powerless and ineffective, thus allowing yourself to become a victim and the other person a persecutor, whereas if you were to call them out, you would correct a misperception, you would reject reductive roles, you would empower yourself and you would treat the other like a person instead of like an obstacle. So my trying to control others into doing the right thing is due to that stuck feeling of powerlessness in deciding things for myself, in deciding my destiny and blaming others for hurting me, for ignoring the facts, which is sort of like a way to ask permission to be yourself. But it helps to realize you don’t need to answer to anyone but yourself. You don’t need anybody’s permission to do anything, you can stand strong in what you believe to be right and others are free to make of it what they will.
These days I’m not getting that angry anymore. I know that a lot of times when I get angry, I really get angry at myself, for not making the right choices or for not speaking my truth. Every situation where I feel forced to do something is showing me where I need to work on myself and where I believe my power resides.
Negative emotions are amazing tools that can tell us important things about ourselves and I think that it would help us a lot to learn how to work with them and learn from them.
Though aggression might seem to be an inevitable outcome of anger, it actually is an avoidance of anger and the hurt and vulnerability that are part of it. Viewing anger as aggression or as the cause of aggression provides us with an excuse to classify it as a “lower” or “primitive” emotion. Yes, anger does have a primitive side — shared with every mammal — but it’s far more than just a primitive arising, despite the fact that our use of it is often far from civilized.
— Robert Augustus Masters