Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column talks about anger and how it disguises itself.
Many angry people don’t recognize that they are the problem. To them, the problem is always something external; it was something else—or someone else—that made them angry in the first place.
It’s easy to blame others for our problems, but no one else can determine your feelings.
In the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl said that the one thing the Nazis couldn’t take from them was the ability to choose how to respond. No one can make you angry. Anger is a choice that you make.
Now for some of us it’s a natural choice. Perhaps we were born into angry homes. That anger may not always have been expressed; perhaps it simmered under the surface, until the tension was so great that you had to leave just to escape from it. But you couldn’t completely leave it behind, and that tension has followed you. Or perhaps you lived in a family that was quick to anger and quick to yell. Now that’s just how you express your feelings.
While that may explain why you often erupt in anger, it doesn’t give a pass on the responsibility to confront this personality trait and deal with it. And the first step is recognizing where anger comes from.
Anger is a master disguise artist. We like to think that every time we feel anger it’s righteous indignation: someone did something wrong, and naturally we’re appalled. Yet most anger isn’t the indignation sort, because anger tends to be a secondary emotion. It’s our psyche’s way of dealing with something that makes us uncomfortable. When we feel fear, or feel hurt, we react in anger instead because that seems safer.
Let’s take a woman who is trying to raise three small kids and keep her head on straight. But deep inside she’s worried that she’s doing a bad job. The kids whine, they don’t listen, and the place is always a mess. So what does she do? She starts yelling. She doesn’t want to yell, but the anger is what comes out when she can’t face the fear that she is failing at what is most important to her.
Or what about a guy who is secretly afraid that he’s not a real man? He doesn’t want anyone looking at his family or his home and thinking that he’s not in control, so whenever his teenagers talk back or his wife expresses an independent thought he grunts or yells. Soon no one tells him the truth about anything. They just dance around his anger, and everyone loses.
Living with someone who is angry is exhausting, but living with that kind of anger is awfully tiring, too. So here’s the cold, hard truth: big people confront their fears. They admit them, face them, and deal with them. Small people ignore them by taking their pain and transferring those to other people. They get angry and yell and make everyone else miserable so that they can avoid confronting the fact that they feel like failures, and they’re afraid of the future, and they worry that they are not in control.
If you’re an angry person, then the next time you feel angry, don’t just count to ten before you erupt. Take that time to ask yourself, “what else am I really feeling?” And then deal with that. When we can be big enough to ask the hard questions, we’ll often find that our fears become much smaller, and our life, in turn, much bigger.
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