Posts Tagged ‘anger’

In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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According to English song-writer Leon Rosselson, the seventeenth century radical Abezier Coppe was arrested for blasphemy after repeatedly declaring that he didn’t believe in sin. Found guilty, he recanted, acknowledging that the sins his accusers might be prone to – “greed, tyranny, hypocrisy and pride” – really were sins after all. A neat reversal, I’ve always thought, considering the circumstances.

This week, I’m feeling about anger the same way that Abezier Coppe felt about sin. After years of carefully regulating my temper, I got angry recently. And you know what? I was right to do so.

I trace the distrust of my temper to a pickup baseball game when I was in elementary school. Another boy was cheating, and refused to admit what he was doing. He owned the bat and ball, he kept saying, so he could do what he want. Furious, I threw the ball at him, screaming he could go. I wasn’t aiming at him or anyone else, but the ball hit the girl on the catcher’s mound on the head.

She wasn’t hurt, but she left and so did the boy who owned the bat and ball. But I was so appalled at what I had done that, after half an hour of hiding, I marched over to the girl’s house and confessed to her mother what I had done. To my surprise, her mother hugged and forgave me, and nothing more came of the matter.

Except this: I told myself that I would never let myself get so blindly angry ever again. And, aside from a few sharp words, I kept that promise. I cultivated an easy-going attitude, one more prone to humor and sarcasm than anger – so successfully that the few times I did snap at someone, they were surprised. As several people told me after, they hadn’t known that I was capable of anger.

Later, I found another reason for avoiding anger. I realized that I was born moderately privileged, and that anger could be a means of invoking that privilege if I wasn’t careful.

So I told myself that a mature person resists giving way to anger. When I grew annoyed, I’d go out and do some heavy exercise, or at least some strenuous chores around the house. Almost always, I sat down calmer afterwards. Just as the only sins that Abezier Coppe acknowledged were those of the privileged, the only targets I allowed for my anger were abstract social ones and the people who defended them – and even then I felt uneasy and did my best to see more than one side to everything.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got angry for the first time in several years. I’m not going to give a play by play, but, after having someone inflict three out of the four of Abezier Coppe’s acknowledged sins on me (there was no greed that I could see), I told her what I thought of her bullying, thoroughly and in the bluntest terms I could muster.

What surprised me was that I wasn’t ashamed of my anger, and that I didn’t let it control me. Instead, I restrained it until there was no reason not to express it, and, having expressed it, felt no inclination to do anything further except mutter for a couple of days. Even more importantly, for the brief time I was angry, I felt perfectly justified.

I realize now there is a world of difference between a boy’s ability to restrain his emotions and a middle-aged man’s. Not only that, but in some circumstances, anger is the only sane response. At times, to suppress it would mean acquiescing to the unacceptable.

Does that mean that I have any right to go berserk, or to cultivate anger and keep acting on it for weeks or months? Of course not. Some limits still apply. But it does mean that a shadowy part of myself is not nearly as scary as I had long imagined, and – occasionally, at least – is justified and deserves to be expressed.

The price of this knowledge may be steep, but I suspect now that a similar incident would have come sooner or later anyway. At least in the circumstances I can say I learned something:

I’ll never be afraid of my temper ever again. Nor will I have any further doubts about my ability to control it.

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