Your anger is your problem, so stop blaming others
Realising that other people don’t have the power to influence your behaviour is freeing
We all have a default emotional reaction when we are treated poorly by others. There’s the person who will get very anxious when shouted at by someone unpleasant. There’s the person who will get angry the moment they perceive a disrespect or insult, even when it isn’t really there. There’s the person who will internalise their feelings when they are treated badly, and become desolate or upset.
Anger is a special character of emotion, though, because its expression is explosive rather than implosive. It is pushed out into the world rather than drowning a person internally, like melancholy does. Anger makes people jumpy and unsettled, sets them on edge and has them snapping at others – often those who have nothing to do with it.
I often get sad, listless or irritated, but an outburst of genuine anger – the sort that burns hotly and has your legs twitching with the urge to kick something – is extremely rare for me. Today I kicked a tree. The tree hadn’t provoked me in any way, and if it had I certainly wouldn’t have been justified in kicking it, but I lost my temper. In the hours since, I have felt incredibly bad. Not guilty or upset, just ill-at-ease and disappointed in myself.
Even after the outburst, the anger remained, simmering. My partner looked up from his laptop and said merrily, “Did you know that George Osborne is the heir apparent to the Baronetcy of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon in Co Waterford? Isn’t that weird?”
Like a hurricane of furious vengeance, I almost took the poor man’s head clean off with a diatribe on my indifference. He had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. I apologised right away, but I didn’t feel good about that, either.
Suffering from a bout of acute self-loathing, I went to sit on the stairs, grabbing my battered copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations on the way. Of all the Stoic philosophers, he is the one who takes the reader most sternly to task on the subject of anger.
As I plonked on to the top step with a harrumph of annoyance, I thought (as angry people always do) that I was right to be angry. Someone close to me had done something objectively unkind and perhaps even vindictive, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t justify the anger, which was my responsibility, not theirs.
We create our own hurt
Aurelius reminds us that we don’t have to treat people like complete shites even if they are. It can be tough not to respond callously to callousness, or aggressively to aggression. Aurelius doesn’t care. Just get it together. Try saying that aloud to yourself as you sit alone on the stairs.
It’s an idea we are all familiar with, but Aurelius said it better and earlier: your anger is your own problem. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the person who wronged you.
We get angry because we perceive the other person to be hurting us. In reality, the external expression of anger is our own choice. We may not be able to control the prickling heat crawling up our spine or the sweat that suddenly breaks out in our armpits, but we can choose not to shout.
We can choose to retreat into our own minds and calm down, or to explode. So the hurt does not really exist in what the person who hurt us did, but in how we choose to interpret and think about it after the fact. We create our own hurt.
This is not convenient to think about when someone has treated us poorly, but anger takes a lot of energy, and ultimately only perpetuates the hurt and damage.
Someone does something that causes us to feel hurt, and like the true masochists we can sometimes be, we can choose to sit on the stairs and continue to twist the knife long after the wrongdoer has gone off about their business and forgotten all about us.
Taking responsibility for anger helps us to take control of it. Realising that the other person doesn’t really have the power to influence our behaviour is freeing. Get off the stairs. Apologise. Try again.