You might not be allowed to be angry. Maybe you’re not quite sure what you’re angry about. There’s a sort of diffuse, general anger at something – but it’s unclear what. Maybe it should be called frustration, or anxiety. Or disappointment.
It feels too bad to feel angry. Instead, you might get depressed. Like someone saying, “I’m crying because I’m angry.” There are a lot of great ways to sidestep anger: punishing ourselves, substance abuse, gluttony, even sarcasm and irony.
But unacknowledged feelings don’t go away. They go deeper.
In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris identifies “common control strategies” that we use to avoid unpleasant feelings. There are two types of strategies: fight or flight. When you fight, you try to dominate your anger. When you fly, you try to run away from them.
Fight strategies include suppression, arguing, and taking charge. Suppression is trying to push away your thoughts or feelings, trying to keep them “deep down inside.”
Now, quick: stop and don’t think of an ice cream cone.
How well did that work? Using suppression is about as effective.
Second, arguing. Have you ever had someone try to rationally argue you out of being angry? Did it work?
When we’re in the thrall of a strong emotion, the whole point is that our rational self has been shut out of the discussion. Feelings have taken over. Rational argument doesn’t change how you feel.
Third, taking charge: it’s like telling a person that’s having an anxiety attack, “Well, just calm down.” Not only is it ineffective, it’s insulting. If they knew how to calm down, they would.
Flight strategies are hiding, distraction, and numbing. Hiding focuses on avoiding activities that bring up unpleasant feelings. For example, you might avoid going to social situations that invoke feelings of anxiety. Or you might try to hide from thoughts that make you angry, like how your partner or job treats you.
With distraction, you try to focus on something else. You eat ice cream when you feel sad or drink whiskey when you’re angry about work. Or shop online when you’re upset.
It’s a lot easier to distract yourself with alcohol, food, or shopping, than admit you’re angry about your life.
Finally, numbing relies on cutting yourself off from your thoughts or feelings. This could be relying on alcohol or medication. But it might be sleeping too much on the weekends, or taking frequent naps. Maybe you find yourself just “staring at the walls,” or unable to remember where the last hour went.
These strategies give you a false sense of security, because they work only in the short term. Long term, they’re a losing proposition. Keep trying to fight it or run away from it: The anger will stay.
Another great way of avoid anger is to punish yourself with long hours, stress, and even diet and exercise. It’s the modern form of flogging. It just looks prettier.
You might punish yourself by working long hours at your job – longer than you really have to. (This extends to the entire culture of working hard. We, as a society, actually could agree to work less. Working hours aren’t inscribed in the laws of nature. But really, we choose not to.)
A crash diet and crazy exercise program is another form of striving, of punishing yourself for how you feel. We set up complex, rigid rules about the number of calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, timing of food, fasting, cleanses, and the list could go on. Same with exercise: if only we push it as hard as we can this time, we’ll somehow sweat out the anger and punish ourselves appropriately. Maybe the next exercise machine holds promises of forgiveness.
Then, when we inevitably slip, we get further disappointed. We just didn’t work hard enough! More punishment.
Pleasure as Punishment
Sometimes, we swing in the exact opposite direction. Attempts at perfect adherence to a perfect diet to get a perfect body (and therefore, have your negative emotions disappear and feel perfect) devolve into gluttony.
We swing wildly between punishing ourselves without food then punishing ourselves with it.
I used food as a band aid for my anger. I took it out on my own body, hoping the food would temporarily numb the pain I felt. Of course, I would wake up full of regret the next day, like a hangover after drinking.
At the law firm, sometimes I was afraid to leave my own apartment because work might pop up. So I ordered an unhealthy amount of food and ate it, literally, alone in the dark. I’m talking a chicken parmesan hero, pizza, garlic knots, and cookies. (I’m not proud.)
At the same time, I’d follow an extremely low-carbohydrate diet during the week. Regardless of its merits, a low carb diet is hard to stick to, and my approach was completely off. My body took a lot of abuse from the rollercoasters I took it on. (I’ve also done a month of only protein shakes (twice), losing about twenty pounds each time, and feeling completely miserable.)
Same with drinking. Lawyers are notorious for their substance abuse; they drink much more than the general population. Bar associations have anonymous helplines for lawyers with substance abuse problems.
And law school drinking is all binge drinking (five or more drinks in one session). That’s easily eclipsed by law students. And it feels different than the binge drinking done on college campuses. It’s not done in celebration of newfound freedom. It’s not even for fun, really. It’s done in desperation. To escape reality, and to escape our feelings.
We might adopt a sort of gallows humor or cynicism to avoid feeling angry. Our feelings of anger are too painful and powerful to acknowledge. So instead, we turn to sarcasm and doubt.
We glorify pointing out what’s wrong, but rarely seeking what’s good or right. As Sogyal Rinpoche notes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, we cynically denigrate anything done in simple goodwill or with an innocent heart.
At the law firm, my friends and I had a joke where we’d say “everything is fine” over and over. It was funny, because everything was definitely not fine. It was a desperate attempt to paper over our despair. Which sounds dramatic, but when you get down to it, that’s exactly what was happening.
A month or so before I left, the windows in our skyscraper got replaced. One thing I noticed was the surprisingly nice breeze of fresh air compared to the recycled, climate-controlled stuff we had been breathing.
But the other thing I noticed was how so many people joked about having the opportunity to jump. I joked about something on a deal – I can’t remember what; the details blur together (probably a defense mechanism of some kind) – to a colleague. I said I’d rather jump than go through it again. As she walked down the hall, my coworker remarked, “Yeah, a few other people have mentioned that too.”
The strategies to avoid our anger are destructive. Looking at the consequences of avoiding anger – starving ourselves to death or eating ourselves to death – it’s actually healthier to be angry.
We should be angry.
Because we can use the anger. We don’t need to be afraid of it. We can harness it as a righteous energy that transforms our lives. I endorse the anger.
Before I quit, everything made me angry. I blamed New York City, my rent bill, my neighbors, tourists, the subway. But what was I going to do about it? Just take it?
Or use the anger as fuel for transformation? Take that raw energy, and use it as a catalyst.
Anger, like fear, is a signal. Maybe that anger is misplaced – like I got angry at tourists walking slowly, angry at the subway arriving late, angry at whatever in New York City – but the trick is to figure out what I’m really angry about.
Accept the anger. Use it. Like The Happiness Trap says, “We no longer have to waste our precious energy on struggling with [our anger]. And ultimately, acceptance means we can focus on something more constructive.”
So get constructive.