Everyday, somewhere in America, violence erupts.
Each night on the news there are people telling their horror stories of injury and trauma, testifying to the terror that occurs in big cities and small communities. Yet this country seems to say with a shrug, “What are you gonna do.”
To address the violence consuming our nation, the unhealthy attitudes we hold toward emotions need to identified and replaced with more appropriate, constructive ones. The question is, who is going to do it and who is going to pay for it? Another question is, how is this replacement process going to be carried out? It cannot be accomplished by classroom exercises in “sensitivity training” or “values clarification,” or even “self esteem.” The active ingredient here is the anger that places urgency and significance on events, which motivate us to act.
We need to start sooner rather than later. First, we need to identify anger as the feeling of being powerless and out of control. This out of control feeling can be alleviated by the power of choice. We can express our anger the old way, which never made things better, or we can make a new choice to call our anger by its rightful name and express it appropriately. Expressing anger inappropriately does not change anything. It does not provide relief from the pain of our intense emotions. Expressing it appropriately does.
Next, we can find out what our choices are. This does not mean invalidating someone’s anger by saying, “Don’t be angry. It’s no big deal.” or “Don’t get mad, there is no point in getting even.” Instead, we can learn how to validate each other’s anger “I don’t blame you for being angry, I’d be angry, too if that happened to me. It sounds really painful. I can tell you are hurt.”
As an adult, we can choose to express our anger in the middle ground between the two extremes: saying everything we feel or nothing at all. Instead, we can tell the truth about it. We can choose to say, “You know, it really makes me angry when you do that!” We have just made an active effort to let others’ know how their behavior makes us feel by using our words rather than our behavior to make implied feelings explicit.
When we use our words to share our feelings, we are making a choice on our own behalf, in reality, at a time and place of our choosing. This is done in a way that is not too strong like lashing out (yelling) or too weak (internalizing). This is control. The antidote to feeling stressed by the need to control the future, is the feeling that one is in control of their choices and efforts in the present.
If we want to experience positive control, we must make an active effort to make it happen. The next time we are angry, for example, we can relieve our frustration by reminding ourselves that we have a choice now that we did not have as children.
As a child we sought to get control in the wrong way, by a) “losing it,” erupting like a volcano, or by b) suppressing it. But now as an adult, we can choose to express it the right way. That means taking responsibility for our own feelings. We can choose to relieve the pain of our anger in an assertive way. We are not a doormat, letting people walk all over us. Rather, we are using our words to get these emotions out of our system. We are not adding another log to the fire that is making us burn up inside.
To promote a healthy and happy life we have to deal with our own insecurity. We can choose to confront the idea that if people behave unfairly toward us it’s a challenge to out worth as a person. This only shows that we are relying on other people’s approval and acceptance to feel good about ourselves.
However, others judgment of us is no better or worse than our own. So their opinion is really just a reflection of their own personal taste. Their view is not an objective measure of our worth as a person. They do not possess some God like knowledge of right and wrong. They really do not know what is best. So rather than dwell on how to punish them, we can choose to deal with the underlying problem, the idea that we have to do things to better to become a ‘worthy’ person.
Now, we can at least ask the question, “Does it really make a difference?” Most of the time, the answer is no, that these things don’t amount to a hill of beans. It is quite reasonable to feel displeased about things we do not like. It makes no sense to lash out when we do not get what we desire, or things are not as we want them to be. However, we can use this anger constructively to energize us to change situations we are unhappy with. In this way, we can choose to see anger as being neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ just human.
Human mistakes and imperfection are regrettable, but forgivable. In the privacy of our own heart, we can identify the anger and choose to forgive them: “I forgive you for what you’ve done, for being so terribly imperfect.” It is not for their good that we are doing this; it is for our own relief. We earned this relief and we deserve it. We never have to let them know about it. We don’t have to give them the satisfaction. It’s none of their business. This is our choice, too!
In that moment, we solidify control over ourselves as an unconditionally lovable person, acting on our own behalf, as a worthwhile human in our own right.