Anger is like fire: it cannot survive without fuel.
Like fire, unchecked anger can grow out of control and cause enormous damage and pain. But also like fire, anger can be recognized, controlled and managed in our lives. The fuel that keeps anger burning can come from many sources – from problems at work or at home, from frustrations with the world, from our inability to overcome the challenges we face.
But interestingly, one of anger’s biggest fuel sources is self-sabotage – the things we do, perhaps unwittingly, to keep ourselves angry.
We might ask, why would we want to be angry? As an emotion, anger can be extremely powerful and seductive, especially for individuals who like to be seen as strong, cool-headed or ‘in control.’ For those of us who have little joy or pleasure in our lives, the thrill of anger’s heady excitement might be the strongest feeling we have, and even a bad feeling might seem preferable to no feeling. So we secretly stoke the fire of our anger. How? One way is to seek common ground with other angry people. Whether we look online or in our own neighborhood, there’s plenty of anger in the world. We can easily find gangs, forums and hate groups that reward anger with inclusion: if you’re willing to demonstrate your anger, you can be one of us.
Another form of self-sabotage is to turn our anger against ourselves physically. Perhaps this comes in the guise of something ordinary and culturally accepted, like smoking or drinking; perhaps it’s more sinister, like the use of drugs or self-inflicted wounds. Maybe we stop attending to our hygiene or eat our way to obesity. Maybe we stop taking life-saving medications or drive recklessly. For each of these behaviors, we undoubtedly have justifications; we rarely recognize that they help to keep us angry. The more we indulge in such actions, the less attractive we are to others, and, simultaneously, the more we blame others for criticizing, mistreating and misunderstanding us – something that makes us angry!
A pattern of putting ourselves into difficult situations and then blaming others for our failures is another self-sabotage maneuver. Perhaps we begin a relationship based on what we imagine our partner could be – their potential’; maybe we accept a job that’s inappropriate except in our fantasy of what the job could be; maybe we start a project that’s far beyond our skills or budget. In each case, we’ve set ourselves up for failure; when, in fact, we fail, we angrily blame our partner, our boss or the world.
No one can take away our self-respect, but us. It may help if we know what self-respect means. It is the feeling that we are a worthwhile human being in spite of our mistakes and regrets. Even if we are at fault, we are not expected to be perfect. Respect is accepting one as a worthwhile human being in spite of one’s faults and imperfections. We generate respect by:
– Accepting ourselves as worthwhile, independent of external consideration.
– Using our adult judgment to determine our responsibilities based on the reality of life today.
– Assuming responsibility for our own well-being
– Bringing down the significance of our mistakes from unforgivable crimes to mere human imperfections,
– Bringing up the level of our self-worth from a contemptible failure to that of an imperfect human being,
– Living in the middle ground between the extremes of perfect and worthless by embracing our complexity. It’s not our liabilities nor our strengths that define us. We are both.
All humans are imperfect and make mistakes, which is regrettable, but not a crime worthy of punishment. Self-respect is not conditional upon getting what we want. This is not a reflection on our ability to be a perfect person. Self-respect is accepting that we are a worthwhile human being who is unconditionally lovable despite what others’ say. Of course, we would have preferred to get more recognition for our efforts. But we are lovable regardless of the outcome. We can make successful efforts and still have undesirable outcomes. We can be a hard working employee who is punctual and loyal, but we get laid off. We can be a caring and thoughtful partner, but still get our heartbroken. We can be a careful driver and check our mirrors and put our turn signal on, but someone hits our car. In all these situations our efforts were commendable but the outcomes were disappointing. Yet, we are worthwhile either way. Self-respecting people learn from their mistakes. We are not guilty of a crime. It’s not a crime to make a mistake. It is not a matter of assigning guilt, fault and blame. It is a matter of human imperfection.
There is no way to prevent imperfect human beings from being imperfect. We can take reasonable precautions, but beyond a certain point, our good intention to prevent it becomes counterproductive. All humans have limitations and make mistakes. We do not have control over things that have not happened, nor can we read others’ minds to know what would really please them. Their blame is for them, to relieve their own pain and frustration for not getting what they want. When we are upset with ourselves we often attack those we care about, in this way accusations are confessions. We attack those we care about with the faulty logic that they will forgive us. However, over time tension builds between the resentment from being deprived of support and the guilt of disappointing others.
To move out from this double bind, we can choose to regain our self-respect by reminding ourselves that we are worthwhile in spite of our faults and imperfections. We are still an equal member of the human race in spite of what they just said. Even if they are right in their accusations, it merely proves we are an imperfect, like everyone else. Our “imperfection” made them angry, and we regret that it did. We have used our resilience. We can allow ourselves to bounce back from their unhelpful put-down shtick. We can choose to calm ourselves down, and put our own anger in a moderate, manageable perspective: “Just because they said it, doesn’t make it literally true. It is how they feel in the present. It’s not a fact. It’s not the end of the world. It’s only a regrettable circumstance between two imperfect people in an imperfect world.”