Author’s Note: I’m currently in the process of migrating old blog posts to this new system. That may mean some links, syntax highlighting, and other details are broken or missing temporarily. Sorry for the inconvenience!
Every so often – perhaps a few times a week – I suck in my lower lip, and feel my upper teeth digging down hard into my skin. Sometimes my head shakes, and my hands ball into fists. But my breath travels loudly up through my nose as my nostrils flare. I’m enraged.
This used to be something I didn’t notice. I’d be infuriated all day, get done with the day, drink or play video games and try and chill out. Never really sure what it was that had put me in such a foul mood.
Now, I try to notice it.
The absent little angers
I think for some people, the anger response is proportional. You might show a bit more hostility toward the person who set fire to your house than to the person who takes too long counting their change at the deli.
Personally, my anger doesn’t have a dimmer switch. And for a long time, the fury I’d feel at a distracting push notification was something that could send me an early coronary. Someone taking just a bit too long to step out of the elevator would start me seeing red.
Why should this be? Why is it that – at least in my case – I couldn’t just be a little bit annoyed?
I really like the term “practice” as applied to mindfulness. It calls to mind the initial drudgery of learning to play a musical instrument. Squeaky, inconsistent, frustrating exercises that yield progress too slow to be noticed in real-time.
My own experience with meditation or mindfulness practice has been quite like that. And my relationship with anger has slowly started to change. It hasn’t really prevented me from getting unreasonably infuriated at times, but I tend to be less oblivious when it’s happening. And I can investigate why I’m frustrated at the time (or shortly after). Here’s what I’ve noticed:
My rage is never about the actual thing. It’s always about my insistence that the thing should be different
I’m not really frustrated by interruptions; I’m frustrated by the voice in my head saying “I shouldn’t have to be interrupted!”. I’m not furious that my phone screen is cracked; I’m furious because I believe it shouldn’t have cracked. And I’m not really mad at people; I’m stymied by the contrast between their behavior, and the behavior I would prescribe for them.
What are the implications here?
This starts to answer the question that has plagued me for so long. The question of why anger seems only to exist in extremes. My anger isn’t proportional to the event because it’s not the event that causes the problem. It’s the narrative in my head. Either that voice starts talking, or it doesn’t. And if it does, heaven help my blood pressure!
I’m a control freak, so I inherently like the idea that my rage is now something that I can fix. External environmental factors are so difficult to control!
But at the same time, I can feel the frustration as well, and can understand why it might be easier to find fault with the outside world. It’s not enough to be angry and upset – but now we have to take responsibility for those feelings as well?!
To take responsibility for our own emotions is to deny ourselves our righteous indignation. And it’s hard not to cling to that.
I’m still working on it. Until then, I’m just trying to notice it.