I recently had a conversation with a friend about a rough situation between them and their relatives. Because of certain cruel and otherwise unpleasant actions on the behalf of the relatives, the person in question was unsure about how to handle an upcoming visit where they would be face to face. This person expressed the desire to confront the guilty party and attempt to make them feel bad about what they had done. While there is certainly a time and place for confrontation, and frankly, we should probably be more confrontational (or at least more comfortable with confrontation) than we generally are as people, I felt that this was not the right way to handle the conflict- it was time to take control of anger.
Being angry is perfectly normal but very rarely useful. With the exception of using anger as a positive motivator, letting oneself fall into the grip of emotion is purely foolishness. As the Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa explained, “by doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” However, simply knowing that impassioned, angry responses are bad is not enough to stop us from making them- if only it were that easy. Let’s break down the interaction and gain some insight into the root causes of this cycle of fury.
With the exception of the truly malicious person (which is rarer than you would think,) most people do not operate with the intent to cause unwarranted pain. However, the key word here is warranted- many people do believe themselves to be knowledgeable enough to decide what pain others deserve (which is a mark of petty narcissism). When a person cuts us off in traffic, we believe we know well enough about their driving skills and mental state to honk at them or flip them the bird. Of course our own driving is infallible… right?
When we’re behind the wheel of a car, every other car stops being a person and becomes a depersonalized entity that is theoretically a threat to our life- literally. The guy who cuts you off isn’t just a jerk- he’s someone who jeopardized your safety without any concern for your life (or the lives of your passengers). As a result, we punish them- honking, flipping them off, tailgating them- you catch my drift. Of course, we’re unaware of the fact that the other driver was running late for work and almost missed their exit because they’re stressed about their boss giving them a lecture- or whatever individual chaos they’re experiencing at the time.
Now, this article isn’t about forgiving bad drivers (personally, I think driving is one arena where people should be punished more, simply because lives are at stake). No, in this case, the driving is simply a metaphor for how we interact when people act in a way that angers us. I have likely said this before in an article and will certainly say it again- everyone thinks they are the good guy. No one wakes up thinking, “I’m going to make everyone I interact with miserable and ruin the world today,” (remember that, because the people that cause the most ruin in the world certainly think they’re saving it).
When someone angers you, one of four things is likely happening. One, they’re a malicious psychopath that is out to get you. Two, they lack sufficient emotional intelligence to know that what they said or did could impact another person negatively. Three, they think what they have said or done is something that you deserve or need to have happen. Four, they lack sufficient self-control to prevent themselves from acting impulsively based on their feelings.
Let’s go down the list.
Number one is generally how we, the petty narcissists that we are when we’re hurt, respond to negative interactions. Because we haven’t taken a breath, calmed down, and processed the situation, we come to the obvious and reasonable conclusion that everything that everyone who isn’t us has done is very clearly an intentional, calculated slight against our person. You may say, “oh, no, not me, I’d never do that,” but you would be wrong. This is the default response- and the point where most of us stop thinking and start responding emotionally. “That driver cut me off because he’s a careless asshole who deliberately drives like that to piss me off.” A ridiculous notion, but that’s the voice of anger speaking. What is required here is to acknowledge the nonsensical idea that anyone has the mental resources to spare to spend the time thinking about you and your feelings before they act. No one cares about you that much, and that’s a good thing.
Moving on to number two- they do not have the necessary emotional awareness to consider the impact of their actions. This is the default state of people, and while most of us eventually grow out of it, somewhere inside us is this angry toddler that has no concept of others. When we’re sufficiently stressed, upset, distracted, or otherwise overwhelmed, the higher functions and better angels of our nature are disabled. What’s left is a three year old that only thinks about themselves. When the kid is in charge, the primary drive is to satisfy their needs- reduce stress and conflict with their environment to return order to the world (homeostasis). I’m sure you know someone who isn’t fun to be around when they’re hungry.
This is the driver who is stressed out- they’re not thinking about you because their drive is to remove the stress of missing their exit, which will potentially remove the stress of being late, which will potentially remove the stress of being lectured by their boss, which will potentially remove financial stress by getting them a promotion, which will potentially remove marital stress caused by the dude’s wife thinking he’s not ambitious enough, which will remove the psychological stress of being insecure with his masculinity… well, you get the point. What I wanted to illustrate there is that you absolutely never think about someone else with that degree of detail in any average interaction. In the same respect, no one puts that much thought into your feelings when they act- toddler mode or not.
Number three is when someone reacts with the enlightened mind of the inner judge- “I, having been hurt, know best how to resolve this situation with punishment.” This is righteous fury. In our brilliant, deep analysis of a situation (that we’ve conducted in five seconds), we think we know enough to decide what’s best for others. “That guy who cut me off is obviously a careless bastard who can’t drive and deserves to be run off the road.” This is the direct expression of a phenomenon first noted by the Greek poet Archilochus,
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
If you haven’t practiced handling your anger, you will react with simply with anger, and anger is a swift and foolish judge. Always assume that others have no degree of self-control unless you have seen otherwise. More importantly, always assume that you have no self-control if you have not practiced it- because if you haven’t, you will not realize you are out of control until after the you have made a fool of yourself.
This is number four in action. If we aren’t trained to hold our tongue, any perceived slight causes the knee-jerk reflex of us spitting out the first hurtful thing that comes to mind. You can notice this lack of self-control in action when you finish a statement and watch the other person’s face flash briefly with some (presumably negative) emotion. You can notice this in yourself when you find yourself feeling directly attacked in an otherwise calm conversation- but you have to be able to watch yourself, first.
What is the big takeaway here?
Remember that no one cares about you nearly as much as you think they do. The petty narcissist in all of us likes to think that others think about us as much as we think about others thinking about us- but they don’t. Others think about us and our feelings roughly about as much as we think about others and their feelings (in a context that doesn’t involve ourselves). Knowing this, we have to remember that most things that cause us offense are actually simple carelessness. Everything else, the things that are directly cruel or wrong, are more than likely the result of the other person taking something else out on you, or lacking sufficient self-control to prevent reflexive insults because of stress.
We can’t hold others to any standard that we do not first hold ourselves to, and even then, it’s better to forgive those who are weaker than ourselves because we understand that we, too, were once weak. Set the example you would have others follow. It is far worse for a person who knows better to act in anger than for a person who does not- this is the difference between malice and ignorance. Every situation you respond to with anger will create more anger, while each one you meet with calm control will prevent the anger from spreading.
Which will you choose?