Monday, April 11, 2011

Happiness Project: When the thing you're mad about, really isn't

What you're mad about is not always what you're yelling about...

I had an interesting moment recently that, unfortunately, did not reflect well on me at the time. All I can say in my defense is that it was an anomaly.

I was struggling to get ready for work on too little sleep, and for some reason everything JD did or said was irritating. Finally, he said something fairly reasonable that sent me into a fuming raging snit. How DARE he be and calm and condescending and all the other things I read into his just sitting there not taking it personally!

Even in the fit of rage I knew he hadn't done anything wrong, and somehow that was even more frustrating. Luckily, he was able to just wait me out. When the fit was over and I came to apologise and admit I didn't know what was going on, he was ready to help me figure it out.

In the actual moment of anger, I was entirely focused on imagining wrongs. Whether it was JD's fault, or the weather's, or my co-worker's, or Yahoo's mail server, I flipped through a litany of criticism of anything and everything, and in that mix I latched onto any justification for my feelings.

Here's the thing. I actually was upset. Trying to deny that or suppress it was pointless since it would only break out in a different direction. Whether or not my emotion was irrational or excessive is beside the point when dealing with the reality that it was. What had to happen was that I had to sort through all the false reasons for the emotion and find the real ones.

The real reasons? Well, I was tired because I had slept badly. That prevented me from thinking clearly. The weather was stormy and my mood crashes with the barometer. Those were mitigating factors, but they weren't reasons. I had to flip through a lot of easy answers to dig out the real one.

It turns out that if I went back to the previous day, I had experienced a serious disappointment over something I had gotten my hopes up about. At the time, I thought I had coped well with it, and even managed to have a good time with some friends without letting my disappointment ruin the atmosphere for everyone else. By the next morning I thought I had accepted and moved on. Apparently not so. Even though it wasn't consciously on my radar, it was still squatting behind my conscious thoughts and screaming "it isn't FAIR!" like an angry toddler. As a result, NOTHING was fair, and I wasn't even aware of it. I was angry at yesterday and screaming at today.

Until I could actually identify and process the real reasons for my anger, it was just going to keep ramping up and polluting everything I did or felt. It was also going to spread like a bad virus to anyone I encountered that day. So here are some pieces of advise for those experiencing this kind of bitter, frustrated, misdirected rage, from my own experience.

1. Don't fight the anger. You are upset. Denying you are upset is only sticking your thumb in the leak. Face the reality that you are upset and tell yourself you have a right to experience that emotion. You are also responsible for what you do with it and under its influence.

2. Avoid the justification game. If you talk to a partner or family member when angry, the tendency is to goad them into losing their temper at you. Not only does this give you a partner in the emotional experience but it then "justifies" your directing anger at them. It's a game you don't want to risk your relationships on. If you can't speak civilly to people, avoid them until you're under control (and let them know what you're doing so that they don't misinterpret).

3. Find a non-living outlet, if necessary. That may mean a physical outlet such as punching a pillow, running around the yard, doing push-ups, etc. Non-living means that you don't get to physically or verbally abuse a person or animal. Screaming, crying, etc. are all options, provided you control it. Give yourself one minute to scream into a pillow, or ten minutes to cry, then check in to see if the frustration has diminished. Sometimes writing out a scathing letter or e-mail ripping to pieces anything that comes to mind can provide an outlet, even if it only helps you identify misdirections for your anger. My snit was just before work, so I had a strict time limit on my outlet so as to get out the door on time. Your goal is to let off enough steam to take the pressure off and bring you back under control.

4. Admit that you don't know what's going on. When you can let go of all the illusive objects of your anger and admit this, the pressure may suddenly drop and the anger drain. If you're still saying "Yeah but" and finding new things to be angry about, you're not there yet.

5. Note your physical condition. Are you exhausted? In pain? Ill? These have a lot of exaggerating effects on negative moods and reduce your self-control. Also, as much as we women HATE that so many emotions are dismissed as "hormonal", hormones have a huge effect on the emotional state of both men and women. If you've recently changed dietary or exercise habits, started new medication, etc. it could be affecting your entire endocrine system. I remember a brand of birth control I had to suddenly discard when within two weeks of starting them I found myself sobbing helplessly over a preview for Dawson's Creek. Switching brands brought me back to normal. Likewise, a friend's reaction to a medication switch coined the term "going Cymbalta on his/her ass" amongst our social circle as a euphemism for uncontrollable rage. It's possible that my newly increased exercise regimen, for example, increased my emotional reaction last week.

6. Identify any big changes or events that have happened recently. Remember that in a physiological sense, any change is stress. You may have gotten great news that triggers fear of change, risk, the unknown, etc. Have you been "coping" (i.e. repressing) an emotional response to an event or person for the last few days/weeks? Has your environment been significantly disrupted (i.e. moving, renovating, decluttering, new furniture, etc.)? Put yourself, in your mind, in a position to really dwell on any of these that apply. Let yourself feel a response to them, even if you think that response is irrational. If you think hard about a recent change or event and it gives you a strong emotional response, you may have found what you're really upset about.

7. Discard false causes. If your reaction to something is entirely disproportionate, it may be a misdirection. If I'm in a fuming snit because I can't find a skirt I wanted to wear, the emotional response is wildly disproportionate to the severity of the problem. If I feel like screaming at an e-mail program because it won't take my mis-typed password, there is a bigger problem than the e-mail program that I'm not seeing. If the house is in chaos because of a lapsed home improvement project, however, a strong feeling of frustration may be perfectly appropriate. These assessments are clues to help you track down the real cause of your upset. If it helps you, pretend you are advising a friend who is complaining about these things. Would you think she's "making a big deal out of nothing" or "over-reacting"? That may tell you something about whether your own emotional response is proportionate.

8. Process. When you have found the real reason for your emotional state, you must process it in order to let it go and prevent it from affecting the rest of your life. Grieve, talk, fix, etc. as appropriate. Sometimes you just need to let yourself be really upset for a while instead of continually struggling against it by inches. Sometimes you need to talk it out with someone else and get sympathy. Sometimes you need to take active steps to correct or remove what's stressing you out. This is where your personal responsibility kicks in, because only you know what will make you feel better. You are also the only one really responsible for what you feel and what you do with it. You'd be amazed how easy it is once you really figure out what's wrong. That first step is the always the most difficult.

Please also remember that I'm not a psychologist, and these are the techniques that specifically work with me on the rare times when I'm experiencing this kind of frustration. If you feel like this kind of situation happens to you a lot and interferes with areas of your life, you might want to get help figuring out the underlying causes. Find a counselor you can trust with your emotional vulnerability and let them help you help yourself.


notblueatall said...

Oh! You make a ton of sense with this one. Wow! I know I have been through nearly this exact same thing and didn't realize. The fact that you were able to point directly to the previous days' disappointment? Impressive! Thank you for sharing this. It gives me something to reflect on when this happens for me again...and I know it will! Ha!

chutti said...

Holy Cow! I was going to say you nailed this on the head, but you didn't. You basted it gracefully all about any stray edges.
All of this is too, too true.

I also just about died with your "dawson's creek" example. I figured out a wrong birth control prescription because I starting thinking that stop signs were lonesome and sad. WTF?

These are all such valuable ideas. Much needed on a far too busy day. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've had that experience too. Avoiding it is a major reason I've become a bit of a sleep nazi (not that other things can't throw me off balance too, but sleep is one that I can usually affect.)

I'm glad you're learning from it.

One tip I picked up ages ago is the acronym HALT. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired: HALT what you're doing and try to address your needs.

Maven said...

Love your blog, and love your disclaimer statement here on the comments section!

By the way, this is the first post in a long time I've read of yours. Have not progressed to the previous posts to know whether I'm asking an obvious obtuse question, but, I'll ask anyway: Are you or did you just finish reading the book of the same name, "The Happiness Project?" Just curious!