Saturday, July 27, 2013

On Involuntary Lenten Penances and Avengers

I wrote this months ago and never posted it. I'm doing so now because I need it today. Maybe somebody else does too.

This Lent, God pointed out to me in various ways that I need to figure out how to be angry in ways that don't  cause serious problems for people around me.

I was, amusingly enough, inspired by the whole Avengers franchise. (Or rather, it gave me a narrative framework on which to hang the ideas I was going to get anyway.) See, Bruce Banner spends most of his little story arc trying to make the Hulk stay away...trying to avoid doing anything that might get him the least bit angry or excited, lest the Hulk come out. But eventually he has to learn how to use the Hulk rather than just repress it, so he can save the world and stuff.

I don't turn into an invincible green monster when I get angry, but just trust me when I say it's not pretty anyway. I've spent a good long while trying to just not get angry...people do annoying things, and I just ignore it, let it go...except not really. It just got stuffed into a sort of mental closet, until after a while the mental closet wouldn't be able to hold anything else and its contents would all spill out at once in a jumbled and dangerous mess. I was aware that this was a problem, but no amount of schooling myself to really, truly let things go helped.

Then I read a book called Boundaries. I didn't like a lot of things about this book (that's a topic for another time, though) but one idea that I found very helpful was this: When you get angry, it's because somebody violated a boundary that you have. Whether your boundary is reasonable or not is a different matter, but anger itself is a healthy defense mechanism.

So I started asking God to help me use being angry as a way of defending whatever it was that was being attacked. This was helpful both on an emotional and a practical level. First, I didn't stew in my anger as much because I could channel it into something productive. Second, I actually got stuff done. Have I mentioned before that in real life I'm debilitatingly shy? (I've never been officially diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, but I probably could be.) Except when I'm angry. When I'm angry, I make PHONE CALLS and everything. Like a boss.

The use-my-anger method worked a lot of the time, but I still ran into problems. The other day, I found myself getting angry at Scott for not getting up in the morning as quickly as I would have liked. Now, I'm not saying it's unreasonable to get a little cross with somebody in that sort of situation, but getting so angry you can't think straight in the space of 10 minutes because your spouse is getting out of bed more slowly than usual is not really inside the realm of "normal." That's like bursting into tears because the underpaid fast food worker didn't ask if you wanted mayonnaise on your sandwich-that-usually-comes-with-mayonnaise. (Oh, wait. I've done that too.)

Yet instead of trying to argue with myself about how my anger was unreasonable and over-the-top and I should just STOP IT, I simply asked, "What thing are you afraid of that's at the root of the fact that you're getting angry now?"

And I was able to answer myself instantly: I'm afraid of getting erased.

That might not make sense to anybody who lives outside my head, so let me explain: It's very, very important to me that people listen to me, acknowledge my opinions as valid, etc. (Quality Time is my primary love language. It's not even that I like talking to people. I just like having people who wait around just in case I should happen to say something, because they think I have things worth saying.)

When people don't take my opinions into account or even acknowledge that I spoke to them, I get upset. It's not a matter of, "I wanted to get pizza instead of going to that place that makes nasty mayonnaise sandwiches, and now I am sulking." It's more a matter of, "You did not acknowledge my personhood and now I feel like I don't have any." Because if nobody can see you or hear me, I must not exist, right? Except I know that I exist, so I'm going to pitch a fit until you also notice that I exist as a person with thoughts and opinions and feelings and desires that are different from your own.

The insight I got the other day is that asserting my own personal autonomy doesn't mean I get to trample on other people's. Yes, I would like to have some measure of control over what happens to me. So would my husband. A big part of living in community is negotiating the boundary line between "I can do whatever I want because I'm a human being with free will" and "I don't get to do whatever I want because you're a human being with free will." I don't have an unlimited right to make people do what I want them to do, like breathing chess pieces, because sometimes they want to do other things, and they don't like being bossed any more than I do. (This is assuming communal relations between equals; communal relations between legitimate authorities and their subjects--such as an adult and a toddler--would take another whole post to explore.)

This doesn't mean that I have a solution for every single conflict ever, but I feel like I've made some kind of progress, realizing that one of the things that makes me angry is feeling like my personal autonomy is being disregarded--and realizing that when I get angry, that's exactly what I'm doing to other people.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

Um. Yeah. Quite helpful. Thank you. That seems really helpful, like something I need to ponder at length. I like the idea of using anger instead of trying to stuff it. Sounds like an interesting book.

The Sojourner said...

Glad it made at least a little sense to somebody besides me.

jen said...

That is an AWESOME book.

Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

From Fr. Z:
'And does L’Osservatore Romano really have to delve into the question of whether The Hulk is Catholic? ”Is the Hulk Catholic?” (Yes, by the way).'

The Sojourner said...


Nora Roisin said...

Yay your thoughts. I have been thinking about anger a lot lately. I stuff mine, mainly, and I don't know how to deal with it, maybe partly I'm not sure where it first comes from. I stuffed it from such a young age.

Or, I like to say 'internalised', rather than stuffed. Perhaps it means a different thing?

The Sojourner said...

I think 'internalised' is the fancy word psychologists use for 'stuffed.' They have to sound like they earned their postgraduate degrees.

Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

I thought "internalised" was what they call the process of getting something to where you remember it on your own without memnonics?

Sheila said...

Wow, that's a really good insight. It doesn't take me five minutes to figure out what I'm really upset about: control. When I get angry -- really, screaming angry -- it's because I feel that I am being controlled by someone else. I see myself turning into my mom, whom I always saw as being oppressed by my bossy dad, and that thought terrifies me more than anything.

But something has just occurred to me, which is that I almost never get angry at women. I don't think women are trying to control me. I project my fear of control almost entirely onto men, and my poor husband in particular. If he says, "I don't want you to take the car out, because I'm afraid it will break down," I instantly snap into "I'm being oppressed! I have no freedom! I am tied to home and hearth because you don't think a woman deserves to have a life of her own!"

Yeah, not exactly healthy. I've put that book on my wishlist. ;)

The Sojourner said...

Your husband and mine should form a club/support group, seriously.