Expect vengeful impulses when you are angry, and respect them. These powerful impulses are as mindless as a knee-jerk reflex, but they are dangerous. Be careful with them.
The urge to punish others is a primitive impulse that springs from the emotional mind. That's why indulging this urge can be emotionally gratifying. Yet, blindly seeking retribution can hurt us as easily as it can help us.
Vengeance is one of our survival instincts, and it was bred into us long before our ancestors developed civilization. It is a survival mechanism for achieving one goal: ensuring that a problem doesn't occur again. If our ancestors were attacked by a predator, human or otherwise, instinct compelled them to disable the predator. Thus, for our ancestors, the instinct for vengeance was often expressed by killing or maiming their tormentors.
Though we still have primitive instincts, we don't have to act like savages. We have many ways to prevent future harm from a particular source. For example, avoiding harm by avoiding future contact with would-be predators is often a prudent method. That is, though Jesus urged his followers to turn the other cheek, it's usually better to remove both cheeks from harm's way.
Though vengeance exists for self-defense, it can easily work against self-preservation. For example, if we hold grudges in the hope we will someday enjoy revenge, we can waste our lives. Grudges hold the future hostage, and prevent us from enjoying the present. Our interests are usually better served if we release a grudge--that is, if we forgive.
Our instinct makes forgiving difficult. In the short term, it is emotionally gratifying to make someone else suffer, even if we lose even more in the process. That's why we must use our reasoning minds to anticipate the consequences of our actions, and to find the best ways to preserve ourselves. Reasoning begins with understanding what forgiveness means, and what it does not mean.
First, forgiving is not forgetting. To forget that someone hurt us would be foolish, not reasonable: Forgetting an abuse only invites further abuse. Second, forgiving does not mean excusing or absolving someone who hurt us. Though we may say, "I forgive Mike," forgiving is not something we do to someone. Instead, we forgive for ourselves.
Forgiving is simply releasing our self-defeating obsession with revenge--dropping it, letting it go. (The topic of forgiving yourself is discussed in Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt.")
In short, following your instinct for vengeance does not guarantee self-preservation. As with anger, use your reasoning mind to direct your vengeful impulses to your advantage. Recognize, understand, and manage your vengeful impulses so you won't waste your time and energy pursuing revenge to your disadvantage. You can help yourself accomplish this by reminding yourself of the reason for vengeance--to prevent further harm. Adopt Israel's slogan, "Never again!" which means preventing another holocaust, not punishing blindly.
In our society, the legal system provides ways to find revenge. However, while the law is meant to help us by compensating us for wrongs and by preventing the Hatfield-McCoy kind of feud, using the law can also hurt us.
Often, as with Katie, our first thought occurs to us like a knee-jerk: "I'll sue the bastards." Katie felt this urge to symbolically kill her company's new vice-president. However, indulging her urge would not have advanced her life. She could have centered her life for years on a lawsuit hoping for the joy of revenge.
However, even if she had won, she would have discovered that her gratification was transient because it would have been merely symbolic. And she would have started her new life with more money, but less time, fewer opportunities, and the enduring results of chronic stress. This would have been a poor tradeoff for her. Besides, the vice-president that fired her wouldn't have suffered at all: The company, not he, would have paid the award.
On the other hand, she might have lost the lawsuit. If so, she would have felt that her tormentor enjoyed the last laugh, adding insult to her injury.
Fortunately for Katie, she didn't waste years of her life and her career opportunities by pursuing her vengeful urges. Instead, she harnessed her anger-energy, and directed her actions to improve her life. She came to agree with the adage, "The best revenge is to live well."
Pursuing lawsuits often creates new problems without solving any. This occurs regularly when lawsuits generate the frustration and futility of living in the past--of crying over spilt milk. It is usually far better to clean up the milk, to replenish your supply, and to proceed with your life. And, of course, to do all you can to ensure that you spill your milk "never again".
Pursuing retribution though lawsuits can consume our time and energy, and divert our attention from our main goal--to live well. When this occurs, we waste our anger-energy by using it for reasons other than solving our real problems.
Of course, filing a lawsuit can sometimes help us live well--provided we win. To decide whether bringing a lawsuit would help you more than it would hurt you, don't think with your knee-jerk reflexes. Instead, use your reasoning mind to consider carefully whether it would improve your overall well-being, including your mental health.
Above all, don't forget that lawsuits are games of chance. Whether you win or lose this game depends on factors that are completely independent of your perceptions of your case, including the prejudices of individual judges as well as ideas that form in the minds of jurors under the guidance of persuasive attorneys.
In short, don't invest in a lawsuit unless you are prepared to lose it.
What does anger feel like? This depends on a person's personal experience. Some people are familiar with the sensations of their anger. They feel "hot behind the collar," or they "see red," or they "taste bitters." These people are lucky. They know when they are emotionally prepared to solve a problem.
Other people don't know their emotions as well. If you are among these, you can learn to recognize your anger. Prepare yourself to manage your anger by using your conscious, rational thoughts.
Following is an exercise to help you learn to recognize your anger and to welcome the energy it provides.
The next time you have a problem, repeat to yourself:
* Anger appears whenever I have a problem. * I have a problem now. * Therefore I am angry. * Because I am angry, I have an extra amount of energy to use to solve my problem. * Anger is not violent or destructive. Practice saying this to yourself every time you have a problem, whether your problem is large or small. At first, it may be easier for you to recognize your anger with small problems. Before long, however, you'll notice that you have become familiar with the anger that accompanies every problem. You can expect to sense heat in the back of your neck when you are angry. At this point, you've learned to recognize anger by feeling it.
You've also probably also noticed a critical fact: Even though you are angry, you aren't acting in a violent or destructive way. This is a comforting thought. The more comfortable you are with your anger, the more likely you will manage it constructively.
Learning to recognize your anger isn't as easy as it sounds because a lifelong mental habit is hard to break. Practice and practice.
Knowing that anger always accompanies a problem can help you with a difficult problem--expressing your anger to others.
Many people will misinterpret your statement, "I'm angry," to mean that you are attacking them. Avoid this misunderstanding by changing the focus. Express your anger with this statement: "I have a problem." Others will know intuitively that you are angry, but they'll also know that you are not attacking them. At least, most people will.
Beyond telling others that you are angry, an additional benefit derives from telling them that you have a problem. Most people care enough about others--even strangers--that they will want to help you with your problem. Provided, of course, they are assured that you are not attacking them.
For example, imagine a conversation between Marty, who is angry, and Chris.
"I have a problem," says Marty.
"What is it?"
"My foot hurts."
"Because you're standing on it."
As soon as she hears this, Chris immediately apologizes, of course, and moves her foot. Neither friend loses anything in this interchange. Indeed, each of them gains from it.
When you express your anger about your loss, you will likely encounter a serious problem in our society: Most people don't recognize or accept the anger of healing. If Sally is quietly depressed after her husband died, for example, Helen is likely to say, "Sally's doing very well." This does not mean that Sally is doing well. It merely means that she isn't showing her anger.
In fact, most people in our society don't like to be bothered with any painful emotions of others. You will certainly meet at least one of these persons while you are healing.
What can you do about it? Explain that you are grieving, and that expressing your anger is good for you. If this doesn't satisfy the other person, don't waste your time explaining the healing process. Tell that person to read this book.
Becoming comfortable with expressing your anger to yourself is also important, as Katie learned. You can begin by dealing with the false belief that we get "angry at" someone. We don't get "angry at" someone any more than we get "sad at" someone.
For example, imagine that your best friend, Charlie, has died. You are angry because you lost your best friend, but it makes you feel guilty to say, "I'm angry at Charlie." You feel guilty, because saying you are "angry at" Charlie is tantamount to attacking him.
Besides, attacking Charlie, even with words, makes no sense. You know that he didn't die to hurt you. Why blame him? Being "angry at" him solves nothing. Certainly, punishing Charlie for dying is out of the question. In short, saying "angry at" is a dead-end mistake.
Though saying "angry at" is common in our society, it is nonsense. It makes no more sense to say, "I'm angry at Charlie" than to say, "I'm hungry at the cook."
Anger is like hunger: Each has a size, but not a direction. You can be extremely hungry or slightly hungry; you can be extremely angry or slightly angry. You can't be hungry at anyone; you can't be angry at anyone.
Believing otherwise is destructive because it stands in the way of solving your problem. Being hungry at the cook won't feed you because you are focussing on the cook, not looking for food. Similarly, being angry at Charlie won't help you heal because you are looking in the wrong direction to solve your problem.
So, what can you do with your anger? Fortunately, you don't have to ignore it. You can learn to say "angry because."
We get angry for a reason, and the reason is always a problem. Identify this reason. For example, instead of saying, "I'm angry at Charlie," learn to say, "I'm angry because Charlie died."
Do you hear the difference? Saying that you are angry because Charlie died is much easier and more sensible than saying you are angry at Charlie. There are two reasons this is sensible:
First, you know you have positive thoughts about Charlie despite your anger. You've identified his death, not him, as the reason for your anger.
Second, identifying the reason for your anger is the first step in solving the problems his death caused you.
In short, believing that your anger is directed is irrational and unrealistic. This explains why it is useless, harmful, and wasteful. Saying that you are "angry because" will not only help you avoid dead-end mistakes, it will also help you identify your problem. That is, saying, "I'm angry because," automatically raises the question, "Why am I angry?"
In contrast, saying that you are "angry at" someone or something not only frustrates problem solving, it creates new problems as well. For example, feeling "angry at" a spouse for leaving is not only self-destructive, it can also hurt your children. They interpret your anger as your wanting to hurt their other parent. Similarly, feeling "angry at" a company for laying you off is a waste of the time and energy you need to find a new job. These are common examples of the harm of displacing anger, which is discussed in the following section.
Because the phrase "angry at" is so common in our society, learning to say "angry because" is difficult, and requires much practice. Practice with statements such as these:
* "I'm angry because I'm hungry." * "I'm angry because my tire blew out." * "I'm angry because my foot hurts." * "I'm angry because I don't have a job." After you've learned to state the reason for your anger by saying "angry because," you'll be ready to direct your actions to solve the problem--to correct the reason or to find an alternative solution to it.
Harnessing your anger-energy is keeping it together, rather than allowing it to dissipate in useless or harmful activities or obsessions. Keeping the reins on your anger permits you to use all of your emotional resources constructively--for solving your immediate problem, or for building a new life for yourself. Since two frequent causes of blocked grieving are wasting anger and trying to control it, you can avoid the trap of wasting your anger-energy by concentrating on two "don'ts:" Don't displace your anger, and don't try to control it.
For example, say you are angry because Charlie died, but you want to protect him from your anger. Rather than expressing your anger about Charlie's death, you might displace your anger by snarling at your family, friends, and neighbors. Because it makes you attack those around you, your displaced anger hurts these relationships: Those who feel the brunt of your anger are puzzled or hurt, and they probably don't understand your aggression. Moreover, your displaced anger hurts you: You can't expect others to give you the support you need while you heal if they spend their energy recoiling from your attacks.
In addition to being harmful in the short term, displaced anger can create a long-term problem: hostility. Anger and hostility are not the same. Anger is caused by a specific problem. If the anger isn't displaced, this problem can be identified, and its energy can be harnessed to solve the problem. At the point the problem disappears, the anger disappears.
This is not true for hostility. Hostility is not associated with any particular problem. It is anger at the world in general. Since the world never gets "solved," hostile people often feel hopeless, and this feeling is often accurate. Moreover, focussing on the wrong problem--or on a non-problem--prevents solving the real problem. Naturally, since the problem persists, the anger also persists as hostility.
Eben's story, which is told in Chapter 8, "Delayed Healing," illustrates the long-term effects of displaced anger. For his entire adult life, Eben suffered from hostility, anxiety, and loneliness. These problems resulted from his displaced anger.
You have probably noticed that displacing anger requires falsely believing that anger is directed, that you are angry "at" someone or something. This was discussed in the previous section, "Express Your Anger."
To avoid displacing your anger, remind yourself that anger has a reason, but not a direction. By realizing that you are "angry because" of a problem, rather than "angry at" someone, you will avoid displacing your anger: You don't need to protect anyone because you aren't "angry at" anyone. Learn this by practicing saying "angry because" instead of "angry at."
The idea that we can control our anger is a cruel hoax most of us learn in childhood. Parents tell their children, "Don't be angry." To a child, this is the same as being ordered not to be hungry. Nevertheless, their young minds reason that if they show their anger, they would displease their parent.
This, in turn, evokes their greatest fear: the threat of abandonment. When they are threatened with abandonment, children's instinct screams, "Abandonment means death!" That's why many children learn to make their anger disappear from the view of others, and keep it to themselves.
If they learn the false idea that they can control their anger, children take on the burden of needless guilt. This, of course, is a major obstacle to healing. If children focus on their guilt, they can't harness their anger-energy to solve their problems. Instead, they waste it, or turn it against themselves. So do adults.
Children should be taught that their anger is automatic, and that it appears normally every time they have a problem. They they can be taught to control their behavior, not their anger. If children learn that they should control the natural emotion of anger, they will grow to adulthood with this false belief. They will also fail to learn that they should direct their actions toward solving problems when they are angry. To discover whether you believe that you should control your anger, ask yourself these questions:
Katie's story illustrates how she used her anger-energy to direct her actions constructively. The chief fact to remember is that anger itself does not determine whether actions are constructive or destructive. Our actions determine this. Anger signals that we have a problem, and provides the energy to solve the problem. But it does not identify the problem, or tell us how to direct our actions. We must use our reasoning mind for these operations.
Most problem-solving human activity springs from anger. Founding a new business and finding a safe haven for your children are examples of using anger-energy to direct your actions in constructive ways. Killing another person and abusing alcohol are examples of using it destructively.
Using anger-energy for constructive action reflects the higher levels of human behavior--reasoning levels. Using anger for destructive action reflects the lower levels--emotional levels.
Sometimes, your anger-energy will be high, but you can't harness it immediately to help solve the problem that created it. For example, if you have lost your job you might need more education, but you can't start school until later. At these times, use your anger-energy to solve a different problem. Perhaps your car needs to be washed. Wash it. Or if your garage needs cleaning, clean it. Or catch up on your correspondence.
If you don't want to use your anger-energy for a particular job, dissipate your energy in another healthy way. You don't want your extra energy to keep you awake at night or to drive your blood pressure up. Exercise. Walk, jog, or run, depending on your physical condition and predisposition.
You can also enjoy dissipating your energy by using it in some vigorous, but harmless, way. Try throwing empty glass jars into the trash barrel. Or pound your mattress with a baseball bat or a rolled up towel. The crashes or thumps are satisfying, and you don't leave a mess to clean up. Use your imagination. The idea is to burn off your extra energy in ways that won't hurt anyone, much less you. Further, these exercises remind you that even violent actions are under your control.
You might feel that you can't survive your crisis, but your life isn't over. If you act as though you don't have a rewarding future, you probably won't. On the other hand, if you commit yourself to a rewarding future, you can enhance your chances of living well by reaching for your anger: Expect it, recognize it, harness it, and direct your actions to improve your life.
To ensure that you use your energy constructively after a crisis, keep your sights on your goals. If you aim your actions elsewhere, for instance toward blindly punishing someone, you will waste your anger-energy.
Anger can't be controlled but its energy can be harnessed. The most important reason for harnessing your energy is to use it to carry out your problem solving plans.
Used thoughtlessly, your energy--a potentially constructive resource--is likely to be destructive. By analogy, the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline can carry you several miles in your car. The same energy, however, could be used destructively in a Molotov cocktail.
Directing your actions includes budgeting your energy. That is, you should mentally allocate portions of your energy for each task you plan. For example, suppose you've lost your job. Your tasks might include cataloging your interests, skills, and talents; assessing whether or not you need more training; or determining whether or not you want to work for yourself or for someone else.
Ultimately, your plans will lead to actions. You might need to prepare your resume, research possible alternatives, network with others, search the want ads, or enroll in school. You will need harnessed energy to perform these activities. Use your anger-energy.
If, along the way, your energy seems to fail, generate more. Reach for your original anger by remembering your loss. You can also consider future problems caused by not finding employment. The prospect of poverty is a problem that can generate anger-energy.