I had never really thought of myself as an angry person. I’m the nice guy, the “no problem” guy, or at least the mild-mannered “every man”. Yet as I stared at the gray block wall pounding out the sprint portion of my interval run on the treadmill I thought about something that made me angry. Part of me jumped in to say, “you shouldn’t be angry about that” and tried to drag the thought away. Yet another part of me dismissed the desire to suppress the thought. Then, like scared children cautiously emerging from the dark, suppressed angry thoughts entered my mind. Soon I was surrounded by many agitated thoughts needing examination.
I made a lunch appointment with myself to explore these thoughts no matter how disturbing they might seem or how bad I might feel for feeling what I felt. On a sheet of paper I began listing things that angered or aggravated me. I didn’t list general things that would make me mad (like child molesters or irresponsible government) but personal things for which I was carrying anger even though, until the treadmill, I was not aware of carrying them around.
As I quickly filled both sides of the paper with things that made me angry, I noticed some common themes. Just when I thought I had justification to be angry at people and situations in my life for these caged feelings, I realized I could ultimately only be angry at myself. It wasn’t what other people did, it was what I allowed to take place in my life. If I was angry about being a prisoner, then I had to see that I was the jailer and the key to the iron door was in my pocket. I was mad at myself for:
- Things I said “yes” to when I should have said “no.”
- Things I said “no” to when I should have said “yes.”
- Things I didn’t say “yes” to because I was scared, self-conscious, or ignorant
- Things I said “no” to because I was scared, self-conscious, or ignorant
- Consequences from lack of discipline or assertiveness.
- Decisions I made because I put too much trust in the opinions of others, whom I considered “experts”, when I was younger
Ironically, I’d read the book Boundaries several years ago on the need to define the borders defining our life and obligations and enforcing those boundaries to prevent others from trespassing within. Either I didn’t listen or I didn’t feel confident on enforcing my borders. I realized this must change. Realizing that other people’s problems and agendas are theirs and you have no obligation to make them yours is critical. You can empathize but you don’t have to take their problems. You can help them carry their burdens but don’t take their burdens from them.
Consider the entries from The Notebooks of Lazarus Long by Robert Heinlein:
“So learn to say no – and to be rude about it when necessary. Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you…This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.”
Carrying anger is unhealthy and burdensome. I’ve known bitter people who could not forgive ancient wrongs and slights thought they were only hurting themselves. They could list the sins of others that made them angry and, though their indignation may have been justified, it was useless to carry it around when the offenders moved on with their lives. They embodied the foolishness of such destructive thinking captured in the quote, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” They fail to see the truth of Ecclesiastes 7:9 that “anger lodges in the heart of fools.” Sometimes we are hesitant to forgive because we feel the other person doesn’t deserve it or they are getting away with something, but we fail to see that in forgiving others we free ourselves!
Reviewing the list brought peace. I knew what I had to change in my life to prevent the “Things That Make Me Angry” list from growing. I released others from blame for things that were my responsibility. I forgave others for what they did (or did not do). I gained understanding about myself and my need to make better decisions and enforce my borders.
When I’m tempted to direct my anger outward, I remember this wisdom from the late Jack Canfield:
- You are the one who ate the junk food.
- You are the one who didn’t say no!
- You are the one who took the job.
- You are the one who stayed in the job.
- You are the one who chose to believe them.
- You are the one who ignored your intuition.
- You are the one who abandoned your dream.
- You are the one who bought it.
- You are the one who didn’t take care of it.
- You are the one who decided you had to do it alone.
- You are the one who trusted him.
- You are the one who said yes to the dogs.