Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Case of the Angry Young Woman

A woman who calls herself Red-Hot Ball of Rage writes to New York Magazine’s advice column, Ask Polly. She has, unfortunately, come to the wrong place. When you are trying to escape defining yourself in terms of emotion, you don’t really need to hear from a vapid advice columnist who wants you to jump back into the emotion. You do not want to get advice from someone who imagines that she understands emotion, and only emotion, and who has no sense of reality.

Of course, Polly makes a few passing references to reality, but she has no clue what it is about. And she has no clue about what RHBOR is talking about.

I am beginning to think that it is not merely an occupational hazard, but RHBOR is nothing but emotion. She feels her feelings but we do not really know about what she is feeling her feeling. When she stops feeling her most intense and defining feeling-- her anger-- she feels like she is nothing. And she never places her emotion in any real context.

Denizens of the therapy culture, represented by the likes of Polly, has no take on reality. They wallow in feelings, declare themselves to be in touch with their feelings, give themselves permission to feel their feelings… and waste their lives. They have walked out of the world and are lost in their minds.

Encouraging, don’t you think?

Anyway, here is the letter, in its entirety:

I tried to stop being so angry, and now I don’t know who I am.

I’ve been angry for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad bullied and abused me, and my depressed mother didn’t have what it took to protect me. So I became a master of revenge tactics and self-protection. I was like a tiny girl Machiavelli with a big attitude. Then I went to school and found myself in argument after argument, always on the lookout for my next big feud. When I joined the world of work, my anger thrived like a weed. It’s not an anger that punches down (more often than not, it’s directed high up at the people who hold all the power), but it’s anger nonetheless, and it’s exhausting.

Recently, I decided I didn’t want to be this red-hot ball of rage any more. So I quit my job, parted ways with an old friend, and cut ties with some toxic people, all in an attempt to take away the anger from my life. I stopped checking the Twitter accounts of people I hate. I started taking long, deep breaths before I entered a high-stress interaction.

But I feel so empty now that I don’t have that anger. It’s like without something (or someone) to push against, I just can’t get moving. For months now, I’ve felt completely hollow. I don’t even get any real joy from food anymore (and I used to love eating almost as much as I loved fighting). I thought that taking the anger out of my life would show me my true form, but all I see is this listless, depressed shell of a person. I hate to admit it, but conflict gave life.

Can I be alive without being angry?

Yours sincerely,

Red-Hot Ball of Rage

So, anger is a signature emotion. And yet, we know nearly nothing about her current life… except that she is presumably unemployed. We know very little about her family, except that she was abused—in today’s world, who hasn’t been abused?

For some reason, RHBOR decided that anger was being caused by being around other people. She decided that if she retired from her job and cut herself off from friends she would feel less anger. In truth, she does feel less anger… and will do so until she starts feeling angry at against the world, or at politicians. And yet, being alone and isolated, she feels anomie, she feels empty. She thinks that it’s because she does not have her anger to keep her warm, but in truth, she is starving for human contact.

For our part, we are starving for context. Rather than accepting her judgment that she is an angry person, we want to know when and why she used to get angry. We want to know the specific situation, people and places, not just her plaintive wailing about how angry she is. Sometimes, anger makes sense. Sometimes, it does not. Without knowing the context we are left flailing. Apparently, Polly is comfortable flailing. No serious professional should be.

So, we want RHBOR to step back from her experience, to tell us what happened, and then to join us in asking whether it was right or wrong to be angry. If she cannot step out of her experience, put some distance between her and her emotion, she will stay lost.

The second question is: on those occasions when anger is justified, how should she express it? And, when she does express it, what purpose does her expression serve. At the very least, we must recognize that expressing anger is not simply an emotional release, a destressing or depressurizing. Such efforts are more histrionic than real. They have little connection to the situation at hand. They are merely showing off by defining oneself as angry.

There are many different ways to express anger, depending on context, on participants and on the goal one wants to attain. If you do not see anger this way you have missed the point and you will be left either being all anger all the time or no anger ever, and suffering from anomie.

In order to get a grip on the situation we turn to Aristotle. Who else? The philosopher said that one’s ethical obligation is to express anger to the right person, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, under the right circumstances. That is, an appropriate expression, one suited to the situation at hand, and one designed to serve a purpose.

In our emotion-laden therapy world, no one understands that anger is supposed to solve a problem. And yet, if it does not have a purpose, you are merely expelling gas. After a while, you will, like RHBOR become exhausted by the mindless and meaningless expressions. And people will tire of your histrionics. They will turn away from you, out of boredom with your tedious displays of emotion. Did it cross your mind, when reading the letter, that this woman might simply have alienated everyone around her? She presents herself as the agent who actively severed all ties. Without knowing more about specific circumstances, we are allowed to doubt her testimony.

As for the purpose of expressing anger, consider it in this context. When someone offends or insults you, you will justly feel angry. The insult or offense represents a broken connection, broken because other person has disrespected you, demeaned you, diminished you. You might justly feel angry under the circumstances, but your goal, when you express the anger must be: to repair the breach, to restore the connection.

How can this happen? Simply, you want the other person to apologize, to take it back, to show shame for having made an unintentional slight. You can know how effective your expression was by seeing the other person's reaction. It matters little in the great scheme of things whether or not you feel good, bad or indifferent when expressing your anger. It matters whether your friend feels bad when seeing what he has done. If your offending friend does not recognize that he has wronged you and if he does not try to right the wrong, you have accomplished nothing.

If you are too angry, you will draw attention to yourself, to your anger and to nothing else. Making yourself the center of attention will not allow the other person the option of apologizing and making amends. It make him think that you deserved the put down. Thus, the expression must be modulated. It must not be so strong that it draws attention only to itself. And it must not be so weak that your sometime friend thinks that he has done nothing wrong.

It is not easy. It is not simple. It is certainly not going to be solved by having a dimwitted advice columnist tell you to feel your feelings.


David Foster said...

In his fantasy novel The Great Divorce, C S Lewis had a man being shown around Heaven by an angel so that he (the man) could determine if he wanted to stay there or would prefer to go back to purgatory. The angel pointed out one woman:

"She is a complaint"

"Don't you mean, she is a complainer?"

"No. She has complained so much, and for so long, that there is nothing else left. She is a complaint.

(very approximate quotes)

Anonymous said...

Is not that the default condition for women especially if they are feminists. They have it all and they have nothing. "I am woman hear me whine I blame men all the time and I am still unhappy and angry." I am pleasantly surprised if I actually see or meet a truly happy woman. I really feel sorry for young men that have to deal with this prevalent behavior.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

She is addicted to the excitement of anger. Even if it is unpleasant in some ways, it has its little jolt delivered at each expression. She has done the right thing in getting away from anger, but she is jonesing for a hit of something to bring excitement back in her life. Her body is conditioned to expect a certain level of excitement, and she hasn't got it.

whitney said...

That description just made me go buy the audiobook I'm almost finished with it. I love CS Lewis. And you were close, she was a grumble :-)

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Sounds like Hillary.