When you’re having a strong feeling, it can seem as though you’re being swept away by a power greater than yourself. It seems that way, but you’re not.
Feelings are like a capability I have on the software I write with. If I have a phrase that I type all the time, like The Road to Reconciliation (the name of one of my books) and want to create a shortcut, I can go to system preferences > keyboard > text and set it up, so that, whenever I type rr, The Road to Reconciliation appears on the document. It’s a handy little feature that saves keystrokes, but if I forget that I set it up, I might be surprised to see The Road to Reconciliation appear on my document every time I type rr.
You have feelings pre-programed because there are some things that are so important or so foundational that you don’t want to have to think about them every time before you act. Feelings speed up decision making. (At least when feelings don’t conflict with each other. When they do, you will freeze, just like your computer.) Feelings move you to action in a way that rational thought never can.
You may not remember programming your emotional shortcuts like I remember substituting rr for The Road to Reconciliation. That’s because the process of learning the rules for feelings were also programmed, so you have a program automatically creating a program. You learned the rules for feelings when you were still very young by observing the feelings of people around you. Some aspects may have been programmed directly in you, genetically, in the same way that software engineers assumed I’d want certain shortcuts, like spell check, so they put them right in. The fact that feelings work outside your conscious awareness, both in the way they are set up and the way they operate, is proof of how well the system works. It frees your consciousness up for more important things that require your complete attention, like watching Tiger Kings.
Before you get any ideas, I must caution you against going into system preferences and rewriting the default settings for your feelings. They’re embedded deep within your code and messing around with the way you feel may have many unintended consequences. Attempting to dampen or deny your feelings is a foolhardy venture. You have your feelings for a reason.
Let’s take a look at one shortcut you have set up called anger. Anger is a desire for retribution in response to a perceived insult.
Insult involves pain or hurt; actual physical pain, or an injury to your ego, self esteem, or social standing. So, the first phase of anger is feeling hurt. It’s only after you perceive an insult that the desire for retribution gets going. The desire for retribution can be so intense that you might easily lose track of the fact that it began with an experience of fear, weakness, powerlessness, and vulnerability. An angry person looks like the most powerful one in the room, but he’s actually the most fragile.
Not every injury ends in anger. If someone steps on your foot, you’re not going to get angry unless you believe they did it deliberately or out of some carelessness. If someone has sex with your wife, and she with him, it’s the perceived insult you’re reacting to when you get angry. If you invited someone to have sex with your wife, and she with him, like if you were into swapping or threesomes, you wouldn’t get angry, because there would be no injury to your status. It might even elevate your status if you believed the desirability of your wife reflected on you.
Emotional rules vary from one person to another. Some people are quick to anger, because they may not like to feel hurt. Some prefer to show their anger more than others. But the basics remain the same: anger is a desire for retribution in response to a perceived insult.
There are, of course, people who don’t follow the rules, as you see when someone goes off when a person innocently steps on their foot. We call such a person crazy or irrational. We send them to anger management classes.
If you don’t like your anger, or if you are court ordered to learn to manage it better, there are things you can do to override the program. If The Road to Reconciliation appears on my document when I don’t want it to, I can click on a little X and it will disappear. If you need to manage your anger, the first step is to reconsider whether the insult you perceived ever really happened.
Are you really hurt? Maybe the guy who stepped on your foot weighed like a hippopotamus, but you were OK with feeling pain when you played football. You even tolerated dental work and didn’t slug the dentist because you knew it was for a good reason. It’s the idea of physical pain that hurts more than pain itself.
If the injury is to your ego, self esteem, or social status, you can ask yourself a few questions: Do people really give a shit? Will anyone in the movie theater really think about you for more than two seconds if someone steps on your foot and you don’t deck him? Is your ego so delicate that you need to make a federal case if someone treads on your tootsies?
Did the person really meant to hurt you? People are often clueless and seldom belligerent. The guy who stepped on your foot probably didn’t know your foot was there. Your wife, and the guy who slept with her, weren’t thinking about you at the time, they was thinking of other things. You can still get angry that they weren’t more careful, that your feelings weren’t considered; but, are you always careful about everything and do you always consider everyone?
If you’ve taken a good look at the perceived insult and concluded that it was real, the next thing to think about is the desire for retribution.
Retribution can take many forms: you can hunt down and punish the offender or press charges and wait for the state to do it for you; you can give them a good tongue lashing or smile and gossip behind their back; you can insist on a humiliating apology or inflict direct physical pain. There is no end to the forms that retribution can take and people can be amazingly creative in executing it.
There’s a case for retribution. It serves as a deterrent. If you get angry when someone steps on your foot at the movie theater, you can be sure the next person in line will be more careful. Moreover, the person who stepped on it just might be more careful next time he goes to the movies with his big feet. Others might benefit from you going apeshit. Going apeshit might be how you serve humanity. Also, if you’re angry all the time, people learn not to mess with you. They give you a wide berth and don’t try things that’ll get your goat.
Retribution can be the way to repair the injury to your social status. I think this is a bigger deal in some cultures than others. When I worked with people who’ve been to prison, I learned that when someone disses you there, your main concern would be who else saw it. You would have to respond hard and fast so that others don’t get the idea that they can do it, too. It’s dangerous to be seen as a punk in prison. In prison, when you succeed in retribution, it elevates your social status and makes you untouchable. I also found this to be true when I played hockey.
Anger promises to repair your injured ego or self esteem. Even if nobody knows what was done to you, you can feel weak, powerless, and vulnerable. When you are filled with anger, you forget your powerlessness. If you succeed in retribution, you prove to yourself that you’re the master of a situation.
Yes, retribution has some benefits. That’s why we have anger; it’s useful, to some degree. Hurt tells you there’s been an injury to your body, ego, self-esteem, or social standing. Anger motivates you to do something about it. But, if anger has gotten you into trouble, you have to reconsider whether retribution is such a good thing.
If you go a beat up the guy who slept with your wife, what does that change? You still have to deal with her. You could beat her up; but does that restore the loving feeling? Even deterrence is a questionable good. We catch more flies with honey than we deter with vinegar. If people give you a wide berth because you don’t take any shit, won’t that also prevent them from getting close enough to give you some love?
You can also, of course, feel a desire for retribution without taking any action. Being the bigger person and letting go of anger when you could’ve hurt someone, could actually be a bigger boost to your self esteem than any amount of havoc you could wreak. It’s not the anger that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it.
So, you see, you can override your anger response at any time, just as easily as you can override spellcheck.
I know, it’s not easy to override spellcheck if you’re not paying attention.
So, pay attention to your feelings.
Previously published on medium
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