I have had occasion to be thinking a lot in the past week about anger.
Having been under considerable stress for various reasons, I have lost my temper on several occasions.
I found myself doing this over trivial things. For example, I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts/Baksin Robbins store and ordered ice cream for me and my older son. The guy behind the counter said, “That’s two ice coffees, right?” I said angrily and loudly, “No! I said ice CREAM.”
There were other, more serious incidents this week of me losing my temper or expressing displeasure. One was with a company for messing up the shipment of items I had ordered, so that they didn’t arrive on time (it was totally their fault); another one was with a professional person whom I know on a provider-client basis; and I had disagreements with members of my immediate family.
Usually, people find me to be mild mannered and not prone — in public at least — to annoyance or anger. My behavior this week was not the norm.
I have been thinking, about anger: when is it appropriate and when is it not?
William Blake’s insights, expressed in his poem “The Poison Tree” come to mind:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
(“A Poison Tree,” from Songs of Experience)
I would say that anger is appropriate and can’t be avoided in intimate relationships — e.g., a marriage.
If spouses did not argue (frequently), that would be abnormal.
My parents used to make this point to me and my siblings. They got along well. And, they tried to present a unified front when it came to issues related to parenting, so that we children would not see them bickering over what measures to adopt when it came to disciplining us or setting rules of conduct, say.
At the same time, they told us that couples who pretended that their relationship was one of perfect harmony and bliss and who hid conflicts from their children were fostering an untrue, picture perfect image that was actually harmful, because it would not prepare their offspring to deal with issues that would arise when they became adults and married.
It seems that the situation regarding “anger management” is different when it comes to NON-intimate relationships: e.g., a professional and client; teacher and student; employee and boss; relationships between professional or academic colleagues or businesspeople; and so on.
A few observations and illustrative examples from my own experience.
Honesty is a cardinal virtue I was raised on and believed in.
So I always thought Blake was right. When you are really angry, disagree with someone strongly – when it is not a trivial matter that can (and probably should) be passed over – you should express it, share with the other person what you really feel, no matter how hard this may be.
Presumably, or at least hopefully, they will appreciate your honesty and integrity and will not, in the final analysis, be offended.
Nice to contemplate, but this has rarely been the case, in my experience.
On those occasions when I have allowed myself to express anger at someone, have leveled with them, it has rarely gone well or been taken well. It has almost always seemed to be bitterly resented and often has led to the end of the relationship and/or a “counter grudge” against me.
I should add that, from my experience, it seems that the case is different with really close relationships, such as relationships with a spouse or lover or family relationships (close family relationships, that is). It does seem that anger can and should be expressed, when it is legitimate and truly felt, in such situations, which could be said to be obvious — that it can’t be avoided — and that, while it may lead to bitterness and recrimination (almost always does, it seems), it is possible to work through such feelings and come to a level of understanding in which the relationship has been in some ways strengthened, so that expressing anger is a NECESSARY thing. It kind of reminds me of when engineers have to shut down a part of a highway or bridge for a while for repairs, but then it reopens, strengthened and improved.
In the case of NON-intimate relationships, I have found that the best policy is to refrain to the fullest extent possible from expressing annoyance or anger, from letting it show. A therapist I was seeing once gave me precisely this advice (by implication, in the form of a question he addressed to me).
Sometimes I have failed to adhere to this self-styled “best policy” — invariably with bad consequences.
I was experiencing some difficulties once – it’s a convoluted story — with the editor of an academic journal I was associated with. I don’t remember the details of our disagreement. There was some underlying tension between the editor and me over my status as a contributor to the journal, on the masthead of which my name had been recently added.
I had done several book reviews for the journal and a successor publication. They were praised by the editor, along with some of my other writings. Then, I was given the assignment of reviewing a major new book, a biography of an important American writer, by this same person, the editor with whom I was experiencing friction. I gave his book a very thorough review, and a very favorable one (which it deserved).
Sometime not long after, I was given the assignment by the book review editor to review two books for the next issue. One of the books was edited by the same person, the journal editor whose biography of a writer I had recently reviewed.
I purchased the two books and started in right away to read them, preparing to review them. Then, a little while later, the book review editor contacted me and informed me that she was assigning one of the two books to a different reviewer. The book she was reassigning was the one edited by the editor of the journal, the English professor with whom I was having some disagreements.
This annoyed me and I wondered what was going on. Had the journal editor (the author) told the book review editor to take the assignment away from me? But I deemed it best to comply and say nothing about it.
Then my irritation got the best of me. I called the book review editor (not a wise move), who called me back the next day. I tried to be nonconfrontational, asked her as politely as I could what was going on. Was there some underlying reason that the decision had been made to take this particular book away from me, so to speak, and give it to another reviewer?
Her answer, in a nutshell, was no, it had nothing to do with me. It had just happened that someone else had come along who was willing to do the review.
I said fine, although I wasn’t completely satisfied with her explanation. Nevertheless, I thought the matter was over and done with.
But, as it turned out, the mere dropping of a hint of annoyance at her doorstep did have negative consequences. I did the other review that I had been assigned, but I never heard from the book review editor again. This despite the fact that I seemed to be one of her best and reliable book reviewers. I have contacted her since suggesting reviews, and she does not answer my emails.
She obviously decided that it was not worth the aggravation to continue dealing with me.
Something similar – in reverse, as it were – happened with me.
Around eight years ago, I was contemplating a trip to Russia and hired a private language instructor, a Russian émigré living in New York.
I took lessons with him twice a week in Manhattan at a modest rate, but they didn’t last long.
The instructor was short tempered and didn’t seem to enjoy what he was doing. He was impatient when I faltered with the language, had trouble pronouncing it, and so on. He was even annoyed when I had trouble using a cassette recorder he had advised me to purchase and bring to the lessons with me.
On one occasion, he vented anger openly, for no reason whatsoever. It was a very brief outburst. Not that apparent or vehement, but it was enough for me.
I thought about it and had no trouble reaching a decision. I didn’t need the aggravation. As a client, I was totally at liberty to leave. It wasn’t worth it, so I quit.
I heard from him again — he called trying to get me to start lessons with him again.
He seemed to really need the business.
— Roger W. Smith