The price we pay for swallowing our irritation?
I recently asked my friends to describe the last time they were angry. The stories poured out. When her emails were hacked …when the plumber never showed…when the guy stole her parking spot…when the snotty salesperson ignored her…when customer service kept her on hold for 18 minutes before disconnecting the call. Then I asked each one to describe the last time she expressed her anger, face-to-face, to anyone who provoked it. Silence.
Ah, to find that elusive just-right response, midway between shrinking and blowing up, the sweet spot between being shrill and being decisive. I’ll write an irritated email. or leave a curt phone message or use shocking vocabulary while driving, but expressing totally justified, unattractive, strident anger? I’d rather stuff it down.
After a lifetime of nurturing and placating, I’m pretty good at steadying rocking boats. Feeling over-extended and saying yes when I should have said no is more comfortable than risking someone finding me unpleasant. Voicing anger makes you visible; if you put up your dukes, be prepared for the consequences. If you repress it, you’ll remain invisible, trading a bit of resentment for the safety of going unnoticed.
I can’t “let them have it”… those who deserve “it”… until I practice expressing exactly what “it” is. There was a guy in my neighborhood who always traveled with a dozen eggs on the front seat of his car. If someone ever cut him off, he’d reach down, grab one, open his window and throw an egg at the windshield of the offender. It was horrifying, of course, but I admit I never forgot his dark efficient alternative to being nice.
I grew up in a household where only one person was allowed to be angry. The vein on my father’s forehead swelled when anger boiled over, its roar intimidating us into masking our emotions. Anger to me was destructive, hot and red faced and menacing. I don’t think I knew a woman of my generation who grew up with her anger affirmed or validated. And when we’re not taught to express anger in healthy ways, how can we not be uncomfortable when it leaks out?
Looking back, there were moments when I’m as angry with myself for avoiding confrontation as I am with the person who provoked it. Most often it was a person with some power, confident and unempathetic. There was a book editor who never responded to the chapters I sent her monthly until the manuscript was done. Then she said she’d been just so busy and meant to tell me I was heading in the wrong direction in chapter two. She scrapped the project. I swallowed my fury. There was a doctor who, after viewing a routine sonogram, actually diagnosed me in 2020 (not 1950) as having “the Big C”, and then, when I nervously joked, “Well, am I going to live?” he remained silent for a VERY long time. I remember that moment as feeling as mad at him for doing such a terrible job of delivering that diagnosis as I was scared. I said nothing.
And a nurse in the hospital who said the floor was short of IV poles so my dying mother’s request for morphine would have to wait till she got around to finding one. Instead of having a Shirley McClaine -Terms of Endearment moment and screaming at her lack of compassion, I just sat there listening for a half hour to sounds forever seared into my soul When she returned, I thanked her. Ugh.
What is the price we pay for swallowing our irritation? Ulcers. Depression. Substance abuse. Sulking. Self-doubt. Guilt. I’ll never forget the one time the pendulum swung 180 degrees and I understood what it felt like to be spitting mad. Like a flash flood, it erupted, uncontrolled and uncontained… the price of waiting too long to be heard. Flying off the handle (do men fly off the handle?) left me hoarse, shamed, and exhausted. I aspire to never feel that way again.
In a time of Twitter (I know it’s called X but I don’t care), thousand-year-old wars, and You Know Who, it’s easy to lose sight that anger serves a profound purpose, alerting us of our responsibility to change the patterns of injustice and powerlessness that are not serving us well, under out roofs and on the planet.
My 91-year-old friend has a physician who ordered some tests because he suspected a recurrence of her cancer. She waited the five days he suggested and when he didn’t call her with the results, called him. He didn’t return her call. Or the next two. When she finally spoke to him and found out she was OK, she recounted how many times she tried to reach him and then calmly said, “You are a good doctor. You came highly recommended and I’m sure you’re very busy. I have no quarrel with your work. But heightening my anxiety and ignoring me is inexcusable.” Then she said goodbye and hung up.
Without couching her words or raising her voice, she felt heard. She found “it,” the sweet spot.