I thumbed through a selection of poems for one of my classes while I waited for my therapist to come and grab me from the lobby. My appointment was at 12:15, and it was now 12:21, and I began to fidget impatiently in my seat. What is taking him so long? I thought to myself, growing angrier as the time passed. Doesn’t he know I am paying good money to be here? I obsessively grew more irritated until, after what felt like an eternity, the waiting room door opened and a somber-faced, teary-eyed woman and my doctor both emerged.
“C’mon in,” said Doctor Bruce Johns. “I’ll be right there; I just have to warm up some chili.”
Still annoyed at yet another delay to our session, I slinked into his office and plopped down on his luxurious leather couches. These couches were relatively new. The old green ones that used to occupy the room now sat in my living room at home. He’d given them to me as a wedding gift almost four years ago, and they’d moved around with me and Kate ever since. Suddenly I felt a knot forming up in my stomach.
What in the hell is the matter with me? Here is a guy that has been there for me through thick and thin for the past eight years, given me his couches, shown up to my wedding, and was working through lunch just to visit with me and all I could do was be angry that he was a few minutes late? A moment later he returned with his bowl of chili and pulled out his laptop to take notes. I’d come today to talk about one thing, so I cut right to the chase.
“Bruce,” I started. “I have a serious anger problem.”
The Family Tree?
Anger. It’s something I have struggled with since I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure it runs in my genes. When I started this project several months ago, I knew it was going to be the hardest, yet most important thing I’d ever tackle, and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking of ways to overcome it.
For generations, anger has plagued the Pyfer family tree, and we’ve developed a certain misplaced reverence for it because of the prolific role it has played in our lives. Growing up, we often joked about how much better we had it than our Dad, or his Dad, or his Dad before him did, but it always felt like a means to justify the abuses, heartaches and pain that anger has caused our family.
For the most part, though, it’s true. Most of my family, as far as I know, has a decent handle on their anger despite getting a little hot under the collar every now and again. Me, however? I don’t. I freak out at the most ridiculous things, and lose my temper several times a day. I curse and scream at everything from people on the road to errant laundry baskets that “get in my way.” It is far beyond an appropriate response to any minor frustration.
This, of course, forces the obvious question: is my problem really genetic? Does it have anything to do with my family tree? Genetically speaking, my siblings and I aren’t that different, so why do we relate to anger in such diverse ways? Does my problem have more to do with my nature, or behavior that I’ve learned?
I didn’t know what to think, but I knew a doctor who did.
The Clinical Approach
Google clinical approaches to anger and you’ll be inundated with a sea of self-help books claiming to be able to curb anger. I skimmed a few chapters of the best-rated results, but after several minutes of reading the same old stuff about taking some soothing deep breaths during a full-blown meltdown in rush-hour traffic, I was unconvinced most of these doctors knew what they were talking about. To be fair, tricks like breathing and touching the tips of your fingers and thumbs together while chanting mantras may work for some people in the heat of the moment, but as far as I was concerned, the only promising book in the list was the coloring book with full-page swear words (reader discretion advised) you could furiously fill-in when anger struck. Besides, it’s hard to strangle someone if your hands are busy coloring.
I found dozens of psychology blogs and websites dedicated to the subject too, but all of them seemed geared towards the same banal explanations for why I was getting angry (my depression, being a narcissist, etc) and didn’t really offer a ton of concrete solutions other than trying to be more patient.
That is what lead me back to Bruce Johns. He was a real-life doctor, and had been helping me with my anxiety and depression for years. I sat and told him just a few of the things that got me really fired up which included traffic, smoke alarms, and a baby that wouldn’t stop crying. He listened patiently for a while as I listed off a laundry list of things that pissed me off. I had to fight the urge to add what he then suggested to that list.
His secret? The key from the guru himself to unlocking my calmer inner-self?
Lower my expectations.
Anger Expectation Management
Okay, okay, that isn’t how he put it, nor is it that simple, but the general idea is there. Expectations, rather than anger, medication, deep breaths or repeats of a mantra, are what I needed to manage if I wanted to control my emotions. How I think the world around me should operate at any given time.
But how does that work? Frankly, I was disappointed when what Bruce gave me sounded just like the blogs and self-help books, willing to offer some trite platitude as a solution to a complex problem. Manage my expectations? WHY? Why can’t I expect the world operate the way I want it to? Why can’t everyone get it together and be perfect like me (JK LOL)?
Primarily because that isn’t even remotely rational or reasonable.
Just like most of our expectations.
Bruce used my example of becoming enraged when a smoke alarm wouldn’t turn off in the house after the smoke cleared, or someone cut me off in traffic on my way to school. What did I expect to happen in these situations? As I yelled and screamed at the blaring 20-year-old smoke alarm that was waking up my daughter in the next room, did I stop to think that the only language the smoke alarm understands is the smoke rising from the toaster in the kitchen from the toast I burned? How about that old lady who cut me off? Did it occur to me that the reason she didn’t see me there is because she can’t actually see at all, and has to drive to an optometrist because she has no one to take her?
Nope. None of this crossed my mind, because I was operating under the illusion that the perfect world in which I lived revolved neatly around me and my feelings. My expectations only followed suit. When baby Clara wouldn’t stop crying, it didn’t occur to me that she is only seven months old and that is exactly what babies that age do; I just thought about me, and how annoyed I felt when she wouldn’t give it a rest.
Anger wasn’t some marker coded to my genes. It was simply the dissonance between my expectations and reality.
So how do you make this work? Can it even work in the heat of the moment? Bruce suggested preemptively modifying my expectations before certain stressful situations like driving, but I felt like something else was missing.
Then I saw this video.
If you haven’t seen/heard this, I would so highly recommend it. If you have, it may be worth another view. Author and essayist David Foster Wallace (a new personal favorite) is famous for finding meaning in the mundane, and this is no exception. What really struck me about this speech, however, was the attention to others that he pays, and how that relates to managing our expectations.
How do we see the world around us in general? How do we see other people? Is the world a dark and perilous void that must be navigated with caution to ensure our self-preservation? Are the faces that we see in the grocery store or driving on the road our friends and family, or impish ghouls simply out to screw us and get in our way?
I know I didn’t see the world as a kind and safe place. I didn’t see everyone around me as friends. Was it any wonder, then, that I was so angry all the time? When I expected only the worst, each negative experience I had only confirmed that bias, and made the good things in life that much more frustrating and confusing.
The world was what I made it, and currently, it was a world that would make anyone mad.
I thanked Bruce for his help and told him about my plans to explore some homeopathic and religious fixes for anger too, and he told me to make sure I reported back. I looked down at my watch, and to my dismay, I noticed I’d gone over my time. As I walked back out into the lobby, I thought of the teary-eyed woman who had also gone over her time, and felt terrible for being so mad at her. I tried to think of what she might be going through. Maybe it was a rough divorce, or a teenager that she just couldn’t get through to. My mother had sat and cried in that same office about me as a troubled teenager.
Only one old lady cut me off on my way back home. I smiled and waved. I hope she made it to the optometrist safely.