That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment. A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche. Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.
But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.
I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger. Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.
- Recognize that we all live in our own reality.
My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed. I could never be the child she wanted.
Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure. Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.
- Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”
Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.
As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes. Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.
It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.
- Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.
We all make mistakes. Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong. Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.
One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time. Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.
For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.
- Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.
I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.
From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.
In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it. Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.
Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.
How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?