I used to joke that I had five levels of anger.
- I’m fine.
- I’m fine.
- I’m fine.
- I’m fine.
- I WILL KILL YOU AND EVERYONE YOU LOVE AND RAIN SULFUR DOWN UPON YOUR HOUSE!!!!
While this always got me some laughs, it was true. Recently I started to think I shouldn’t have two levels of anger disguised as five. I should actually have five levels of anger.
It runs in the family
I’ve spent most of my life avoiding personal conflicts. They made me so anxious and emotionally upset that I’d sometimes hyperventilate afterwards. I quit band a month into my senior year of high school without even running my complaints past the band director beforehand. I dropped out without warning because I knew I would start crying if I tried talking to him about why I was unhappy. It was a really shitty thing to do, but I was in high school and when I was a teenager I was still learning how to interact with other humans in an adult way. In some ways I still am.
I’m not sure why I’m naturally this way, but there is a pattern on both sides of my family to be non-confrontational or passive-aggressive. One year when I was a kid, my mother had offered to host my dad’s side of the family for Thanksgiving dinner at our house. My dad’s mom didn’t want to offend her daughter-in-law, but still wanted to hold Thanksgiving dinner at her own place. Instead of actually talking to my mom about it, my grandparents arranged a secret alternative Thanksgiving lunch to take place before my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner, which my immediate family was not invited to. They might have gotten away with it too if the door hadn’t fallen off grandma’s oven. Needless to say, they arrived late to my mom’s dinner, already full and pretty much exhausted, so the truth came out.
My mom’s side of the family isn’t that much better. She’s the oldest of 14 and it’s not uncommon to find out someone’s mad at you when you finally notice they’ve stopped talking to you or that they didn’t invite you to their Icelandic destination wedding. Then you have to talk to other people in the family to find out why that person is mad at you and hope they know why, which I’m sure doesn’t lead to any half-truths or misunderstandings at all. There are some people who are mad at each other and I don’t even know why. People will probably get mad at me just for writing about this, but I hardly ever talk to them anyway, so when they give me the silent treatment I won’t notice! I’ve joked that we need to set up a wiki to keep track of all the family conflicts, but just imagining what the revisions log would look like on that site is hilarious.
I also can’t remember my mother and father fighting over anything other than how to put up the Christmas tree. I used to think that was really great, right until they got divorced. Then I realized it probably would have been better if they’d fought more.
And of course, the most epic example of conflict avoidance in my family is the time my dad told us he was going on an extended business trip out of state, when this was really an excuse to pack up all his stuff and leave without suspicion because he couldn’t handle sitting down with his wife and telling her he wanted a divorce.
Queen of the circus
Lately I’ve noticed I’m not as timid or scared as I used to be when I was younger. I can make small talk without the reptile part of my brain screaming at me, “Flee, flee, flee for your life!” I can ask for help at stores if I need it, though I still try to avoid that if possible. I generally feel more comfortable in the world and if I were in a band and wanted to quit, I would say it to my band director’s face.
I think this confidence has to do with my job. I’ve been self-employed for six and a half years now, and there is no way you can survive as a freelancer if you avoid uncomfortable situations. I’ve had to get over my phone anxiety and talk to strangers, something I would dread in the hours or days leading up to a call. I’ve occasionally had to fire clients when a project was not working out. I’ve had to face the fact that I was undervaluing my work, charging too little, and start on a correction course to earn what I’m worth. I put up with a lot less bullshit than I used to. I’m running this show. I am the ring master and this is my circus and the lions don’t scare me like they used to, though the elephants still get out of control sometimes.
I guess what I’m saying is freelancing isn’t for chickenshits.
The tribe would have spoken (if you’d spoken to the tribe)
Two years ago I went to a small blogging conference where I’ve met several of my closest online friends. There was a pop-up shop one night that included a table from a local bookstore. It displayed books written by several attendees and books from some of their friends. What it did not include was my books.
When I noticed I’d been excluded, it hurt my feelings in a way I can’t properly describe. Here I was at a conference that was all about belonging to a great tribe of people, and I had seemingly been excluded from that tribe. However, instead of asking Wendy, the conference organizer, why my books weren’t on the table, I decided to keep quiet and try not to let it get to me. Wendy puts so much work into organizing the meetup every year, usually running it at a loss, that I didn’t want to add to her stress on the days she should be enjoying herself the most. I also didn’t want to make everything about me, me, me. So I didn’t say anything about it. Instead, I brooded silently for months. This did not go well for me.
I didn’t want to brood about it, but every few weeks I’d remember what happened and I’d get upset all over again. Finally, it got so bad that I wrote a letter to Wendy as a personal exercise, not knowing if I’d actually send it or not. I explained why I felt so hurt, and in writing it I realized the reason I was still upset was because my books are the most important piece of work I’ve completed in my life. Having them be ignored by my friends hurt, and I had every right to be hurt.
I emailed the letter to Wendy and she called me about 15 minutes later because she is an awesome person who truly values her friends and goes out of her way to make her friends feel valued too. She explained that the bookseller didn’t have any of my books in stock, and despite Wendy’s efforts they didn’t want to risk ordering any because they weren’t sure how much business they were going to do at the conference and they didn’t want to get stuck with a bunch of books they had to return to the publisher. Wendy hadn’t ignored me at all! There was a simple, logical explanation for why my books hadn’t been on the table. If I’d accepted I was angry at the time and asked about it instead of bottling up my feelings and putting on a fake happy face, I wouldn’t have spent months brooding about a misunderstanding. I’d done this to myself. Stupid, fucking, idiot.
If you’re angry and you know it…don’t clap your hands, just be angry
The fact that this conversation had gone so well made me realize I needed to make a change. Allowing myself to feel angry had led to a conversation that made me feel happy that I hadn’t been slighted at all. I’ve never liked being angry or upset. When I feel those emotions coming on I try to look at the bright side of things and focus on what I’m grateful for and convince myself that I needn’t be so upset. While this can be a good attitude to have at times, it can also do you harm when you use it to cover up feelings you need to confront. If I was going to grow as a person I needed to allow myself to feel negative feelings when I had them, as unpleasant as I find that. Having only two levels of anger is not healthy. I needed to accept I was angry and deal with what was causing those feelings in an adult way.
So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years, and it’s been awesome.
When I confront people about something that’s pissed me off, I feel powerful. There’s a saying I heard on a Suze Orman special, “I am a warrior and I will not turn my back on the battlefield.” When I avoided confrontations in the past, what I was really doing was backing down and letting someone else have their way instead of fighting for myself. I let people walk all over me and smiled as they did it. I was running away from the battlefield because I didn’t want to fight. But running away gets old, and even though confrontations still make me uncomfortable, they feel better than running away.
So, how have I been expressing my negative feelings? Sometimes it’s little things, like when I had to wait to order at Starbucks for 8 minutes even though I was next in line. The person in front of me had ordered three drinks and there was only one barista. I was annoyed and I was pissed that the other barista had gone off duty right when I walked up. In the past, I probably would have put on a fake smile when placing my order, and when the barista apologized for the wait I would have said, “Oh, that’s ok!” even though it was NOT ok. I felt bad for the overwhelmed barista, but empathizing with how she was feeling did not mean I shouldn’t be allowed to feel my own feelings. So I placed my order without a fake smile and just allowed myself to be angry.
I did not yell at the barista or hurl sugar packets at her. Feeling my feelings doesn’t mean I’m allowed to be a brat. It just means I get to be angry. Some of you reading might be thinking, “Well, of course you get angry. I don’t understand why you would you do anything else.” Women tend to be encouraged to smile and be nice, so allowing myself to be pissed off when I’m pissed off goes against my social programming. My default setting has always been “People Pleaser,” but fuck that. I need to please myself too, and sometimes that means making someone else uncomfortable.
Go big or go home (to your miserable apartment)
Other times I’ve had to deal with my negative feelings in more epic ways, such as a two-month period this summer when the contractors renovating the apartments above and below me did one thing after another to make my life miserable. They left cigarette butts outside my door, so I complained to management, and a month later they left cigarette butts outside my door again. They left trash in the stairwell for over a week. They left trash on the lawn. They left the door to the vacant apartment below me wide open, keys in the deadbolt, after dark. Then they did it again the next night. They used power tools in the apartment above me at 11pm, and then started hurling objects off the third-floor balcony onto the lawn at 11:30pm. I complained to management and they assured me that it was unacceptable. Then two days later they started using power tools in the apartment below me at 9pm, which pushed me so far over the edge that I left a voicemail for the office that consisted entirely of me screaming and cursing. I then went to see Straight Outta Compton because I could not stand to stay in the apartment, and that scene where Ice Cube trashes the office of someone who owes him money was cathartic in a way I really needed.
I just wanted to live somewhere nice and quiet, but that wasn’t happening. I was seriously exploring ways to get out of my lease with the least amount of penalties, and put together a complaint letter to the Better Business Bureau that I was going to mail unless this situation could be resolved in a satisfactory manner. So I went in to meet with the manager and discuss our options. I prepped for the meeting for hours in my head, and almost talked myself out of it a dozen times, but this was a battlefield and I had to face it. I was crazy nervous, but as soon as we sat down she let me know the contractors had been fired and I was so, so relieved. I don’t usually find joy in getting someone fired, but those assholes had it coming. Knowing they were gone and had been punished for being such jackholes was good enough for me. By expressing my anger and trying to deal with the problem, I was able to reach an acceptable solution. I actually hate complaining, but I’ve learned that sometimes I have to.
Other stuff I can’t talk about, which just makes you want to know more, I know, but you’ll just have to deal with it
Right before Christmas I had a conflict with someone that I can’t go into the details about. All I can say is they posted something on social media that really upset me. In the past I would have pretended it didn’t happen and stuck my fingers in my ears while singing, “La, la, la la! Can’t hear you!” After five to ten minutes of trying to do exactly that, it occurred to me, “Hey, I could talk to this person about this.” Two years ago I would never have considered that, preferring to avoid any conflict. But how would it help our relationship if I silently held it against them for years without saying anything?
So I asked this person to take down what they’d posted, and they did. I explained why I was upset, they understood and let me know it hadn’t been their intention to upset me, and the whole thing was resolved. It was rather remarkable actually. Yay, personal growth!
If I’ve learned anything in the past two years it’s that it’s usually for the best to tell someone you’re mad when you’re mad. Do it politely. Don’t beat them up. But don’t pretend shit didn’t happen when you know it did. I know there might be some situations where this isn’t ideal. If you’re mad at your boss, telling her so might get you fired. There might be complications in your web of interpersonal relationships that would cause something bad to happen somewhere else if you were completely honest about everything. But for the most part I think it’s better to feel your feelings rather than try to convince yourself you’re going to feel something else.
I’m still working on doing this consistently. There have been some moments when I should have said something or not let something stand, but I didn’t do anything about it. There was one time I left a note on someone’s illegally parked car that almost blocked me in that was more angry than it should have been. But overall I feel a lot better fighting my fights instead of running from them. I feel like a BAMF (Bad Ass Mother-F$&%er), relatively speaking, though in reality I’m more of a slightly cynical but amiable Midwestern girl at heart. However, I feel like I might really have five levels of anger now, and because of that I hopefully won’t have to rain down sulfur on anyone’s home any time soon.