Friday, October 25, 2013

Lessons I learned so far about anger

I learned a new lesson about anger today... when you are really angry at someone, or when you feel you really strongly dislike a person at the moment, be it a good friend, a loved one, an acquaintance, or even a mentor, you cannot take in his or her advice, no matter how correct or how helpful the information they offer may be. It happened that a person I normally really like and respect made a statement that sounded offensive for me (coz I have huge unresolved issues with filial piety) and then kept trying to shove advice down my throat.

I've become more and more inquisitive about feelings and emotions, perhaps exactly because those who were closest around me love to invalidate my feelings or tell me to suppress my negative emotions and show more positive ones even if I don't feel so upbeat.

My whole life has been really tough for me, not because I had abusive/dysfunctional parents or was born into poverty, but because I was born with an excessively inquisitive mind and I like to analyze ideas/concepts to death. This probably irritates the hell out of my family and friends, who much prefer simple rules of thumbs than to question conventions/social norms.

I want to talk about the emotion known as "anger". I've briefly discussed the problems with negative emotion suppression in a previous post. Basically it's unhealthy for you in the long term and what often happens is that at a later time you may explode at someone due to a trigger that is only remotely related to the real issues that you've been avoiding to deal with for months/years.

According to Wikipedia, anger is "an emotion related to one's psychological interpretation of having been offended, wronged, or denied and a tendency to react through retaliation."  It ranges from being mildly, frustrated, to somewhat irritated, to outright wanting to say obscenities and hurt someone else.

My mother's side of the family, from grandparents, to my mom and all her siblings, to all my cousins, my sister and I -- are known to have bad tempers. I used to think this hot-temperament is a genetic trait that we are born with and would have extreme difficulty to shed. But I learned that it's more of a learned trait rather than purely an inborn characteristic. Whenever I got mad, my mother would quickly out-anger me by posturing up, speaking more loudly, and making sure she gains the upperhand of the situation. It's not until recently I learned that my own anger was often exactly "feeling offended, wronged, or denied", and also feeling completely powerless and hopeless, with no option to do anything about the situation. Even when I got older and realistically should be more resourceful to actively do something about my situation, getting angry became a habit, a knee-jerk response from too many years of being used to the helplessness. My mother also still habitually posture up and act all defensive no matter what the situation was.

It's not until I had a chance to live abroad, away from my family for an extended period of time, spending time with other people's families,  that I learned that other families do not get mad over every conflict or every frustrating/irritating situation. They simply asked the right questions, discussed, and made compromises. It was very eye-opening for me to observe this. Also, because other people never forced me to obey unreasonable requests, I rarely, if ever felt unbearably infuriated.  This was a complete surprise for me, since I had been used to feeling utter furor almost daily back at home.

So now that I am away for home for good, and hell-raising furor occurs relatively rarely for me, I set out to analyze post-furor what kind of things actually makes me furious. There's no way to analyze them while I was feeling like an erupting volcano. I started this post during a recent episode actually, but all that came out were blames and defensive thoughts. Rational thinking is impossible while feeling wrathful.

So the rage was actually a reaction to one of my favorite family members, who is normally quite caring. I guess she was having some trouble with her kids, and so she set out to invalidate my feelings towards my parents, and proceed to tell me that the mere fact that I was born into this world is sufficient reason that I am forever completely indebted to my parents and that I should fulfill my duty as a good daughter. A few of her later points are actually reasonable life tips.. things that she learned in her buddhist community about self-reflection and changing perspectives, but I was so incredulous and outraged that I couldn't stand to take in any inkling of information she tried to offer, no matter how relevant and helpful they may be.

I guess on top of my list of anger trigger are Chinese traditions, filial piety, emotional invalidation, and twisting my words to use against me. You may win the fight but you forever lose my trust and respect. But I've learned that nobody in my family gives a damn about my trust and respect. They care the most about tradition and saving face.

Luckily I have my own spiritual teaching to turn to that are less preachy and more thoughtful/respectful. I much prefer to internalize teachings that honors its audience rather than teachings that say, "You are all stupid/blind/unworthy, and now here are the rules to follow".

A simple teaching that I can appreciate (I heard this from Seane Corn): "First, forgive yourself for not knowing any better. Then forgive others for not knowing any better" ---  As opposed to forgive others unconditionally while continuing to be endlessly vigilant about yourself.

Another self-reminder: I am more powerful than my upbringing would have me believe. I have a lot more control of my life than I think I do. I also am allowed to make mistakes, since I have to live with the consequences of my mistakes. As much as I'm shocked about how family members only a few years older than me adhere to traditional beliefs that should have gone out of fashion with the 19th century, I am free believe something else and to live a different life. The emotional baggages are not so easily to shed but I will dedicate the rest of my life shedding them.

I also think it's okay to get angry as long as I learn something from it rather than just automatically react without thinking. I gain understanding about myself and it helps me to process my baggage / habitual patterns. If I merely suppress my anger or superficially distract myself, the baggage will never lessen.


  1. Feeling disrespected fuels our desperate need to be right and having our "opponent" admit it. Eventually it is enough to know in our heart and mind that we are right, even if the person who we are disagreeing with is making up something bizarre to keep the dance going. Eventually believe it or not the need for that person's respect (yes even from our moms) decreases, and amused compassion arrives (hard to believe, I know).

    1. You are totally right. When I feel disrespected I cannot think straight because my subconsciousness is on "full self-defense" mode. Part of becoming mature is give myself enough respect so that I don't need it from other people. It's a long road but I'm definitely on that path. Thanks again SF!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment Tony. I can try but no promises :)