In the interests of keeping my site fresh with new content, I’ve decided to start blogging about the various therapy related ideas that come into my head. These are generally just my thoughts about a particular topic, article, or book that I have read recently.
Have you ever seen that animation of the ballerina silhouette pirouetting? Where one cannot tell if she is turning clockwise or counter clockwise? If you observe her long enough you can actually control which direction you would like her to spin. It’s a fascinating example of how our minds can shape our perception with the prejudices we bring to them subconsciously. Especially when one considers that one can decide whether or not to see the ballerina turning towards oneself, or away.
Anger is an emotion that works just like this animation. One can decide if the anger is directed away from you or towards you. For example, Bert has a habit of leaving his car lights on and one morning he attempts to start his car only to find it won’t start. Bert initially thinks about how he only just recently had his car serviced. He flares up in anger at the mechanic, cursing his supposed incompetence. Then just as he was about to call the mechanic to give him a piece of his mind; Bert notices that his car lights were left on.
Here a peculiar thing happens. All the anger that was previously directed towards the mechanic, is now directed inwardly at Bert himself. “How could I be so stupid?!” Bert cries out to himself. Bert is angry with himself, but we generally don’t say that; instead we typically would say that he was feeling frustrated. When this powerful feeling is directed outwards, then we call it anger, but inwards it is called frustration.
I often find myself asking this question: am I frustrated or am I angry? Most often, I am feeling frustrated because the situation is actually in my control, but sometimes the anger is legitimate. The key to knowing which is answering the question: am I in control of this situation? In Bert’s case, he was the one in control of his car, he was the one who left the lights on.
If Bert had called the mechanic and unfairly blasted him for doing a bad servicing of his car, then that mechanic would have felt legitimately angry with Bert. The mechanic could not control Bert’s actions, he couldn’t make Bert turn his lights off. For the mechanic to chastise himself for a bad job because Bert forgot to check his lights would be absurd. It still happens sometimes, many people blame others for things they can’t control and many more blame themselves for things they don’t have control over.
Consider Cassie, she is at work when her coworkers decide to drop a load of paperwork on her desk she can’t possibly finish before the deadlines are due. She doesn’t actually have control over what the other people in her office do, but here we enter into a situation that is tricky. Cassie looks at the tedious pile of work on her desk and struggles with a conundrum:
Should she be mad with herself for committing to a job she wasn’t capable of doing? Thus direct her anger inward and blame herself for her situation.
Or should she be mad with her employer for not giving her enough time and resources to do her job? Thus direct her anger outward and blame others for her situation.
There are no easy answers to many such problems:
Should I be mad with my girlfriend for embarrassing me by telling my friends that story about me?
Should I be mad at myself for telling my girlfriend that story and not specifying that it should be kept between ourselves?
Should I be mad at my boyfriend for giving me unwanted advice or should I be mad at myself for not communicating to him what kind of support I needed?
Here people tend to use different approaches help solve the problem of where to direct their anger. Some people prefer to just assume everyone else is wrong and they are right because they don’t like the feeling of being mad with themselves. They value their personal comfort more than the truth. While other people tend to assume they are always at fault, blaming themselves for everything that goes wrong in their lives. They value having control over their lives more than their personal comfort.
Rare is the person who values the truth and holds themselves and others accountable when appropriate.
How do you decide where to direct your anger?
I found the animation of the “ballerina” on Wikipedia so I think that means I can share it. What direction does she spin for you? Can you make her change direction?