Podcast: Episode 8 ~ On Anger

*Warning: Some of the content is a ‘re-enactment’ of a past experience when I felt angry, and not presently real. In addition, I have had a pesky cold and a blocked nose for a week and so I sound stuffy, not to worry, it is not the C-Virus 🙂 

Sara interviews Dr. Steven Laurent, a registered clinical psychologist and member of the Australian Psychological Society. He works with all mental health problems, but specialises in anger management. Before beginning his studies in psychology, Dr Laurent completed a double major in Philosophy and Formal Logic at the Sorbonne in Paris. In collaboration with Assoc. Prof. Ross Menzies, Laurent has published The Anger Fallacy.

When I become angry, the most obvious thing is that I am no longer rational or reasonable. I call myself the Moral Traveller not because I believe that I am moral, but exactly the opposite, that I think I am not a moral enough and I am travelling through the moral domain of my own reality, asking those hard questions to others and to myself in order to try and understand my subjectivity, and therefore improve as a person. I have made many mistakes, and most of those mistakes, if not all, have actually been prompted by anger. 

In this podcast, I am going to talk a little bit about some experiences where I have been really angry.  Let me try and explain how anger can actually have positive effects, and this happened to me recently when I confronted a man who had bullied me for some time at work. I have spoken of some of this on a previous episode on workplace bullying, but the effects of his behaviour and abuse was catastrophic on my feelings of self-worth and it took years of my life as I struggled to reconcile with what happened and regain my sense of self-esteem. I was really sad, and heartbroken, but I was never angry.

When I confronted him years later, it was strange, but I wasn’t really feeling anything, almost like I was waiting and curious about what the outcome would be. I confronted him and told him that he hurt me, and he apologised, but he eventually denied he did anything wrong, which basically meant his apology was meaningless, and I felt stupid for even thinking that he could possibly be a different person. I was already quite defensive, but when he denied and justified his wrongdoing, he ignited this anger that I think I was not aware that I had and probably had for a very long time. He then, quite randomly, suggested that we should be friends, without first talking to me, picking up the phone and calling me so that we can work through what I was feeling, for him to show genuine remorse, a slow and step-by-step process towards forgiveness and reconciliation and therefore possibly becoming friends, but he just randomly expected it, like he was doing me a favour. 

And, of course, such a request completely frightened me as someone who had been threatened by him previously and zero trust, so the idea of being friends was for me was almost like a threat rather than an olive branch. It was at that moment that I remembered an experience when we were working together and he asked me to come into work early because there was an important deadline for some work that our manager needed the next morning, and he said he really needed my help completing some spreadsheet and report. He was, at that time, constantly being awful to me, but at the same time, I remember wanting to try and improve our working relationship so that he would stop bullying me, so I came in but at 8.00am knowing there would be some staff members there and therefore I would be safe. 

The place that we worked was fairly large and while there were people who were scattered around the office, our pod area was just us. So, when I came to my desk, he immediately said “wow you look beautiful, do you have new makeup on, your foundation is perfect, you look amazing” and he said it in a way where he was extremely excitable, like there was some urgency and he needed to blurt out these comments. I looked exactly as I usually do, and I just responded with “okay” and then, just as randomly, out of nowhere, he said “if I cheat on my girlfriend, I am okay with that and I will face the consequences for it.” 

I realised at that moment that he intentionally lured me into the office and so I left and stayed in the kitchen area for long enough until everyone came in. He became really awful to me after that, comments like I stink or that I am balding – probably because whatever insane fantasy he concocted never came to be – so he became even more hostile and aggressive, and in turn that was when I became possessed by fear that this man is going to do something bad to me.

I remembered that one moment because, even if he really did want to be friends all these years later and was actually trying to be nice, it felt like a threat, like a lie, like he was trying to lure me again and so I told him that I didn’t want to be friends and he reacted as he did when we were working together, and I was like “aha, there it is” and again I got frightened and walked around eggshells trying to appease his anger just as I did before. He finally said that I was jealous of him as some sort of retaliation for rejecting and distrusting his intentions. 

Jealous of what? Why would he say that, I have been hurting all these years, and he thinks that I am jealous. Jealous of what? I slowly became possessed by this inner rage, it was brewing inside of me as I remembered everything he did, all the bad things that I had forgotten started to come back like a tidal wave. I was angry at him intentionally trying to gaslight me and make me feel scared and awful about myself, I was angry that a man his age is paralysed by indecision, angry at a man who shrugs his shoulders and boasts that he is coward rather than take responsibility, angry that he thought he had the permission to treat me like an object and make assumptions about me that weren’t true. 

But jealous? All those years that I suffered was literally because I wasn’t angry, so it all just flooded inside of me like a backlog of rage. I was so angry that he created this image where he appears to be a good person, but I saw his darker qualities, I saw through his disgusting impulses, his egotism, and playing games and hiding and pretending. Jealous of what? Him? His girlfriend? His life? So for few hours I looked online and I observed and I tried to understand what it is I am supposed to be jealous of and what I saw was just a bunch of morons.

Here I am, a documentarian who visits war torn countries, a graduate of law, a woman earning a six-figure salary and who has worked hard her whole life on her own is apparently supposed to be jealous of a bogan, with a ditsy girlfriend who puts weird shit all over her face and takes selfie videos, or says dumb things like “God is a dog” publicly for everyone to see, and I am supposed to be jealous of that? This is exactly what the Kardashians have done to people. The most useless, uneducated idiots who spend their time in vain pursuits, make up, plastic surgery, wearing glasses and pretending to be smart despite the fact that the have probably never even read a fucking book, using big words that make no sense, and thinking that somehow the pointless things that they do is magnificent and that everyone is supposed to be jealous.

That week, I hated him, and I hated everyone who supported or liked him. I hated all of them. Until slowly, but surely, that frustration and anger slowly disappeared and I was very embarrassed at my behaviour afterwards. At first I thought I did the wrong, but I didn’t, I don’t ever want such people in my life, but it was the way that I did it, getting angry and fired up which was ridiculous and immature on my part. I mean, yeah, I am supposed to be the smart one, and these people are going to be 15 until they are 50, and I should know better and just let them fumble about aimlessly, so it was ridiculous and immature on my part to get offended at everyone. I just did not understand what I was feeling. A few weeks passed, and after years of feeling heavy, it was lifted off me, it was gone, there was this sense of empowerment and despite not getting what I wanted, which was a genuine apology and a proper attempt at reconciliation, I realised the hopelessness of trying to communicate to a person who is in denial. It was almost like the anger healed me, because before I was always scared, I was hopeful he would change, and trying to fix the problems, which gave him that control, whereas now, I am in control of myself, I am empowered, he can never ever do what he did to me before today, impossible. Anger, literally, healed me.

So, the first reason for my anger is rooted in communication or a failure of communication in someway both in terms of that communication with others and also within myself. The second reason and also a major player, is my absolute frustration towards injustice. Again, let me give you an example. When I was 16, I was learning taekwondo and we were enrolled into tournament by our coach at a local secondary school, inside the basketball courts that they converted into a taekwondo arena. I was only a yellow belt at the time, and this was my first tournament, and it was tiny, there weren’t many fighters. As I was standing with my friends, I was approached by a very large girl, she was definitely twice my size and was taller than me, and she was also a probationary black belt with years of training and experience behind her. But she was the same age as me, and she introduced herself and said that we were scheduled to fight one another because there aren’t enough fighters and they decided to match fighters only according to age. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, telling me that she understands that I am just a yellow belt and much smaller than she is, so we will promise one another not to kick to the head. We shook hands on it, it was a very explicit promise, no kicks to the head. When we got out onto the mats to start the fight, in the first twenty seconds, she kicked me three times to the head and broke my nose. 

They paused the game, and just as they were about to cancel the match, I noticed her smiling and laughing at the other end, and I was suddenly filled with rage. I stood up, pushed everyone out of the way and walked directly to the centre of the mat, where I roared out to the girl to “get her ass back here” as I pointed down to the mat. And note the keyword roar, because I am either talking like this or roaring like a lioness, there is no in between the two extremes with me. She unwillingly came back and when the fight started again, I basically beat her up. I wasn’t doing taekwondo, and I really can’t even remember what I was doing, but they filmed me and there was a moment where I had my left hand caught in the gap of her helmet, pulling her head down so she couldn’t escape from my grip, and punching upwards into her face. 

It was unfair for me in so many ways, but that was a fierce response. The conditions, allowing her to fight with me in the first place, her intentionally lying, and then finally, her feeling victorious even though the conditions themselves were already unfair that she used to her advantage. She was a coward, and malicious, and by fighting with her, all I wanted to do was remind her that she is a fool to think others. If I did nothing, would that be right, or would that be wrong? Could it possible that I could reason with such a person, when she was very conscious of what she was doing and did it willingly? Would she just laugh at me if I tried to discuss her wrongdoing with her? The principles of the just war theory can be aligned with this individual argument, however a vast majority of violence – in much the same way as a vast majority of war – is perpetrated with evil intentions, but can such aggression ever be justified? So, yes, injustice, for me, is extremely aggravating. 

Anger is an emotion, while aggression is behavioural, a response or an action that is hostile, or potentially even violent and this can be passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive. Some people are passive, they express anger by being bitchy or gossiping or spreading rumours with the intention of hurting someone, and others are physically or verbally aggressive, punching holes in walls or yelling. When someone gets angry and their response becomes physical, if they start yelling or abusing, they are immediately morally flawed and are automatically in the wrong, and yet those who are passive-aggressive somehow seem to think that they not morally culpable. Don’t both produce the same sort of destructiveness but in different ways? 

Am I morally a bad person because I get angry? Is morality socially constructed or is innate? I grew up as a first-generation migrant and have felt very much alone most of my life. I was the youngest child of a large family and my older siblings saw me more as that annoying little sister and so I was often ignored and pushed away. My parents spoke very little English and were always so busy working that as a child I hardly talked to them and was left to my own devices. I was permitted to be this little wild child, which I am actually really grateful for because my parents just let me be, and while I sometimes played with my siblings, I was mostly on my own. I also never really had guidance, no one helped me with my homework or taught me anything, and because my parents were migrants, we were never immersed in that community feeling, so there was no religious education or anything.

It trained me in a way of being a non-conformist, of having my own mind, of questioning things, because I never felt emotionally attached. I always asked the question “why” and when I became an adolescent, I could never conform, not to people at school and not even to my own family. I rejected the religion of my parents, and all religious institutions because I don’t need to be told what to do, let me figure this out myself and let me select what has meaning for me and learn on my own.

Being first generation migrant means that you are often caught between two distinct realities. My parents were born in a village and they grew up very poor and so they relied heavily on the kinship of the community around them. There was no such thing as an individual because they belonged to a social or collective group of people. They never went to secondary school, they never questioned anything, they conformed to everything that they were expected to do because they were deeply immersed in this cultural reality that they inherited. 

I had the privilege of being free and therefore an individual, which was in complete opposition to my parents reality. You are supposed to do what you are told, you are supposed to be a stereotypical girl who tries to be pretty, you are supposed to get married and have kids, and there I was this weirdo who was very smart and sporty, I made no sense to them, and I wasn’t emotionally ready for that, there were no mechanisms in place to help guide me toward embracing and accepting this freedom and individuality, so I was emotionally imprisoned. 

In my mind, I had no one, no religion, no desire to conform, so I wasn’t prepared for the monumental task of creating my own identity and moral system and I became emotionally unstable because I still held on to the need of wanting the people around me to accept me for who I am. I could not pretend  to be what they wanted, I could not say one thing and do something else behind their back, no, I wanted them to stop criticising me, to stop telling how I should conduct myself or live my life or even how I dress or think or telling me that every decision that I make is bad. I felt rejected and I just couldn’t accept that and so I was caught in an emotional web where I couldn’t happily or comfortably be myself and found myself alone, protected from being hurt or potentially rejected, because being completely on your own meant that I was safe to be myself where I would not be criticised or judged.

My moral system was developed under the idea that I was a victim. I understood what was good or bad by saying this person did such and such to me and that hurt me and so it must be wrong, it was a victim mentality and to a certain extent was the underlying reason of why I was angry all the time because in my mind I was always the good guy. I was the victim, but where in that was my attempt to try to objectively understand others? I expected my mum to love me unconditionally, she is not a person with flaws, she doesn’t have a past or an identity, but like in movies and television shows, she is supposed to talk to me, help you, hug me, and make me feel good about me. My mum doesn’t do that, she has never once remembered my birthday, because she herself never celebrated her own, but I expected her to be someone that I wanted her to be rather than accept her for who she was.

Am I not doing the exact same thing that happened to me? Me and my mum had a tumultuous relationship for that reason, we kept on speaking over each other and getting frustrated because she wants me to be a certain way and I want her to be a certain way. And one day, I got upset at her, she said some comments to me and I yelled and said “I am not the bad one, you are!” I almost instantaneously felt disgusted at myself for getting so upset, but I realised I was not the victim anymore, I was the perpetrator. Why am I not making the effort to try to understand her, for instance, objectively, looking at her as an ordinary person? But now, me and my mum are communicating, we are getting through to one another, and it is hard, but we are trying. I am finally listening to the advice she is giving me rather than seeing it as criticism.

I think with enough self-reflective practice, making mistakes, yes, getting angry and frustrated is not a good thing, but there is meaning behind it that you need to work hard on to translate. Some things have taken me decades to figure out, other things you can learn quite quickly, but self-hood is about trying your hardest to understand the worst parts about yourself. And when I stopped being a victim and started seeing my own flaws, that was when I started seeing the flaws in others and stopped being so hard on them, and expecting so much, and putting pressure on myself to live up to some extreme standards. I became empowered, but objective, and yes I still get angry, but I reflect and think why and get clarity, put words to the feeling so that hopefully I can prevent it from happening again.

I myself speak with a counsellor and while there is still a high chance that I could be stigmatised and undermined, my intention is to improve as a person and I sometimes I can’t do that on my own and there is no shame in that. I especially favour cognitive behaviour therapy, and not new age nonsense or meditation and breathing techniques or putting crystals on my head, but really take the time to understand these distortions, and to learn emotional regulation and how to develop cognitive strategies. It is mindfulness in a way where you are trying to think at a conscious level or objectively.

My next guest, Steven Laurent, is a philosopher and clinical psychologist, co-author of the book the Anger Fallacy along with Ross Menzies. He started his academic career in philosophy and formal logic at the Sorbonne in Paris, but moved into Clinic Psychology by completing his masters at the University of New South Wales and PhD at Sydney University, where he is a lecturer. While he works with all mental health problems, Steven specialises in Anger Management and the therapeutic method of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. So please welcome, Steven.

For more information, please visit Dr. Steven Laurent’ website here. His book The Anger Fallacy is available in all good bookstores.