Sometimes I’m mean. I used to blame this on my anxiety, but it turns out I’m occasionally just an asshole.
I’ve always had a tough time controlling my anger. When I was young, I used to yell a lot when I got mad. As an adult, I realized that the image of a yelling maniac was not one that I really wanted to present. So, I stopped yelling. Problem solved. “I never get angry,” I would think smugly to myself.
This has served me well in my adult, professional life. Most people, especially women, are discouraged from showing emotion at work. Whether it’s overt or whether it’s implied, we are encouraged to smile and stay positive and never feel anything but hunger and the smack of a high five. We want to be respected and promoted for our dedication and hard work, not because we know how to feel things. “Don’t get so emotional,” is the sound of our counterpoints dying in the boardroom, and “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is the apology we will never get.
I’ve since realized that anger can reveal itself in more ways than just explosive yelling. Apparently, I do still get angry. So angry. It’s just that I had become so good at hiding it over the years, I’d even been able to hide it from myself. I’m now learning that when I got angry about something, rather than showing my displeasure–either in an effort to STAY POSITIVE AT ALL COSTS or because whatever I was mad about was stupid–I would just shove that shit down and pretend it didn’t exist.
Consequently, rather than actually disappearing, it would start to peek out in a myriad of other sneaky ways. I’ve learned that my anger can be disguised as many things: stress, anxiety, depression, fear, burnout. When I took a closer look at times when I was really stressed or burnt out, I realized that underneath it all, I was actually just really mad about something.
Of course, I would never outwardly address the underlying problem. I would just constantly address it in my head. I would have endless, pretend conversations with the person who had wronged me. I would recount over and over all of the things that were unfair. And when I did this, when I replayed the anger and hurt over and over again, I would actually live it over and over again in an endless anger loop. And that was exhausting.
Eventually, I would turn into an angry, exhausted, impatient jerk–everything inside me focusing on an all-consuming rage. And then, after I gave someone the look of death because they cut me off in the Walmart parking lot, I’d feel like a dick. This would generate more anger(at myself) and would further feed the exhaustion. I call this The Asshole Circle.
I’m sure you’re all anxiously awaiting to hear what triggered these insightful nuggets. Well, wait no longer.
A few weeks ago, I was struggling with what I thought was really bad anxiety. I felt like I was revving like an engine in a car with the gas pedal stuck. I was cranky; I couldn’t sleep; I was constantly on the brink of completely losing my shit. I struggled daily with trying to decide whether or not I should go back on medication or maybe take some time off work.
I’d felt this way before, but there was also something new. This time, along with the tightness in my chest, I also felt like a piece was missing. Like there was a hole. Or, maybe not a hole. More like a space. Like there were two pieces inside me that were once together, but something had shifted, and the two pieces had separated, like during an earthquake, and they couldn’t quite fit back together. Yes, I realize what I sound like.
I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was I losing my mind? Quite possibly. Was I overusing metaphors? Absolutely. But, then something happened. Something that, on the surface, doesn’t sound like it would generate any sort of epiphany: I received a piece of constructive criticism urging me to maybe be a bit nicer to someone who I wasn’t treating very well. And I promptly overreacted with bitter ferociousness.
After I eventually calmed down, apologized, and started acting like a grown-up, I was able to hear something that made a lot of sense. The person who had pulled me aside had said my behaviour wasn’t aligning with my values. I realized that was EXACTLY what was happening. How did I miss that? I was treating a person like garbage because of something I was angry about that had nothing to do with that person. And that was extremely unfair. And I knew it. And I hated myself for it. The Asshole Circle.
One of my strongest values is that I believe people should be treated fairly and with kindness. I wasn’t doing either of those things. My behaviour was completely unaligned with my values. That’s why I felt so off balance. My values and behaviour, once whole and working together, had split into the two pieces that had shifted inside of me. I had carried my anger around for so long that it had basically ripped me apart.
As soon as I realized what was happening, I could actually feel the release. And also the shame for being such an outwardly obvious asshole. I knew what I needed to do: NOT be an asshole. And it worked. I focused on trying to let go of my anger. I started being nice and treating this person like I would want to be treated. And the hole disappeared. The anxiety was gone. The exhaustion faded away.
Of course, I know that growing up and realizing I shouldn’t treat a person like garbage doesn’t make me a hero and magically erase all the damage I did by being a jerk in the first place. But this experience has made me really pay attention to my anger–where it comes from and where it goes–and I’m trying to recognize it and deal with it when it starts instead of ignoring it and letting it take on a life of its own. I’m also working on trying to understand why anger is often my emotion of choice, and possibly distinguishing it or diverting it into something less harmful.
At 43, I am confident I can make the leap into emotional maturity and work towards not always wanting to punch people in the face. Or, at the very least, not actually punching people in the face with my words and facial expressions.
It’s never too late to stop being an asshole.