Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The downside of anger
I’ve recently been forced to confront just how uptight I am all the time. This often translates into anger, but there’s always an anxious edge to it.
Recently I met a friend at a popular gallery in Melbourne’s green, hilly outer east. I got there almost exactly at the allotted time. In recent years, mainly because I hate the tension of driving along glancing at the clock every other second and feeling ridiculously guilty, I’ve become highly organised when meeting up with someone, ensuring I leave the house at a time that enables me to arrive at my destination neither early nor late.
Trouble is, my friends are often late. And increasingly I’m feeling an irrational amount of anger when this happens.
The friend I was meeting with at the gallery, D, isn’t always late; in fact, I can remember being a bit late when I met up with her a few months ago. Further back, I’ve been easily 10 or 15 minutes late and she’s always taken it calmly.
In this case, I realise it’s because of a growing neediness on my part. All my friends lead either busier or more emotionally fulfilling lives than I do (sometimes both). In the case of D, she often complains of being lonely and wanting a better social life as well as a partner, but her job as a primary teacher is hugely complex and involving. So I don’t see that much of her, and when she’s late I automatically take it as a sign of her low regard for me (I’ve just realised this, so perhaps I won’t react that way in future).
Ten minutes late, I know, is nothing. In fact it didn’t even inconvenience me; I didn’t even have to wait for her. I just paid, and went into the gallery, looking out for her at the entrance once in a while. No problem.
But I still – even though I tried not to – had a miffed edge to my voice when I greeted her. I apologised later on. But I can’t afford to alienate my friends; I don’t have that many! Why are my expectations of others so high when I frequently can’t live up to my expectations of myself?
D isn’t actually late all the time, but I have another friend, J, who is routinely late. Ten minutes after the agreed time is really pretty good for him. But he rides a bike and so I make allowances for him. I also think I understand his lateness – like me in the past, I reckon he is overly optimistic about the time it will take him to do whatever he has to do before leaving the house. I made these kind of miscalculations myself for years.
Given how reliable J is in his lateness, the simple thing to do would be to plan to turn up ten minutes past the time we’ve arranged. I tried to do this once and it didn’t work; there was so little traffic on the road and I still got there on time despite my best efforts. He was a good ten minutes late as usual, and I sat there reading the paper yet again (I’ve learned to take a newspaper along so at least I’ve got something to do).
I swear the episode at the gallery with D was meant to force me to a point of self-awareness about my anger. For another, small trigger occurred a couple of hours later when we queued for the cafe at the gallery premises. Recently renovated, it’s a stark modernist design in black, with sleek glass walls so you can see all the goings-on inside, and a paved outdoor area surrounded by a low wall. Lone cafes at recreational destinations are notorious for being poorly managed and ripping off their customers, and this one was a shining example. A good excuse for my underlying anger to come out and put on its own little show.
We joined the tiny queue, a patient young couple slouching resignedly in front of us. Glancing through the window, an empty table, and a few minutes later another two, became evident. The young waitress, who had kind, smiling eyes and was wearing a long butchers apron, patiently explained that the tables were being cleaned and they’d be ready any minute.
I moaned and groaned to D, admitting that I was becoming like the men in the TV show Grumpy Old Men (without the slightest bit of rancour, she agreed with me). The couple in front of us were stoically silent.
After the couple had been let in and more and more tables seemed to become empty while we continued to queue, I asked the waitress if we could go inside, and then I asked her if we could sit at the table before it was clean. Luckily for my sanity she agreed both times.
Despite my irrational response, it’s doubtless that these kinds of places are organised with the convenience of the staff in mind rather than the customers. D and I agreed that in the favourite inner city precincts we’re used to, as soon as you set foot in a place they rush you to a table, spirit a wettex out of thin air as they say brightly ‘are you eating today or just drinks?’, wipe down the table with slick efficiency and then before you can say Jack Sprat, park a bottle of tap water and two glasses in front of you.
Finally we were seated, table cleaned and orders taken, and the waiter managed to be overly generous with my mineral water (they’d run out of small bottles so he poured me two generous serves from a large one) and stingy with D’s cappuccino (served in a cup that was conspicuously smaller than a standard tea cup). But I’d confided to D that my anger – my inability not to take the world’s unending imperfections to heart – seemed to be getting worse and I wanted to do something about it.
Apart from my neediness, I think part of the source of my anger is a deep-seated anxiety, a sense that if I don’t get to do what I want when I want the world will collapse into chaos. Often as I’m preparing for some social event I’ll notice that my shoulders are hunched. It’s as if I’m unconsciously preparing for World War Three instead of meeting up with a few people. My brain’s on alert, expecting some social catastrophe to develop if I don’t steel myself.
At these times I consciously relax my shoulders and start telling myself that there’s no need to be tense. This helps a bit, but it’s a very strong habit. While social anxiety is different from the anxiety I felt waiting for a seat in the cafe (perhaps it would be hours before we got in ...) they’re both about wanting to maintain control of an outcome – a futile goal.
I think that lack of control is why I also have a problem with mobile phones. I hate it when my friends’ phones ring while I’m socialising with them (I get particularly angry when this happens while they’re at my place).
But I’ve devised a new strategy to deal with this – I hope it’s not passive aggressive, but the jury’s still out. From now on if a friend’s mobile rings I immediately busy myself doing something, whether it’s checking my own phone messages, reading the paper, or writing a list of some kind. If they’re visiting at my place and their phone rings, I can leave the room while they’re talking and clear dishes, or even hop on the computer if it’s already on and check my email. If I’ve run out of things to do, one option is to simply go to the loo and take a few deep breaths.
Anyway, whatever the causes of my anger, I don’t want to be that reactive. It doesn’t change the world issues that concern me so much, it doesn’t change my own situation and it doesn’t change the habits of my friends. It just makes me tense and unhappy. I need to learn to step out of my anger and back into the moment, however challenging and imperfect it is.