On Unwanted Feelings: Anger

On Unwanted Feelings: Anger

August 15, 2022
An Overview:

Trust that you can bear what your anger already knows to be true.

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts I began last week on unwanted feelings. Since I began writing this series, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report has been making the rounds in the news with the revelation that negative emotions in the workplace are at all-time highs. Given that it’s the entire premise of these blog posts that we too often jettison our negative feelings in the service of survival or professional success, it’s hard to know how to greet this news. Are workers everywhere growing increasingly miserable with each passing year, or are more of us finding our way back to our unwanted feelings? You’ll have to forgive me for my lack of optimism.

But there was at least one unambiguous conclusion I took away from the report: managers account for as much as 70% of employees’ happiness and engagement levels, yet fewer than 4 in 10 of those in management roles show any talent for managing others at all. As I’ve written elsewhere, if we’re serious about leading well then one of the best things we can do is to continue the unfinished business of our inner work. It’s in this spirit that I offer up this reflection on what our anger already knows, and how that knowledge can be borne. I hope it will help you find your way.

"The selfless impulse to take responsibility and to repair is a marvel to behold. Under the right circumstances, it is a precious gift that has the power to change lives and heal a broken world into wholeness. But without anger to remind us where we end and others begin, we have no way of knowing whether we’re using our gifts out of choice or compulsion."

There can be such a thing as too much responsibility.

Leadership coaches often distinguish between the “victim” mindset and the “responsible” mindset. Where someone operating with a “victim” mindset tends to blame others and believes that there is nothing they can do to affect a situation, someone with a “responsible” mindset believes that there is always something they can do or could have done to improve a situation. It won’t surprise you to learn that much ink has been spilled and time spent coaching individuals to move them towards a “responsible” mindset in the workplace — but how should coaches help those whose difficulties lie precisely in acknowledging the limits of their responsibility?

In my coaching practice, it’s far more common that I encounter clients who experience too much responsibility than too little. (The fact that my clients tend to be high achievers, and are more often than not female and/or come from minority, non-dominant cultures has something to do with this — but more on that shortly). I hear how they bend over backward to accommodate abusive behaviors at work, how they wear themselves thin to support chronically underperforming colleagues, and how they over-function and take on the work of those around them to ensure the success of group endeavors. Their stories fill me with sadness, and no small amount of anger at those who perpetuate the quandaries that my clients find themselves in. But that’s rarely how my clients themselves feel. Even as they run themselves ragged taking responsibility for the crisis at hand, in our sessions the heart of their inquiry continues to be: Is there more I could be doing? Where did I go wrong?

The cost of boundless responsibilities is self-forgetting.

When my therapist first suggested to me that I seemed to be carrying a lot of anger, I was 16 years old and in the middle of my first major depressive episode. I remember scoffing — to my mind, I couldn’t possibly have been angry because I considered anger an irrational feeling, as illogical as expecting the world to alter itself for my benefit. Growing up, I experienced the world as a capricious place, one just as likely to show me an unexpected kindness as to visit upon me random cruelty. If there was any anger to go around, I certainly didn’t know it because I couldn’t afford to get angry. Getting angry would’ve meant facing up to the realization that my caregivers could not be trusted to meet my needs, and that is not knowledge a child’s mind could have borne. Instead, I turned my attention outward and began a lifelong habit of accommodating myself to the needs of those around me, intuiting others’ moods and preferences to fix, repair, and caretake my environment into what I hoped would be a form more hospitable to my flourishing.

By my teenage years, I was already a poster boy for the “responsibility” mindset, and it’s impossible to exaggerate how richly I’ve been rewarded for it in my professional life. In just about every workplace situation I can think of, the ability to set aside your own anger, attune yourself to the needs of the collective, and problem-solve every difficulty that comes your way like your life depends upon it is truly a superpower. But this superpower had a dark side, because it was rooted in porous personal boundaries and a fundamental self-forgetting. The feats I was rewarded for accomplishing at work relied on the same strategies I’d developed to navigate my chaotic childhood, where I steered my way through minefields to get the job done by forgetting my own anger and remaking myself to suit the preferences and needs others — no matter the cost to myself.

It didn’t matter whether said minefields involved a client ill-accustomed to taking no for an answer, a manager who couldn’t be trusted not to explode in rage if challenged, or a colleague who couldn’t be counted on to come through for me if it would inconvenience them. Instead of getting angry, I was willing to sleep less, work harder, and endure any hardship if it meant that I would be able to keep everyone happy, because I experienced their needs more keenly than I was able to experience my own. As you can imagine, all of this worked out beautifully for my employers, but not for me. The reason leadership coaches want to help people adopt a “responsible” mindset is that if you believe there is always something you can do to improve a situation, then you’re always going to take action. But here’s the rub: if you share the tendency I’m describing, this means that when we’re confronted with a problem there are virtually no limits to what we’ll be willing to do to resolve it, because we lack the boundaries to remind us that under all that responsible action-taking there continues to be a living, breathing, human being who has to bear the costs doing so.

There needs to be enough of a self to get angry for.

Where did my responsibility end and others’ begin? Difficult as it was for me to admit, the road back to my boundaries began with anger. What my anger already knew was that many of the situations I was attempting to repair had long ceased being tenable. My anger already knew that it would’ve been better for all involved if the people I was working with would confront and deal with their own rage, discomfort, and reluctance to be inconvenienced, and if they weren’t willing to do so then my anger also knew that there wasn’t any future in which I could continue working with them. All of this my anger already knew — but I didn’t, because I didn’t believe I could bear this knowledge. As exhausting as it was to bend myself out of shape to take responsibility for everyone else’s needs, some part of me persisted in my childlike belief that this was somehow preferable to allowing myself to endure the pain of being disappointed. What begins as a child’s hard-won strategy for surviving unbearable vulnerability becomes an adult’s compulsive refusal to acknowledge what we already know to be true — that we’re in a situation that no longer serves us.

It’s not necessary to have had a difficult childhood to recognize in yourself the tendency I describe. It suffices that at some early point in your life, it became easier for you to forget your own anger and adapt yourself to others than to experience the pain of being let down by them. Professional life not only amplifies this tendency by encouraging our willingness to take responsibility for others, but also reinforces gender and racial stereotypes that punish anger in some while rewarding it in others. Research has shown, for instance, that men who express anger enjoy a boost in status and evaluations of their competence, while women who do the same are penalized for violating expectations that they be warm, caring, and nurturing. Similar studies have also demonstrated that expressions of anger by BIPOC individuals are more likely to be internally attributed as emotional overreaction rather than externally attributed to a valid cause.

The selfless impulse to take responsibility and to repair is a marvel to behold. Under the right circumstances, it is a precious gift that has the power to change lives and heal a broken world into wholeness. But without anger to remind us where we end and others begin, we have no way of knowing whether we’re using our gifts out of choice or compulsion. If like some of my clients you’re wearing yourself thin and setting yourself on fire to repair situations that you already know deep in your heart of hearts no longer serve you, I give you permission to stop. Trust that you can bear what your anger already knows, because your gifts are far too precious to be lost in self-forgetting.

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