Monday, November 17, 2008

Misplaced Anger

Several days ago, one of my students related a story to me which had a familiar sense to it. Though she's Japanese, her experience transcended cultural boundaries and emphasized for me how some human responses are a common part of our psychology.

She told me that she had had a car accident where her car had been side-swiped by another car. The accident was entirely the fault of the other driver and he admitted it. On that day and at that time, she hadn't planned on being out driving some place. She told me she had a sense that something might happen if she did so, but also she had other plans for her time which included studying English. The reason she was driving was that her husband had an appointment and insisted that she drive him to it. She wanted him to take a cab because the appointment was a professional one and he could write it off anyway, but he complained about the timing and how a cab may not pick him up in time to get him to the appointment on time.

When the accident occurred, my student was upset by what happened, but she was angry at her husband, not the man who hit her car. She blamed him for the accident because he pushed her to drive him. While it is certainly true that she wouldn't have had the accident if she hadn't been driving, it's not as if her husband was responsible for what happened, nor could he have reasonably expected such a thing might occur. What she was really angry about, and the accident provided her with an opportunity to focus and express that anger, was that her husband had pressured her to do something she didn't want to do. She felt she couldn't reasonably refuse his request or complain about it so she didn't show her frustration with him until the accident provided a better excuse to be mad.

This pattern is one I'm acquainted with mainly as a victim and also as the "abuser", but far less as the latter than the former. My mother was the queen of misplaced and displaced anger. Any time she grew frustrated or angry with one thing in her life, she picked a convenient target and let loose with verbal abuse. If she was late, it wasn't because she had misplaced her purse and wasted time finding it, but because she had to "waste" time rounding up us kids and getting us in the car. Never mind that we were ready to go before her and sitting around waiting for her to locate her carelessly placed handbag and eventually wandered back to our rooms to play with something while we waited for her to be ready. As the years went by, my mother's logical connections for misplaced anger became increasingly far removed and ridiculous, but the pattern of always finding a way to blame someone else when she was frustrated by the normal and unpredictable ebb and flow of daily life remained firmly in place.

When the CH and I first got married, I'm sure I did a similar thing where I blamed him because he made a choice, recommendation, or asserted his preference and I followed his lead and something bad happened. I don't recall any specific instances of doing so, but given the nature of these things, it would be no surprise if it happened on multiple occasions. Some time in the first five to ten years or so of marriage, either with his feedback or on my own, I realized how wrong this was and made a conscious effort to feel my anger and frustration and even express them in various ways, but not to use the CH as a target. At the very least, if I'm going to be upset, I'm going to be upset for the "right" reasons and not blame him for an unpredictable consequence. Of course, it helps that the CH does not force his choices upon me or attempt to coerce me into doing things I don't want to do.

I consider it quite the blessing that I no longer am the frequent victim of misplaced anger now that I live away from my family. The CH, and this is one of the many reasons I praise him so highly all of the time, is not prone to anger, let alone getting angry with me for something which isn't my fault. In fact, it is so rare that he shows anything approaching actual anger that it's always a great shock to me when I see such a look on his face. I'm sure that his calm nature has paved the way for me doing a much better job of controlling my anger and becoming angry less often and I'm immensely grateful.

When I consider my upbringing and my married life, I'm profoundly struck by how the people you live with and who interact with you on a regular basis can bring out the worst or the best in you through their behaviors. My mother role modeled a lot of bad behavior for me which I brought to my marriage. Fortunately, the combination of my husband's behavior and my insight and self-reflection allowed me to overcome that and grow in a better direction.


Sherry said...

I have a tendency to misplace my anger too. I try very hard not to as it isn't fair to my husband or kids especially. It is a hard habit to break though.

My husband sounds a lot like yours. He almost never gets angry about anything. I guess we balance each other out.

'badmoodguy' is mike said...

I, too, seem to misplace my anger regularly. It is usually something that I unload on my workmate CB. He takes it all in stride, and I usually apologize and buy him lunch to make up for it. I hate to do that to him, or anyone else, and I have been actively working on not doing it.

I am trying really hard to not get worked up about everything in the first place! Most of the stuff that I get so bent out of shape about at work are things that I have no control over and don't directly affect me anyhow.