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Calm • Anxiety

A Question to Ask Ourselves When We’re Feeling Low and Paranoid

There’s a difficult mood we’re in danger of falling into that’s made up of four elements in particular: low spirits, guilt, paranoia and irritability. In such a mood, we may feel guilty and ashamed without being able to put a finger on anything concrete we’ve done. At the same time, we’re in a paranoid state of mind, as if people out there didn’t like us especially, or we were in imminent danger of being found out for doing something forbidden. And then we might feel non-specifically irritable – and get uncommonly grumpy when we can’t find a household item or the printer jams. 

It’s in such a mood that we might step back and ask ourselves a distinctive question:

Might I – at heart – be very angry with someone right now?

It might sound peculiar that we would even need to ask such a question. Surely if we were angry, we would know immediately, without requiring any sort of formal moment of self-exploration.

Augustus John, Grace Westry, 1897

But this is to underestimate how difficult it can be – and what a psychological achievement it is – to be able to consciously know about and viscerally feel anger with a person who has actually angered us at roughly the time that they have done so. It can be so much easier to sink – instead – into a vague miasma of unknowing self-hatred and dread.

Knowing when and with whom we might be angry relies on the privilege of having had permission – across childhood – to be aware of and then express anger against people who mattered to us, whom we loved but who – for a period – we happened also to be very frustrated with indeed.

Not all parents are strong enough to allow their children to tell them how awful they are, what nonsense they speak or how completely fed up they feel. It takes considerable inner evolution to let oneself be spoken to in this way without lashing out or buckling; one has to feel really very big inside to cope with being told one knows nothing whatsoever by a livid seven year old. 

Too many parents shout back, punish or ask the child tearfully what they could possibly have done to deserve this kind of meanness. And so the child learns that anger, when it comes along, has to be swallowed – which tends to have four repercussions that decisively shape the emergent adult personality.

Firstly, swallowed anger turns in on the person who feels it. When outward expression is censored, there is nowhere else for the rage to go other than back out onto the person who originated it. ‘I hate you’ becomes, ‘I hate myself’.

Secondly, swallowed anger breeds a sense of non-specific guilt. ‘I wanted to harm you but couldn’t’ becomes, ‘I’ve done something wrong, but I don’t know what.’

Thirdly, swallowed anger finds its way back out in the form of paranoia. ‘I want to take revenge on you in particular’ becomes, ‘Everyone in general wants to do me in.’ 

And fourthly, swallowed anger gets discharged onto ‘safe’ targets like bits of furniture or machinery (sometimes an unfortunate pet or kind spouse). ‘I am livid with my colleague’ becomes, ‘Why on earth has the fridge door still not been fixed?’

The next time we feel low, guilty, paranoid and irritable, we should pause to wonder whether we are not, in our depths, really very angry with someone right now. It could be an associate, a friend, a lover, a therapist or a long-dead parent.

We need no longer be so unself-aware. Anger – held in sane adult hands – doesn’t have to injure or destroy anything. It can be safely felt and then discharged in person with civility and caution or explored on one’s own, in the pages of a journal or in the shower. Anger need not cause anyone injury; swallowed anger invariably will.

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