How many days each year are you angry? I’m not talking about clearly warranted in-the-moment anger—the kind that causes you to shriek out loudly to stop a young child from running out into busy traffic (followed by a mini lecture about the dangers of running into traffic while your hearts are still pumping hard from the life-or-death scare). Or the kind that causes your whole body to shake when a loved one is killed or diagnosed with a terminal illness.
I’m talking about fists clenched, jaw tightened, knots in your stomach, and feeling like you’re ready-to-fight anger when somebody’s life isn’t at stake. The kind of anger that causes harsh words to fly out of your mouth and hit somebody else’s ears long before you have time to think “Maybe I should listen first and hear other perspectives.”
I used to be pointlessly angry often. For me, “often” was 8 to 10 days every month that I would get that angry. Not all day, each of those days, but there would be points in my days when rage would boil up within me, come out of me, and land on whoever happened to be closest at the time. Back then, I would have told you that my anger was caused by others. It was so clear to me that my anger was a response to others: typically, to people doing stupid, short-sighted things at work or my family doing things I found inconsiderate and annoying. Often my anger appeared to be caused far away others: by something I read about online. I would get blood-boiling angry reading about people about whom I had no hope of learning the full story and that therefore I was rarely invested enough in to learn more and do anything meaningful about. Yet I regularly allowed myself to seethe and stew, frustrated and alone in my anger at the unfairness of humanity as a whole or the universe. (And sometimes then I yelled at my co-workers, husband, dogs, and cats for no reason whatsoever from their perspective.)
This year is different.
From January 1st, 2011 to July 7, 2011 I’ve been angry only three times:
- In January, a friend and I joined a gym. Well, I joined, bought his first month for him as a birthday gift, and then proceeded to watch in horror the following week as he and the gym manager got into a huge fight about the cost of said membership. The fight lasted several weeks and at one point resulted in his membership dues showing up on my credit card. After several weeks of this, one night I caught myself lecturing my friend. Enough! But it had been so long since I’d been truly angry (at least 6 months) that my own anger stopped me cold. Why was I so incredibly angry? What was happening? So I began to reflect and pay closer attention…
- In May, a member of one of the social groups that I’m part of invited a stranger (to everyone in the group, including her) to join. In the past, this open-to-anyone membership policy hadn’t been a problem. This time, the stranger showed up at my house for a meeting and, instead of getting to know us and learn about the group, proceeded to spend most of the two hours we were together being so harsh and judgmental that I felt the group itself was being verbally abused. And it was happening in my house. This time, the very moment I began to feel anger, I also started paying very close attention to why I was angry. I didn’t yell in the moment, I listened…
- In June, a plumber failed to come up with the plan he promised to and also failed to show up (twice) to re-plumb a bathtub and shower in our backyard rental cottage during the brief 10-day window between renters. One friend moved out June 22nd, we were doing 5 major remodeling tasks, and then another friend was moving in July 2nd. The morning of July 2nd, all other work was complete, but the bathtub and shower work still wasn’t finished. I was so angry. But even in the moments I was angry, I was reflecting on why I felt the way I did and the part I played in my own anger.
For a while now, I’ve been noticing that I model my individual actions, behaviors, and ways of being on the self-organizing groups that I study and am part of. At this point, that’s 35+ groups of people from all walks of life yet who can describe themselves as “surprised and delighted by what we become and do together” and the group as “more emergent than planned” and “more internally than externally created.” I’ve hit upon another true-for-me experience: self-organizing groups decrease pointless anger and increase reflection on and learning from anger.
Here’s the evidence from my own life:
- I’m no longer showing up in life with an interest in being right (most days). I show up interested in learning.
- I’m not getting angry nearly as often as I used to.
- When I do get angry, it’s so rare now that it surprises me.
- The moment I’m surprised by my own anger, I start to pay closer attention to what’s happening.
- I’m now regularly reflecting on why I get angry, and because of this, I’m consciously learning and adjusting my own ideas and behavior as a result. I’m also relying on my self-organizing groups more—both talking with them to get help but also often thinking from group members’ perspectives before needing to be verbally told their perspectives. As I get less angry, the world around me appears to be getting less angry in return.
All these things are important, but item 5 is extraordinarily important in my own life. Because I’ve learned this year that other people don’t make me pointlessly angry. I make me pointlessly angry.
This year I’ve gotten angry in situations in which I feel scared and completely out of control as an individual. Specifically, when I’ve feared that:
- The actions of those close to me will reflect badly on me as an individual. In January, my anger came from my own fear of looking bad. I feared the gym managers would feel that I was a total jerk because my friend joining with me was being a jerk. Everything else happening was not the real reason for my anger.
- An abusive new member could mean the end of an emerging self-organizing group. In May, I was faced with an abusive stranger in my home, something I haven’t dealt with in my own home for more than a decade. This time I recognized that my anger stemmed from my desire to protect the group itself, not just me as an individual. I could see in this person potential destruction of the group itself. I know that self-organizing group members can walk away from the group at any point, so how group members feel in every moment really matters.
- My actions would inconvenience someone my family cared about to the point that the person wouldn’t want to be near us anymore. In June, my anger came from my fear that our new renter wouldn’t have a tub and shower the day she moved into her new place and that somehow this might mean she wouldn’t want to rent our cottage anymore.
My own fear was at the bottom in all these instances. As it turns out, I don’t get angry because of others. I get angry the moment in which I have absolutely no idea what to do in a situation, and I’m feeling fear as an individual. In all three cases this year, thanks to my self-organizing groups, in the moment (or within a few hours of the experience) I could see my own fear, see the part I played in the situation, and take non-angry action to do something about the situation. I’m not the Dalai Lama folks. All this is completely new to me.
Here’s what I did:
- January: I talked to the gym manager and explained that decades ago my friend had been really taken advantage of by a gym and that he had a lot of fear around the idea of joining another one and a special fear about the people who run gyms. We also spoke about the fact that this dear friend was losing his closest family member to cancer that very month. Armed with this knowledge, the gym manager made the choice to end the “pissing contest” (as my husband called it) and give my friend the monthly rate he believed he should receive. I instantly decided the gym manager was an amazing human being—erasing the anger I’d felt toward the gym. I also apologized to my friend for even getting temporarily angry with him during what had to have been the very worst month of his life. Temporary jerk-like behavior or not, he has been one of my self-organizing group members for 19 years now. He will always receive rapid forgiveness from me, as will I from him in my own total-jerk moments.
- May: Although I was foot-stomping mad about an abusive stranger being invited into my home, I made the decision in the moment to handle the situation as a group. The person who’d invited the stranger wasn’t even at the meeting, so in the week after the meeting she and I spent several hours talking about what the group should do about it. She offered to ask the person leave the group. I decided to take a several month break from the group to allow other members to come to their own conclusions about the new member. Maybe I’m wrong—it’s been known to happen. This fall, the group will make the call about what to do. I trust core group members completely.
- June: I called the plumber’s wife (she runs their office) and fired them. He’d missed multiple deadlines, our renter was moving in in a few short hours, and we no longer believed that he’d finish the work if he did show up. I tried but failed to keep the anger out of my voice, so of course she got angry back at me. (Like I said, I’m not the Dalai Lama.) Daniel, my dad, my mom, and I went to an amazing hardware store, got what we needed, and did the plumbing work (which was mostly cosmetic) ourselves. Fortunately my dad is sort of a pro in all things home-repair related, including plumbing. We finished right as our new renter was moving in. I realized a few things: 1) it was silly to try to do 5 major remodeling tasks in 10 days—doing too much, too quickly elevates my stress level, 2) I should have involved my husband more in a major project like this (I attempted to schedule everything myself in the few short weeks prior to the work when we learned we wouldn’t have a whole month to get all the work done and to serve, alone, as our general contractor. Big mistake.), and 3) use plumbers recommended by trusted others (I’d skipped this very important step given our time crunch). As our renter moved in that afternoon, I could again feel that overall everything went really well (three of our four hired contractors did amazing work, on time, and at or below budget). My family—though we got slightly pissy at each other there toward the end—is an amazing group that can get things done under pressure. I could also see that it was silly to fear that our friend wouldn’t move in if the tub/shower wasn’t perfect as she stepped through the door. She’s wanted to live in the cottage for several years now! Why was I so stressed about that?! At this point, I can’t even remember why.
For me it’s a huge deal to recognize my own role in my anger and the triggers for my anger. Today I have more perspectives, options, flexibility, and control in every moment, and I have less fear in every moment, even the worst moments. Things I’ve learned:
- So my closest friends and family can be jerks once in a while. I can be too. Forgiveness comes easily here, almost instantly now. And far from me being viewed as a jerk by the gym manager because of my association with a friend who was being a jerk, he instead got to see me as a kind, generous protector of a friend going through a heart-breaking difficult time. I got to see him as a real human being too—glad to do the right thing when he knew more about what was really going on.
- My pointless individual anger often doesn’t serve me or others well, because it limits my perspective and options. This is really why I stopped allowing myself to feel this type of anger.
- My individual anger isn’t always pointless either—and when it’s not pointless, it’s not bad. In May, I learned that I’d experienced anger in part because I was protecting an emerging self-organizing group that I cared about (more than I realized prior to that). This knowledge, and our subsequent discussions, brought us closer. I learned that I 100% trust this group to make the right decision with respect to new members. I learned that whether I stick with the group or not, I will maintain connection and friendships with the people who matter most to me—creating new groups out of the old, as needed.
- I trust self-organizing groups so much that I’ve stopped thinking that I, as an individual, should be fixing every last broken thing on planet earth. I’ve stopped seeing every last thing, including me, as broken. When I get angry now, it’s because of something immediate and local to me, I can see more options, and I can contribute to positive outcomes instead of contributing fuel to the fire of the problem. Most days.
But maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned from self-organizing groups and anger is the lesson of perspective. Look at my life. How lucky am I to be living a life in which my biggest individual fears include: 1) possibly being seen by a new gym manager as a jerk, 2) possibly having to leave a small social group if the group decides to admit an abusive member, and 3) the possibility that a good friend won’t want to live in our rental cottage because the tub/shower might be finished a day late?
I may be the luckiest person on planet earth. My worst days are still days overflowing with love, support, and laughter. Thanks to these groups, I can see this now. I can see what an honor and a privilege it is to get to live this life and contribute to the lives of those around me. My self-organizing groups teach/remind me of this every day now. Is it any wonder that my anger is falling away from me like a snake shedding its no-longer-useful skin? Is it any wonder that together we’re becoming more and able to do more as a result?
This is the power of self-organizing groups. In these groups, together we shed our pointless anger like an old snake skin and learn from the anger that remains until the only anger left within us is the good, useful, immediate-to-our-physical-survival-this-very-moment kind. As an individual, I don’t have to change the broken world. I just have to recognize my self-organizing groups and then allow myself to be changed by them. As we change ourselves, the world around us changes. Most days.