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If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.
March 2nd, 2019
It’s emotionally very satisfying to write a heated text or email or letter and rocket that dense packet of wrath off towards it’s target. The ensuing carnage is never as satisfying and merely works to multiply our problems. This either leads to a race to the bottom where anger compounds on anger with diminishing emotional returns and compounded problems, or we must make a larger effort in the opposite direction, swallow anger and communicating in a diffusing way.
Luckily the technology of language beyond a merely verbal form has enabled us to hack this problem: We can write that text or email or letter, and then simply not send it. The emotional satisfaction is still there, or rather, this should be redefined. Acting on anger is not really satisfying, it’s merely the fastest way to get rid of the emotion. No one really likes to be angry, and someone who seems angry all the time is more addicted to the momentary relief that comes once anger is acted upon.
We see this phenomenon as a general characteristic of much human activity. Enduring work, or waiting in line, or listening to some boring lecture is not so much painful as the cessation will be an enjoyable relief. The token travel vacation is the ultimate epitome of this. Just as we plan the vacation and look forward to that relief, anger is actually functioning in a very similar way: we act in accordance to relieving ourselves of such anger. The phrase acting out of anger merely describes the fastest way of dealing with this unpleasant sensation.
As long as we are not in the same room as the person or circumstance that has generated our anger, written language affords us an invaluable tool in this situation that is not utilized nearly enough in today’s age.
Abraham Lincoln had a practice of writing two letters when angry. Sometimes, more letters were needed. The first was simply to relieve the anger. Get it all out on the page so that it wouldn’t further taint or destroy the relationship or interaction. The second was the actual productive response that was free from the poison of anger.
Written language as a technology here allows us to have our cake and eat it too. We get to indulge in every flying nasty thought tipped with the most wretched poison. The act of writing it is emotionally satisfying. The act of pressing send, or ‘Tweet’ is entirely too brief to account for any satisfaction. Unlike verbal language that lands as it’s created, the modern ‘send’ button or the ‘tweet’ button or the ‘post’ button is a potential stop-gate where we can Pause, enjoy the emotional relief from anger and then take further action that is actually in accord with our long-term benefit.
We can easily wonder how many people wish they had not hit the ‘Tweet’ button on some number of Tweets, or how many people wish they could take back clicking ‘Send’.
These actions need not be like the final punctuation that releases the flood gate of anger for relief.
If this is not convincing, we can easily imagine what might happen to our behavior if we were confronted with two buttons, one that says ‘Send’, and another that says ‘I probably shouldn’t send this’.
Clicking the second button would put some sort of timed freeze on our ability to send anything through this particular channel. Hours or days later, when we are prompted with an opportunity to send our message, we might find our message a bit hyperbolic without the experience of anger that helped generate it.
Instead, we go into a kind of edit mode, and quickly distill out what is actually necessary and useful.
Unless some sort of chronic stress exists that makes it seem like anger is a perpetual feature of our existence, anger as an experience is actually rather short. It requires an enormous amount of energy to remain in a heightened state of anger for a long period of time. The inevitable and ironclad circumstance of just sleeping within the next number of hours is somewhat proof of this fact. Our minds are engineered to pull the plug on emotions, even if it seems like they reignite in the morning. There is even a growing theory that one of the main functions of sleep is actually to decouple our memories from their emotional resonance.
Culture has clued into this knowledge with the suggestion “Why don’t you sleep on it?”
We generally can think through things with a clearer mind given a little time and a little rest.
This is an easy habit to initiate with huge long-term benefit. We need only write the angry letter and not send it once in order to see how beneficial this can be. The added benefit here is that we can let loose while writing that first draft. Instead of enduring the further constipated experience of trying to lessen the rancor of our message while we write, since we usually have the notion in the back of our mind that we will actually be sending the message, we can simply let loose and let all manner of malice spew forth onto the page with the full knowledge that it’s expressed only for it’s own sake. Otherwise, if this anger is not fully expressed, some residual could still spill over into our next draft or interaction. Best not make a half-assed effort, do everyone a favor and make sure that every last drop of anger makes it onto the page. A page that will forever live in a drafts folder.
Leaving our better selves free to take actions that will create a better tomorrow.
This episode references Episode 23: Pause
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