Deciding how to feel

“You know kids, nobody can ‘make you’ feel anything. — You do know that right?” (they look confused).

“No, seriously,” I say, “ You can be, if you choose, in control of your feelings. Nobody can make you angry, nobody can make you sad, unless you want to be.”

They scoff, and without fail, one of them says, “My parents make me angry” — or even better — “I can make people angry”.

And there follows an experiment, where the teenager tries to make Peggy Senger Parsons (the Quaker preacher telling  the story) angry with a variety of insults.  At the end, Peggy reports:

“I am feeling slightly amused, and proud of you, young man, you showed courage, you gave it a good try. You didn’t flinch. I respect that. I like you. — I am not, however, in the least bit angry.”

Then I ask the class if they can figure out why he failed. They are smart. They […] come around to “You didn’t want to be angry. You made up your mind that you weren’t going to get angry.”

Bing.  I can choose my response. I do not have to hand my emotional state over to whatever random strangers I encounter.  As Peggy concludes:

Just because people are offensive does not mean that I have to be offended. What a time-saver!

I first learned about this with my mother.  First because she would not stop harping on my weight. In my twenties I implemented a therapist’s suggestion: I told her I didn’t want to discuss my weight, and after that, if she brought it up I would change the subject or leave the room.  Sometimes I’d just end my visit right then (“Oh, if you want to discuss diet with Dad, I’ll take off.  Bye!”)  After a while I realized that Mom’s obsession with weight – hers and mine – really wasn’t about me.  It was about her.  I started to view it as one of her sad obsessions, right up with her fear of driving on freeways and her firm conviction that she could not, under any circumstances, ever learn to drive a stick shift.  Unkind? Probably.  But let me let go of a lot of anger and upset. She even stopped bringing it up after a few years.

Later I had practice of a harder sort, when my mother’s Parkinson’s disease led to dementia. By the time she was in a care home she would accuse me of stealing her purse, get angry when I couldn’t take her to her granddad, and so on. I learned to listen her words as clues as to where her mind was.  If she wanted to find her grandfather (dead before I was born) I’d give a noncommittal “Let’s look down here” and we’d walk around a bit, “looking”.

Of course, when visiting Mom I had the advantage that I could psych myself up for it.  Mostly it’s about “owning” my own emotional state and thinking before I respond. It’s harder to choose my emotions when I’m not ready. It’s definitely harder when it’s with someone I have an ongoing relationship with and not a stranger.

This also reminds me of pop anthropologist Jennifer James, who compared insults to slugs. If someone offered you a garden slug, would you eat it?  James compares taking an insult (that you know to be untrue) to heart is like eating a slug.  It makes you sick.

And that, I think, is one way that Peggy might have kept from getting angry when a student was insulting her in a classroom setting: consider the source of the insults. This student didn’t know anything about her; his only basis for insulting her was the challenge she’d given, that she wouldn’t let him make her angry.

Would you have the student’s insults to heart?  Why or why not?

I would also add that choosing not to become angry or hurt does not necessarily mean one should accept rudeness or mistreatment. To put it another way: Refusing to validate someone’s insults is not the same thing as accepting rudeness or mistreatment. Suppose a couple of waiters are making rude remarks about fat people, right next to you – obviously expcting you to hear it.  You don’t have to feel hurt or angry or upset.  You could smile and point out that the fat hasn’t affected your hearing at all, or ask to speak to the manager, or ignore the waiters altogether.  The choice is yours.

(And, of course I sometimes do just react unthinkingly. Heck, sometimes I want the emotion, especially when it is personal!)

4 thoughts on “Deciding how to feel

  1. An old friend of mine used to tell me to not let people live “rent-free” in my head.

    To paraphrase Henry Rollins, “Just because someone’s handing you a steaming pile of llama sh*t, doesn’t mean you have to take it.” Such a turn of phrase, that man.

  2. Sounds terribly easy in theory, but then again most things that offend us are way more complicated than mindless insults, aren’t they? I don’t even remember the last time anyone tried to insult me deliberately – I could deal with that. In fact, I suppose I would actually be amused rather than angry, unless it came from a person I thought I could trust. Then I would be disappointed.

    I have to think of trolls … the one and only troll comment that I ever received on my personal LiveJournal amused me to no end. If there are 759 fat-hating comments on a news article, though, and most of them by random people who have simply been brainwashed by the media … boy, do I get angry. Because I feel helpless.

    Hmm, not sure what my point is or why I’m babbling away here.

  3. Tiana, nothing wrong with babbling on :) Actually I think you’ve got some good points. I made this post thinking it kind of ties in with “picking one’s battles” and the “sanity watchers” concept.

    But it’s got other uses too. In reading Peggy’s original post, you’ll see she uses this as a learning exercise in an “avoiding domestic violence” workshop in high schools. She’s trying to show the kids that a predator who claims that other people “made me angry so I had to hit ’em” is lying or lazy or otherwise not thinking. There are other choices.

  4. I think it’s the whole concept of rejection. Insults and words meant to condemn or belittle or hurt are a direct rejection of you by another person and that triggers a deep seated need to be accepted by others.

    For me, insults can often lead to a downward spiral into to my own insecurities that came from years of verbal abuse by my parents. The siblings insults I could shrug off or spew back without much impact on my psyche. But the parents, well those messages are STILL mulling around in my head to this day.

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