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One of the hardest parts of accepting that feelings are an integral piece of my life is that I have little to no control over how they manifest or evolve.
For instance, I’d love just once not to be moved to tears when the Air Force flies formation over a large event while the National Anthem plays. The emotions in me have little to do with patriotism and more to blame on a whole stadium of people emoting very strongly, sweeping me up as they go. I find it overwhelming and just a tad frustrating, because I know it’s coming but can’t seem to stop it when the music swells and the engines roar.
But what’s even scarier for me is the illusion of control, when I assume I have a feeling cornered and can use it for my own purposes. Anger often falls in this category, where feelings are familiar enough that I think I’ve gotten my hands around them, but usually find out in the end I’m completely outmatched.
Here’s how it starts with anger: There’s a detonation, a provocation in word or deed.
A mushroom cloud blooms from my sternum so bright and big I’m blinded and numb for a second, the shock waves powering across my chest and down my gut and into my limbs so I am rendered motionless.
There is little sound except the whooshing of what I assume is blood in my ears but is more likely the fire of the anger building, sucking down the shame that someone or something made me feel this way like oxygen, burning up all the actual air until I’m left breathless and leaning.
I’m without my senses, my eyes tunnel-focused to pinpricks on whatever is directly in front of me as the flames left behind the explosion begin to catch fire and grow as I replay the offending instance in my head to make sure I saw or heard what I thought I did.
As the mushroom cloud reaches full blossom, my sight starts to return, and shock of numbness recedes, bringing a wave of tingles into my arms. Rage moves like sparks, sizzling into your skin just enough to make you look to see what bit you. I move on instinct, if I were an animal in the wild my hide would be on fire and I’d be howling, I’d be snapping my jaws, raising my hackles, letting you know that if you step close, this fire will burn you too.
Once the first explosion has passed, the fallout begins.
Here’s where I know I could change the process if I could just get in there and reach myself. At this point, there’s plenty of pain involved with the anger. Whatever has caused the detonation – whether it’s the news, a stranger saying something terrible, anything – the flame burns so white-hot because it feeds on the aforementioned shame.
When I get angry, I’m immediately ashamed that I let something light my fuse. I assume I am weak because I am having an emotional reaction.
Instead of stopping myself and saying, “Hey, Molly, it’s OK. You know? Anger is a normal human emotion. It’s totally part of living! Everyone gets angry! There’s nothing weak about it,” I decide that I’m going to channel this anger and fight.
I’m going to take this firestorm of anger and forge it into a sword of fire I can wield, I tell myself, and I’m going to smite mine enemies and they will COWER AT MY MIGHT and they will learn never to hurt me or mine again, they will KNOW my FURY and it will make them feel as SAD AND SMALL AND SCARED as they made me feel.
But guess what?
Just as it was fun to write that preceding paragraph without really thinking about grammar or punctuation or capitalization, when I come out of my anger fog, my actions when I was in it don’t always look that great. Anger, like fire, is selfish and hungry, it consumes without care of what it leaves behind.
In fact, they often look clichéd and boring, like the work of someone who didn’t really know what they were doing and just ended up making a bigger mess of things.
Because here’s how it usually plays out: If I’m angry at, say, the actions of a certain politician (or pretend politician, OH MY GOD he’s not even good at business! DETONATION IN 3…2…1….no, no, I’ve got this) there will be a mushroom cloud and there will be anger and rage but it will be impotent.
While seeing through the red and orange of the flames, I usually want to hurt or damage, but there’s just no way I’m going to actually say or do anything that could hurt or damage the person who is affecting me in that moment. Could I channel the anger into a productive use of time and organize a rally or make an impassioned phone call or something? Yes, of course! But will I be able to do something in that very moment to make that person feel the exact way I’m feeling?
And that’s the hard truth of it, cold as ice.
So I typically end up lashing out at a proxy, say someone I know who may have voted for said politician. Then, when the smoke clears and my anger recedes and I’m left mopping up the mess, what do I have? I have a situation in which I’ve likely hurt someone I probably care about, a situation in which I likely didn’t communicate the best or most effective way I could have, and a situation in which I feel like I am waking up after a night of drinking and don’t know to whom I should apologize.
That feeling of regret is harder for me to sit with than all the anger in the world, and it’s one that I know all too well (also a huge reason I gave up booze four years ago).
At this point, I’ve realized I can’t detonate as much anymore. It can’t happen at every provocation. And when it does, I have to try to remember that I’m dealing with a mushroom cloud that ends up as a hungry forest fire, not a mythical fire sword that turns me into a one-ring-to-rule-them-all-wearing Galadriel.
I have to get a thicker hide, so when the explosion does inevitably happen, I can hunker down after the shock, tuck my head, wait it out, and work my way through the ashes. Because it’s that work – the sifting through what’s left – that will determine how I build the future, and what will be fireproof.