I have a very anxious rescue dog named Sybil. Because I know her so well, I see her behavior differently than most people probably do. To them she probably seems aggressive or even dangerous. She barks at everyone and everything. She’ll even snap at other dogs or people if they get too close. This behavior, as you might imagine, doesn’t garner much sympathy. I am constantly having to apologize for her. I try to explain to people that while she may seem like she’s just being a brat, her behavior is based in fear.
Sybil has actually taught me a lot about myself. Before her, I never really made the connection between my own anxiety and aggression. While not as bad as it once was, I still have a short temper overall. I am especially irritable on days when I feel the most anxious.
From an evolutionary perspective, I guess it makes sense. If you are feeling threatened, a natural response is to try to defend yourself. Throughout most of human history this probably meant through some form of physical action. Fast forward to the present, and our fears and the solutions to them are not so simple or similar. Yet overall our internal wiring remains the same. Just as it does within our animal brethren.
My anger is one of my least favorite qualities. It causes me to act in ways I always regret later. However, because I dislike this side of myself so much, I end up getting angry at myself for getting angry. Which is obviously quite self-defeating. So rather than react to the anger itself, sometimes I am able to remember to look past it. I look for the fear hiding in the shadow of that anger instead.
I find it quite astonishing actually. There is always something I am afraid of when I search for the roots my anger is stemming from. And while looking at the anger makes me more angry, looking at the fear underneath allows me to feel compassion for myself. I see the frightened child behind the school bully. I see the sweet fearful dog behind the violent bite.
Then I have a much better chance of calming myself down rather than try to argue with myself about whether or not my anger is justified. The latter strategy never works. When I am angry I am great at rationalizing why I have the right to be. I rile myself up even more combing through the minutia of other people’s errors. But whether or not a have the right to feel angry isn’t the point. We all have the right to get angry sometimes. Especially when we have been genuinely wronged. However, the real question isn’t whether it’s warranted, it’s whether we want to feel that way. And I don’t know many people that want to feel angry.
For me, it’s easier to address the fear instead. Then I have an opportunity to comfort myself. To give myself what I am truly needing in those moments. I don’t need more violence or turmoil. I need softness and reassurance. Which are usually pretty easily to supply myself with once I know what I’m afraid of. The fear itself is usually exaggerated or unfounded. And once it is addressed, there is no more anger either.
So the next time you feel yourself getting angry, think about Sybil. Remember that you might just be scared. Take a moment to ponder what it is that you are afraid of in that moment. Hopefully doing so will be able to provide you with more peace. It has certainly been helpful for me.