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‘Who Am I Without My Anger?’

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty.

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Dear Polly,

I tried to stop being so angry, and now I don’t know who I am.

I’ve been angry for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad bullied and abused me, and my depressed mother didn’t have what it took to protect me. So I became a master of revenge tactics and self-protection. I was like a tiny girl Machiavelli with a big attitude. Then I went to school and found myself in argument after argument, always on the lookout for my next big feud. When I joined the world of work, my anger thrived like a weed. It’s not an anger that punches down (more often than not, it’s directed high up at the people who hold all the power), but it’s anger nonetheless, and it’s exhausting.

Recently, I decided I didn’t want to be this red-hot ball of rage any more. So I quit my job, parted ways with an old friend, and cut ties with some toxic people, all in an attempt to take away the anger from my life. I stopped checking the Twitter accounts of people I hate. I started taking long, deep breaths before I entered a high-stress interaction.

But I feel so empty now that I don’t have that anger. It’s like without something (or someone) to push against, I just can’t get moving. For months now, I’ve felt completely hollow. I don’t even get any real joy from food anymore (and I used to love eating almost as much as I loved fighting). I thought that taking the anger out of my life would show me my true form, but all I see is this listless, depressed shell of a person. I hate to admit it, but conflict gave life.

Can I be alive without being angry?

Yours sincerely,

Red-Hot Ball of Rage

Dear RHBOR,

A long time ago, I thought I would lose my edge if I stayed in therapy for too long and became less angry and bitter and more full of love. I’d become a wet rag of a person, not funny or weird or exciting anymore, all weepy softness and unself-conscious mediocrity. I would lose all the magnificently elaborate gears and pulleys I’d designed and constructed to protect myself and entertain others. My feats of engineering would need to be destroyed. I would have to be naked and weak. I would have to be humble. I would lose my sense of humor. I would lose my whole self.

Later, I worried that I would lose my edge if I had kids. Then I thought I’d lose my edge if I moved to the suburbs. Then I thought I’d lose my edge because I wrote an advice column.

I never lost my edge, or my sense of humor (not entirely), or my anger, or my envy, or my sadness, or my ability to hate everything under the sun occasionally. But I did let go of how I experienced and expressed these things. I stopped looking for a way to blame other people for my rage. I (mostly) stopped looking around for a clear source and cause whenever I felt pissed off. I used to think that when I was angry or frustrated or something went wrong, that meant someone somewhere had screwed up or wronged me. This is an offshoot of believing you’re in control of everything: If things go wrong, it’s either your fault or someone else’s. SHIT DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN.

Now I try to slow down and question the logic of my knee-jerk blame when emotions run high. I’ve also tried to let go of my attachment to longing and rejection. I’ve learned to question my insistence on seeing myself as disgusting and beastly. I’ve also let go of seeing myself as supernatural and special. I’ve let go of trying to be larger than life. I’ve stopped believing that if I FELT SOMETHING like sadness or anger, that meant that I was misunderstood, that other people couldn’t see me clearly and didn’t love me enough.

It takes a long time to learn how to feel your emotions without identifying criminals. It’s a process that starts with deciding it’s okay to feel all kinds of emotions simply because you’ve got a big brain and you’re anxious and you’re a little bit controlling so you’re always, always, always trying to FIX EVERYTHING. You can feel a lot about completely impersonal situations that have nothing at all to do with you. That’s your right, but you have a choice about whether you take those anxious experiences personally. Ironically, deciding that you’re fine the way you are right now is a prerequisite for not blaming other people. Blaming others springs from the default assumption that everything that happens is your fault unless blame is otherwise assigned.

Even so, the other day, when I was crying over dead pets (see last week’s column), I found myself saying, “No one even likes me!” My husband laughed at this, and even as I said it, I didn’t believe it. I was incredibly sad, to the point of almost feeling panicked, and those were the words that came out, from a very old story I’d told years ago.

In my opinion, your problem isn’t that you’re angry. Your problem is that you think yourself in circles whenever you feel an unwelcome emotion. You want to SOLVE IT AND MAKE IT GO AWAY. That’s why it’s exhausting. You turn an emotion into a complicated legislative initiative, in which people need to know exactly why they’re wrong. As long as you’re attached to being right about everything and everyone, you can eliminate every single thing that pisses you off, and you will still be pissed off. Right now you’re still pissed, but you won’t admit it to yourself. If you admit that you’re still pissed, that might mean that some of your decisions about people weren’t fair, or it might mean that your history isn’t 100 percent to blame for your current personality. Some part of you wants to be RIGHT, always. You must be a new, better you, now, or else you’re a failure.

But you’ll never feel good — or feel anything, really — until you honor reality. Reality is the hardest thing for you to honor, because your reality was so hideous and wrong when you were a kid. You want a reason to build things instead. You want a reason to create levers and pulleys and gears that will provide you an escape from reality. But as long as these things are an escape, you won’t be able to appreciate or respect them.

You’ve arrived at a numb moment when you don’t appreciate or respect yourself, or what you do. Underneath your numb feeling, you’re angry at yourself, and you’re still angry at the people you cut out. Cutting them out didn’t completely solve the problem and fix things the way you wanted it to. Quitting your job made you feel free for a while, but now that feeling is mostly gone. But admitting that would mean admitting that your life will not be a triumphant, straight line forward. That’s one of the hardest things for a masterful, independent, resilient engineer like yourself to admit.

This is a lull. You still have so many emotions swirling around inside of you, but you’re blocking them from coming to the surface. You’re sure that feeling anger means being your bad, old self. You’re sure that if you miss one of your toxic friends or acquaintances, that makes you someone who can’t move forward.

You can miss a toxic friend. You can love a broken thing for years, even when you know it’s not good for you. You can feel what you feel without giving reasons for it. You can sit inside a place where everything feels regrettable and sad. You can look back and say, “It was good to say good-bye to this person. I don’t miss her,” but you can also look back and say, “I miss her. I don’t know what that means or what to do about it. I’m just going to try to accept it. I can take my time.” This is what an artist does: She doesn’t build sleek bullet trains that move swiftly into the future. She builds gorgeous, rusty, jagged sculptures that honor the reality of being alive right now.

Something broke open for me the last time I broke up with my good, old friend who was also my bad, old friend. We had broken up before. But this last time, I felt deeply shitty over it all. I wanted her to want our friendship back. I felt rejected in an old, familiar way. Then I almost started to romanticize our friendship, like this breakup was a tragic thing in my life. I tried to let that sit without fixing it or running back to her. Then I really did feel over it. She truly didn’t matter to me in the same way anymore. I felt safe from her.

And THEN, after all of that, I could see how I used her as a surrogate for parents who couldn’t see me clearly and sometimes truly didn’t care about how I felt. I could see that this colored everything I did in her company, everything I said. I cared way too much about the things she said, even when they weren’t about me or anything related to me. I took her opinion as truth and felt insecure when I disagreed. I felt competitive with her in spite of my best intentions. I used her to stay close to my former, angrier, more depressed, more needy self. She was a friend from my distant past, and she provided a way of feeling the way I used to feel. She was a nostalgic artifact.

I used her to stay in touch with my former, trapped self. She was a symbol, an embarrassing indulgence. I wanted her to struggle, and I didn’t feel empathy when she did. I felt like her struggle meant I was the wise one, I was the good one, I was the one who was RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING ALL ALONG.

Once I saw that clearly, I could be her friend again, but without the fucking baggage and the insistence of carrying around an idea of myself as Not Good Enough. I was a bad friend, too. I had to humble myself and show up and stand up for myself in a neutral way without always needing for her to be bad just to prove I was good.

With the renewal of that friendship, it became possible to notice every single time I picked up that nostalgic lens or forced someone into some surrogate role. I also noticed that I can feel anger and longing and sadness that no one is to blame for. That kind of emotion doesn’t feel exhausting, because there’s no puzzle to solve, no argument to lay out. I didn’t have to make everything personal all the time. I could feel lonely or feel like people couldn’t quite connect with me, and I could just take that as it was. It didn’t have to be a verdict on how good or lovable I am.

Brilliant engineers prefer the wheels of progress to stagnation. We hate to look back and say, “I helped to make that mess,” or “I wanted to be rejected,” or “I preferred believing that my needs would never get met to asking someone to meet them.” We hate to admit how absurdly competitive we are, but we also worry that without any competition, we might decompose into the rug or disappear.

All of this is predicated on the notion that you are only as good as the work you do, as the jokes you tell, as the things you create, as the entertainment or comfort you offer. You have to challenge that notion, repeatedly. You are good enough right now, even when you are lying flat on the floor, silent, disheveled, despairing.

It’s time to admit the truth: You’re still angry, underneath your despair, and maybe you’ll always be angry. Is that a big deal? I don’t think so, as long as you don’t obsessively try to solve a complex theorem with your anger every single time you feel it. Some of your toxic friends are just sloppy, youngish people who will never be as sensitive or as thorough as you, and maybe you miss one of them, and maybe you’ll want one of them back in your life someday. Is that so bad? These things aren’t black and white. You build, but you also destroy. You are treated disrespectfully, but you also disrespect yourself, and you’re also disrespectful to others, secretly, in ways you can barely admit to yourself. There are a million and one things you feel every day that contradict and challenge and seem to erode your incredibly strong value system.

Let reality in. Your value system IS strong and can withstand your conflicted emotions. Admit that you’re a greedy animal. Admit that you loved feeling superior when you dumped your job and those toxic people and your friend, and you were embarrassed when that charge was replaced with emptiness and longing. These are not exotic experiences. We’ve all been there. You’re not some secret monster. You’re a flawed person who will probably always feel a lot of anger. You will always feel a lot of everything.

Emptiness and a lack of appetite sometimes spring out of an attempt to clean everything up, at last. Your current flavorless void was created out of a quest to be PERFECT FROM NOW ON. I’m not saying invite all the toxic friends back. Feel your way through each case, and see where you land in a few months. Stay open to whatever comes up. Notice when your feelings keep pointing back to shame: If I go backward, I will be admitting that I’m bad. Question your extreme judgments. You’re just a person trying to feel her way forward in a confusing world.

It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to feel uncertain. Honor reality.

I also want you to notice that you’re isolating yourself in a bigger way that goes beyond friendships and acquaintanceships. You’re trying to be bulletproof and better than ever. But your strength is inextricably linked to your passionate emotions. You have to let reality seep in, and the emotions and the flavors will seep in with it. You have to face the ways you’re unfair. You have to face how personally you take EVERY SINGLE THING that anyone around you does. You have to notice how your anxiety plays into this sensation. You have to face what kinds of insane moral judgments you place on EVERY SINGLE THING you do. You’re living in an airless white space. You need some room to be sad and pissed and gross and bitter.

I get that it feels like the wrong thing to want, particularly for a woman. You can’t get older and get more sad and angry. You’re supposed to try harder and harder to be more, to be better. It’s some shitty ideal we all picked up from a lady magazine, about an aging diva: “BEAUTIFUL INSIDE AND OUT, aging gracefully, because she simply LET GO OF OLD, BROKEN THINGS.”

I don’t like ladies who try to be beautiful inside and out, personally. I like ladies who cling to broken things in spite of themselves. Show me your messy heart, for fuck’s sake. What are we here for otherwise?

What will it mean if you’re just angrier than most people? What if you just let your anger exist without taking any action? What if you learned to let your anger soften into sadness, instead of commanding it to disappear into thin air?

Honoring reality means honoring your wretched, selfish, ugly self. I try to build with those materials. I don’t compete as much, but sometimes I do and it’s fine. I try to locate my real desire, every day, by letting myself be exactly what I am and never painting the future as victorious. I remind myself that victories don’t do it for me. I don’t need to feel better than I did the day before. I just need to feel, period, and work hard and build. I like sweating, and trying, and feeling disappointed, even, and trying again. I can feel lonely or rejected in a vacuum sometimes. My anxiety sometimes makes me dislike people. No one is to blame.

I’m not trying to be serene anymore. Fuck serene. I want to taste what’s there. You have a very loud voice in your head that tells you who you should be and how you should feel. TASTE WHAT’S THERE INSTEAD.

You’re enough right now. You don’t need to be better or more. You don’t need to be less. Let yourself bloom in full color. Show your ass. Admit culpability. Look at mistakes without fixing them or calling someone to explain that you understand everything now. Admit that you will NEVER. UNDERSTAND. EVERYTHING.

You don’t have to understand. You just have to be here and taste this moment. You still know who you are, ohhhhh, yes, you do. Trust that. Celebrate that, today. CELEBRATE IT with your glorious, unbroken fury. Be who you are.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Who Am I Without My Anger?’