DEAR CAROLYN: It seems we are living in an era of “We must all be responsible for our own emotional/verbal reactions to things at all times, regardless of what people say or do to us,” and I do agree with that, for the most part. However, I also think that mentality has its limits.
I am in a serious relationship, the problems of which have been blamed almost exclusively on my “anger issues.” After months of accepting this as fact and working on myself (going to therapy, etc.), I now feel my angry responses never would have occurred in the first place if my partner had even been the least bit friendly, loving, kind or interested in me. I know I’ve been verbally explosive at times, but why should I blame myself for an understandable, human reaction to someone talking to me like a dog when all I said was, “Pass the syrup”?
At what point should we start calling others on their behavior and stop telling ourselves to “be responsible” for every reaction we may have, even when that reaction is perfectly justified?
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– Angry Girl
DEAR ANGRY GIRL: Why did you stay with someone who wasn’t “the least bit friendly, loving, kind or interested” in you and talked to you “like a dog”?
This isn’t an exercise in snarkery or victim-blaming. It’s an opener to proving the unlimited value in being responsible for our own emotions.
You describe a situation in which you were plainly mistreated, and you responded with understandable anger. That, to me, is a pretty precise picture of what happens when people do what you suggest, and call others on their bad behavior.
Were your partner a better person, s/he might have responded to your anger by feeling contrite and working to be kinder. But as is common with people who mistreat others, your partner responded by blaming you and apparently gaslighting you off to therapy.
That outcome does not speak well of the method that got you there.
By comparison, look at what happens when you take responsibility for your own feelings. By that I mean, when you respond to unwelcome feelings — anger, yes, and also frustration, sadness, resentment, boredom, helplessness, deprivation, the whole Dagwood sandwich of suffering — not by pinning them on Partner, but by examining your own choices.
In this case, the big one is your choice to stay with someone who doesn’t treat you well. What if, instead of expressing your anger to no avail, to the unhealthy point of getting “verbally explosive,” you took a moment to recognize the provocation continued no matter how right you were or how angry you got? And what if you calmed yourself, then spelled out for Partner that when s/he did X, you felt Y, and that kindness was important to you — with the full, unspoken intention of giving Partner one clear chance to turn things around, and of breaking up if that failed?
Remaining single unless you’re treated well solves the anger, too.
Maybe it would help to think of it this way: Enrage me once, shame on you; enrage me often, shame on me. We are always responsible for our reactions, which includes recognizing that getting angry and expecting others to make things right aren’t the only choices. There’s also, always, the door.