It’s not so long ago that a major Sunday newspaper conducted a comprehensive survey on anger. They set out with one question: Why does it appear that levels of anger are rising across all areas of society in almost all corners of the world? They titled their final report as The Age of Rage and reduced the reasons for a general ‘across the board’ rise in anger to two simple factors – unmet expectations and speed.
This is obviously not surprising as we are the generation who can go almost anywhere we want, do almost anything we want, have almost anything we want, almost instantly. So we have great expectations AND the expectation that our expectations will be met…instantly! If our expectations are not met fast, that’s when we start to create anything from a minor irritation to frequent frustrations, which easily escalate into the incendiary emotion of anger. This is of course exacerbated by our ability to watch others seemingly going, getting and having what they want almost instantly as we ‘spectate’ the factual and fictional lives of ‘other peoples worlds’ through the window of the media.
So why are unmet expectations such a frequent trigger for the rising tide of frustration if not for every single emotional outburst. We don’t tend to notice that what we expect is what we desire, and what we desire we already have! Where? On the screen of our mind. For example you may say or just think, “I want that new house”. Notice you already have it on the screen of your mind. It’s as if you are already living in it…in your mind. And then, when it doesn’t show up in the reality of ‘out there’ then there is a sense of loss, a moment of disappointment. But that moment of sadness doesn’t last long until it turns into anger as you look for someone to blame for the loss of what you did not have in the first place!
Anger is the emotion of blame and it’s always focused into the past. Anger is the emotion of conflict as we lash out personally or collectively, even if it’s just mentally, simply because ‘they’ are not doing what we want, which means they are not meeting our expectations. Anger is the emotion that signals you are off to war on one of three fronts because your expectations are not being fulfilled.
Anger Means War
You are at war with the past because your anger is always towards something that has already happened or not happened as you expected/wanted. Your emotional reaction also means you are trying to change the past. Which is impossible. But to the rest of the world it looks as if you believe you can. Most of us assimilate and store subconsciously the belief that the world, including all other people, ‘should’ do exactly what we want them to. So we expect them to.
You are at war with another person because they have done something, which you judge to be wrong, and your anger is an attempt to change them or inflict revenge. It means we have not yet fully realised the fundamental truth that it is impossible to control another or make others change. The habit of angering your self in response to others behaviours can be so deep it becomes almost impossible to see it is also sustained by the misbelief that anger is good, it’s OK and as some amazingly cite, even healthy. But even science now has the proof that anger is the killer emotion and that over time it is just as likely to kill the body of the ‘host’ as anything else.
You are at war with yourself because you are failing to ‘make’ the world dance to your tune, or you believe you have let yourself down. Have you ever sat in a restaurant waiting for your meal, only to discover forty minutes later, that your order was forgotten or lost. You get upset, but with whom? Perhaps the waiter at first, but then with yourself, for failing to ask after five minutes. There are three failures here. First the waiter failed to meet your expectations of a fast service. Second you failed to speak sooner, which means you failed to live up to your own expectations of your self to be aware and astute in such situations. Third, you failed to control your emotions. Although you might not verbally admit you failed, inside you know you lost the plot. You ‘expect’ your self to be more ‘in control’ of your self. And so you start to beat yourself up.
Few realise that anger is, in itself, a symptom of insanity. Becoming angry means you are clinically insane! Why? Three reasons. You are out of control – the emotion is controlling you. You are totally irrational as the emotion kills your ability to think in a reasoned way. But the third reason is the main reason, you are trying (and of course failing) to do the impossible, which is to change what you cannot change (the past and/or other people). Fortunately anger, like all emotion, must pass, and sanity returns!
So what then are we to do with our expectations? Everyone seems to have them. Expectations have been a part of all our lives since childhood. And surely to have no expectations is to be completely desireless? . At the heart of most ancient and authentic spiritual wisdoms and traditions there is an aspiration to live in the world without expectation or desire for anything from others or from the world. This is regarded as one of the ultimate signs of true freedom of spirit, the liberation of the self from desire. But that kind of saintly symptom is not going to be achieved over night even if we wanted to. So here is an interim solution and perhaps the possibility of a steady movement towards such a freedom.
Have expectations. Expect the best of others. Expect people to do what they should, could and even said they would. But if they don’t it’s OK, because your happiness is not dependent on it. In other words if you separate your happiness from your expectations…little by little, it’s a fair bet you will start to reduce both the anger and its family members (irritation, frustration, resentment) and start to taste freedom from the self inflicted suffering that anger is.
Having expectations but not making your happiness dependent on having them fulfilled also transforms an expectation of another, which is really just you wanting something for your self, into a vision that empowers the other. Suddenly the taking/wanting energy of expectation is turned into the giving energy of a positive vision for them, which is a gift to them.
Be aware the next time you become angry, interrupt the pattern of your anger by asking yourself two simple questions: What am I trying to do? Answer; you are trying to control what you cannot control (past and people). Who is suffering first and most? Answer; your self! And if your anger is directed at yourself for your own seeming failure then repeat this short phrase, “There is no such thing as failure only a different outcome from the one that I expected”. And if you insist on staying angry then ask yourself the question, “How long is my anger going to last”? You’ll be surprised how fast it disappears simply because you contemplate the question.
Question: In which of the above ways do you ‘go to war’ most frequently?
Reflection: What is/are your most frequent expectations and from whom?
Action: Practice separating your happiness from your expectations in practical ways this week.