Displaced Anger: How We Can Stop Blaming Others for Our Negative Thoughts and Emotions

If maturity is anything, it’s a mastery of one’s emotions.

The other day, someone told me a story about how angry she was when her boyfriend left the dishes out on the kitchen counter. I asked what upset her most, and she said, it was the fact that she wasn’t receiving help and that her boyfriend acted selfishly. But, we both had a broader vision of their relationship. When asked, her partner tended to accommodate her needs; he wasn’t generally selfish. Thus, at bottom, she blamed her boyfriend for feeling helpless or vulnerable. Since she frequently found it difficult to ask for help, because doing so made her feel inadequate, she hoped that her boyfriend would just do what he was supposed to. It was as though she didn’t want to experience any evidence of her need for help. And, it seemed that what upset her most was the awareness of her humanity, rather than her partner’s careless action.

So, this individual was angry because her partner didn’t read her mind and prevent her core belief (i.e. I am inadequate because I need help) from manifesting, although she told herself that her partner was being selfish. A similar experience often occurs in therapy when an unruly client frustrates a young therapist who then becomes upset at the client for making him upset and, if he’s even more honest with himself, for making him feel inadequate, at least that’s what he believes. I’ve experienced these moments countless times, in therapy and outside of it, in which I would blame someone else for the way I felt and was thinking about myself. Rather than acknowledging my tendency to feel like a failure, I’d blame others for “wasting my time” or “not doing what they’re supposed to, or even for “making me feel that way.”

Our minds, as wonderful as they can be, have a knack for hiding painful truths and redirecting our negative emotions outwardly. This is what’s known as the game of emotional hot potato, in which we blame others for our feelings. And the culprit, as usual, is black and white thinking. Those of us who struggle with self-esteem view ourselves as failures and/or unworthy and, most of the time, instead of examining our beliefs, we prefer it if the world just didn’t shove them in our face. There was a time when I wanted to never fail at anything and to never undergo rejection. As a result, I continually blamed others for my feelings as though I were entitled to pure comfort. However, as most of us eventually learn, the world has a way of showing you your humanity, especially when you feel least able to acknowledge it.

The problem, I realized, was not out there in the world but abided within me. My feelings and my interpretations, although founded in my childhood, were my responsibility, even though they weren’t my fault. I didn’t create my core beliefs, but if I wanted to be happy (I mean more so than I was), I knew that it would be my duty to reframe them.

In psychology, anger displacement is a textbook concept. You know, when you get angry at your partner when you’re really upset with your boss. Instead of directing your rage toward him, which could result in a form of punishment, you decide to manifest it at home, blaming your wife for your foul mood. And, anger is a form of punishment, meant to eliminate what you don’t want to experience, if not in the present then in the future. The person I mentioned in the beginning of this article eventually accepted that she was punishing her boyfriend, whipping him into shape, so that she wouldn’t have to make requests. And, when she decided to be honest with herself, realized that she was punishing him for her sense of helplessness, hoping to make it go away. She was searching for control.

Thus, this begs the question: how do we know that this interpretation isn’t just an example of psychobabble? By inquiring about the meaning of one interpretation, we dig deeper finding other ones. So, I asked the person noted above how she interpreted her boyfriend leaving the dishes out, and she said it meant that she wasn’t receiving help. And that meant that she couldn’t “do everything on her own,” which, in turn, meant that she was helpless or inadequate. We often have underlying meanings, and core beliefs, crop up just just outside of our awareness. If I’m upset with my friend for wasting my time, the time wasted, to me, implies that I was unproductive, which, in turn, means that I’m a failure. Essentially, I become angry with my friend for making me feel like I’m a loser instead of being angry at myself for being one.

Of course the logic is unsound, but my core beliefs remain unfazed. The work to be done is introspective, examining the soundness of our inferences. Feeling like a failure, or believing that you’re inadequate, can easily cause you to want to redirect your thoughts and blame others for your struggles. I’m not saying that we can’t be frustrated with someone for making a mistake, but in the case of increased anger, the culprit is our self-conception. Why should I be enraged at my boyfriend for leaving the dishes out? And why do I need to see him as selfish when I know he isn’t? Because it’s not that I’m feeling inadequate, it’s that he isn’t doing what he’s supposed to.

Owning our interpretations, and their subsequent emotions, can be daunting. It’s easier to engage in emotional reasoning, through which we convince ourselves that we’re angry and, thus, the cause must solely be from without. Fortunately, maturity is a path rather a destination; all of us can become better thinkers. And, it’s our responsibility to do so. If you really think about it, I mean, who else can do it for us?

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