By the time we get out of kindergarten we have a sneaking suspicion that there is more than one take on reality. This realization (that things are not black and white) pretty much crystallizes by the time we get out of the high-school. What starts out as a clear-cut case of pain and pleasure and right and wrong year after year becomes progressively more nuanced and subtle. As we learn the befuddling lessons of life, we become more tempered, more tentative. We begin to appreciate that Socratic epistemological modesty of only knowing that we don't know anything. As we cultivate this philosophical doubt and dress-rehearse "who knows?" shrugs of nonchalance at the absurdity of life, we secretly yearn for certainty. That's why we relish anger.
Authentic anger comes from total conviction in your cause, however serious or trivial it might be. It is pretty much impossible to be really angry and in doubt. Anger is beyond doubt. Anger is certainty. Anger is a moment of crystal clarity. And that is its infectious emotional allure. Anger - unless you are faking it - is a rare moment of feeling that you are absolutely and unquestionably right. Anger is righteousness.
Enter perfectionists. Perfectionists like to be right. Being right, they are taught, pays (in approval, success, etc.). So, perfectionists studiously learn the rules of life and try to follow them to a "t," believing that life is fair. It isn't. Life just is. Perfectionists intuitively know this inconvenient truth but grit and grin and bear it as much as they can, trying to navigate the bewildering fiords of day-to-day confusion. When the ship of their legitimately wholesome intentions runs aground in the middle of an ocean, perfectionists revolt in righteous anger. This makes sense: if you can't meet your "feeling right" quota by following the ever-changing rules of life, feeling righteously angry at the injustice of it all might just do.
Anger is intoxicating in its blindness. Rush of the adrenaline aside, anger is a moment of liberating oversimplification: the arrow of consciousness has finally found its target of evil and it is blissfully aloft. I get it. It's almost like archery: first, the tension and, then, the release. The only problem, of course, is the ensuing emotional skirmish and its collateral damage. Even the most tentative and tolerant of us don't like to be yelled at. Another's anger at us becomes a perfect, if not the only civilized pretext, to lash out in return and to satisfy our own hunger for being right. And so we go crusading under the banners of relative truths.
Let me close this mind-stream with the following syllogism: if anger is an opportunity to feel right, then anger management has to begin with the idea that all truths are relative. But then what do I know, right?
Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of "Eating the Moment" (New Harbinger, 2008), "Present Perfect" (NH, 2010), and "The Lotus Effect" (NH, 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit www.eatingthemoment.com and sign up for Pavel Somov's monthly "Mindful-not-Mouthful" Newsletter