Valentine’s Day (or as I like to call it, the Day of Lover’s Obligation) is coming up this week, and if you’re single or otherwise just wanting to go out to eat, odds are you’re pretty frustrated. In fact, with the world seemingly contriving to constantly rub your nose in your singleness, odds are high that you may be a bit angry.
See, normally, I’d give my usual rant about how Valentine’s is a completely invented holiday that ultimately is about horny werewolves rather than romantic love but instead, I want to do something different. You see, rather than encouraging people to swallow their resentment (or at least not write another hot take about the annoyance of being single on a day when all the happy couples are canoodling in your face), I want to teach you how to channel and use that anger. Because quite frankly, we’ve been sold a load of shit when it comes to anger. Yeah, we get told that anger is the path to the Dark Side, but that’s by the same people who insist that only Sith use absolutes which is in and of itself an absolute and let’s be honest: how well did that work for them?
But the Sith aren’t any better about anger either. Giving into inchoate rage is even less productive than trying to choke it down.
Instead, I’m going to teach you how to use your anger… the right way.
What We Get Wrong About Anger
The first thing you have to realize about using anger properly is that most of what you know about it is wrong. For years, we’ve been taught to process our anger in the wrong way. Anger, we’re taught, is a purely negative emotion. It’s something that we shouldn’t feel and when we do feel it, we’re taught to process it the wrong way. We’re taught we’re supposed to bottle it up and pretend that it doesn’t exist. Or that we should channel it into something else. Or that we need to just let it out in order to relieve the stress and prevent us from exploding into a giant rage monster.
How often have you heard someone say “they need to let off some steam” and be told to, say, scream and yell or punch a pillow or punching bag or take out your frustrations on whatever poor sons of bitches happen to wander in front of your LMG during a Call of Duty deathmatch? This is known as catharsis theory; you release the stored up energy brought up by your rage in a harmless manner and thus relieve the pressure and avoid creating a new psychosis. And in practice, it appears to make sense. You go beat the ever loving shit out of the heavy bag at the gym or consistently head-shot some folks, and you feel better. Clearly, venting is the best way to get rid of your anger.
Except it doesn’t actually work that way because humans aren’t steam boilers.
Yes, releasing built up pressure makes you feel better – puking eases nausea for example and hell, sometimes there’s no better feeling than emptying an rock-hard bladder – but venting your anger doesn’t actually make you less angry. In fact, studies have found that people who vent their anger by punching things actually become angrier and more aggressive. Venting actually perpetuates the cycle because it feels good – you get angry, you vent, you feel good but you’re still angry so you vent again… wash, rinse repeat. Similarly, going online and venting your anger only serves to reinforce your anger, rather than calming it down; all you’re doing is ensuring that your anger is at the forefront of your mind. Instead of letting go, you’re just reinforcing how you already feel. And in the right echo chamber, you may actually find those negative feelings getting amplified rather than dissipated – and then directed outwards at someone else.
Channeling anger into physical activities isn’t necessarily better. As I’ve mentioned before, humans are prone to misattribution of arousal; we mistake our physical symptoms for emotional states. Any form of continued physical arousal – such as vigorous exercise – can mimic the feeling of being insanely pissed off which just prolongs the anger.
In fact, the best way to get rid of your anger is to simply do nothing. Giving yourself to just calm down lets your anger simmer away. Not to say that you don’t do something about it… you just have to harness it correctly.
Anger Is Fuel
Let me tell you a story about anger.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the temples in the Ankor Wat region of Cambodia. Towards the end of our trip, we were all suffering from NAFT syndrome1 and really just wanted to get back to the hotel. However, at the last pyramid on the trip (which one I can’t tell you off the top of my head, but we’ll go with Ta Keo because if it’s not right, it’s damned close), our guide mentioned that backpackers liked to climb to the top and watch the sun set2. My brother, who’s at least part mountain goat, was thrilled with the idea that we finally had a ziggurat he could climb and shot out of the bus and went straight up the side. I, in an ill-advised bout of envy, wanted to prove that anything he could do, I could do and tried to follow him.
Up the side of a very fucking tall, insanely steep pyramid. One that, as it turned out, was far steeper than it looked from the tour bus.
And did I mention I have a crippling fear of heights?
Around the half-way mark I made a classic mistake: I looked back to see how far I’d come… and promptly froze. I was petrified in terror, convinced that I was going to die. Obviously (spoiler alert) I didn’t… because I got angry. Hell, I got pissed. I was angry at my brother for tricking me3 into climbing this damned pyramid, I was pissed at the ancient Khmer for building the damn thing to trap me and I was pissed at myself because I was going to die in the middle of the goddamn jungle. Well goddamn it if I was going to die, I was going to die with a fucking view. Sheer anger propelled me up the side, motivating me to scramble and claw my way up the pyramid to the top where I heaved my trembling carcass over the lip of the top and clung to a pillar for dear life. I’d made it. I was shaking like a leaf and drenched in fear-pee, but I’d made it to the top. My anger was the fuel that pushed me forward.
(How I got back down is another story entirely.)
Years later, on the fateful night when my friend Miles hooked up with a girl I wanted to sleep with, anger is what motivated me to change and put me on the path to who I am today. It was anger at how much I had allowed myself to miss out on, how I’d fallen prey to these self-limiting beliefs and convinced myself that I was stuck, powerless and helpless.
Anger, when you harness it properly, can be a powerful force for positive change. Anger has a remarkable way of focusing your mind on your goals – it acts like blinders, narrowing your attention, not to what makes you angry, but to potential rewards. In fact, despite what you might suspect, angry people tend to be optimistic. Anger, you see, helps you believe that the future is within our control and that we have greater ability to affect the outcome. That outlook is powerful; when we’re beset by obstacles, anger can help keep us motivated to work past it by empowering us to believe that not only can we change things but to do it by keeping our attention focused on the rewards at the end.
Of course, before you do that, you need to remember:
Anger Without A Solution Is A Tantrum
Anger may be a tool but it’s a tool that requires care in its use. Anger is, in many ways like fire, something creative and destructive at the same time. Harnessing fire is what allowed humans to form civilizations. It helped us to prepare our food to fuel our brains’ greater need for nutrition. It gave us light in the dark, warmth in the cold. It gave us the ability to shape metal, to bend the very elements to our will. And when not handled with care and respect it is dangerous, capable of raging out of control and causing mind-blowing levels of destruction as well.
So it is with anger. Anger, when properly harnessed, can create great change. Well-channeled anger has led to revolutions that toppled dictators, to civil rights and equality. But anger, when unharnessed or allowed to burn out of control leads to pain and tragedy. Anger tends to be more synonymous with rage – burning red hot and out of control. We see people continually using inchoate anger as a means of controlling others, continually stoking the fires, reminding them that they’ve been cheated, that they’ve been wronged, that they’ve been stolen from and that they need to stay angry because you need to be fired up not thinking this is a time for action!
But anger, useful anger, anger that brings about positive change, doesn’t burn hot. A hot anger is one that has very little control and very little thought behind it. It’s aggression without a target, it’s passion without reason, it’s impulse not forethought, undirected and uncontrollable. It’s a tantrum, all sound and fury. Useful anger, harnessed anger, burns cold. Useful anger is rational, controlled and directed. Useful anger is one that looks for solutions instead of just raging at the problem. It’s about doing what’s necessary and makes sense, not what feels right in the moment. It’s about picking the right targets, the right responses rather than lashing out incoherently. It’s about finding the motivation to continue when everything seems lost if only so you won’t give the bastards the satisfaction of watching you fail.
Productive Anger Is About What Is Useful
Anger is an amazing motivating force for making positive changes in your life – more so for many people than standing in front of the mirror chanting positive affirmations. But it’s an emotion that requires careful direction to be useful – and carefully applied direction at that.
It’s incredibly easy to turn anger in the wrong direction. Turning that anger to other people – looking for someone to blame, for example – isn’t necessarily useful. All too often we blame others as a way to deflect responsibility from ourselves. In my bad old days, it would have been easy to blame other people for my lack of success. You see this behavior in MRA enclaves and Red Pillers, in the cult of the Alpha Male and the Nice Guy. More importantly, this would be blame that doesn’t do anything useful; deciding that women were at fault for not wanting me wouldn’t have produced any useful or meaningful change. What would the solution be, brow-beating women into agreeing to dating me? Whining until the world fell to my wishes?
Assigning blame to others, especially when you can’t or don’t do anything with that information, does nothing but create more anger and frustration and misery. This is counterproductive to what you actually want – actionable change.
Similarly, turning that anger inward isn’t helpful. Punishing yourself – calling yourself a loser, telling yourself that you’re scum, that you can’t do anything right – isn’t useful either. Constant self-recrimination only leads to despair and often only reinforces the behavior or circumstances you are angry about and wanting to change. I’d spent years being angry at myself for not being able to approach people I was attracted to. I was furious that I lost out to Miles that night. But sitting alone in my hotel room reminding myself that I was a loser, that I was scum, that I couldn’t talk to women… all that did was augment my already existing self-limiting beliefs.
You can be angry about the things that you’ve done. You can be upset about mistakes that you’ve made. But punishing yourself isn’t useful. It doesn’t motivate you to change or improve. All that directing that anger inwards does is validate that you can’t change.
The Key to Positive Anger: Finding Solutions
It can be tricky to know how to use your anger or how to apply it in a positive direction. A rule of thumb that I live by is simple: am I looking to punish someone or am I looking for a solution?
When I was stuck on that pyramid, my anger is what pushed me upward – the only solution I had was to reach the top. When I was alone in my hotel room, crying out of frustration, my anger prompted me to look for ways to change things because I wasn’t going to accept that my situation was impossible.
That is the first step to using anger in a positive way: to find out what you can control and what you can’t. I couldn’t make women love me – that was out of my control. I could, however, learn to be a more attractive, engaging person. Could I be taller? No… but I could develop presence. Could I change my build to look like Brad Pitt? No, but I could learn to work with what I had.
Yeah, I had a lot that needed working on… but hey, when you’ve been playing video games all of your life, you learn about the value of grinding…
The next step: once you understand what you can control, you find ways to make those changes. Could I rewrite my history or my personality? No… but I could learn how to talk to women, how to flirt, how to be more of the person I always wanted to be. My anger at who I was and what I’d allowed myself to become would be what propelled me to make those changes. I was yelling to the world “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”
(I watched that segment of Network a lot in the early days.)
Mathew Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal has talked about how he motivated himself to become a runner:
“When I first got into running about 10 years ago, I could barely run a mile,” Matt said, as we loped through the park. “I would always find a waypoint–the next tree, or corner–and I said to myself, I am being chased by this unhappy depressed fat man. And if I don’t reach that point before he does, he will catch me, and I will become him.”
For him, the motivation was to spite his old self. every improvement I made, every change I could find was my way of spitting in the eye of the universe and everyone who’d ever told me I was a dateless loser. I was going to prove to each and every one of them that nobody could tell me what I couldn’t do. I was going to beat them… by becoming my most awesome self.
That anger is what pushed me to keep going out all those unsuccessful nights when I came home feeling lower than a snake’s ass in a drainage ditch. That anger is what pushed me to work around the obstacles that came up in my path.
That same anger, when harnessed properly, can fuel your improvement as well.
Anger, when used positively, isn’t about punishment. It’s not about revenge or vindication or putting someone in their place. It’s about finding ways to move forward to the goal you want. Anger should be about change. Anger, useful anger, is what motivates you to seek out that tiny victory, to dig out that first crack in the wall of impossibility. It’s about finding solutions and making changes. It’s about not letting the bastards win because they were not right about you.
So if you’re single and tired of it, then it’s time to get mad. It’s time to declare that this is the end. That you won’t be beaten down.
Now go out and prove those bastards wrong.