“I am not getting angry over nothing!” Mordy said to Jeff just a bit too heatedly. He really felt defensive and he wondered how he ever allowed himself to confide in his closest friend that he and his wife were having problems.
The fact that Jeff didn’t respond with complete sympathy to Mordy’s case did not persuade Mordy to take a closer look at himself. After all, getting angry over nothing, by definition, is “over nothing” and he felt completely justified in his irritation at his wife. He thought that would be obvious from the story he told to Jeff.
Now, he was quite annoyed at Jeff’s response which suggested he examine himself more closely for his contribution to the problem. Besides, he wouldn’t say his level of anger was over the top, anyway. It was just “a little” anger.
A Little Anger
That one is not so clear. Anger can build up to hatred; just ask enough people who have been through a divorce and they’ll shed some light on this.
Mordy fumed to himself. “Humph,” he grunted, “I have plenty of cause.”
Herein lies the problem. Don’t we all say that? Don’t we let ourselves off the hook every time, figuring the whole issue of getting angry over nothing doesn’t apply to us, and that we don’t have anything to reflect over? We, on the other hand, are perfectly justified in being angry. After all, just take a look at what was done to us.
I invite you to consider the concept of victim thinking.
Mordy had just been in the hospital, recovering from major surgery. Anna had been making the trek there every day to try to cheer him up. He was in enormous pain and getting heavy doses of pain-killer. Pre-surgery, Mordy had often stated that he loathed taking painkillers; whatever he’d read in the news made him afraid of getting addicted.
Now, he was hallucinating seeing something in the air over his bed that he was reaching for. Mordy’s bedside phone rang and it was the doctor. “I’m glad you called, Doctor,” Anna said. “I think Mordy is on too high a dose of painkillers. He’s hallucinating.”
The doctor thanked her and called the nurse immediately. While the staff took action, Mordy glowered at Anna. “How could you humiliate me in front of the doctor!” he shouted. “What do you think, I’m crazy?”
“You’re not crazy,” Anna replied, crying, “but the medicine is obviously too high a dose for you.”
“But I’m not hallucinating!” Mordy insisted.
“Well, what were you doing just now,” Anna asked. “Why were you reaching for the air and saying, ‘The panel! The panel’?”
“I did not say any such thing,” Mordy said with a scowl. “You are trying to make me look bad. What a terrible thing to do to a sick person!”
Anna left, crying and shaking. She kept going over and over in her mind what she could have done different. Obviously, she shouldn’t have discussed her husband’s medication in front of him but she didn’t realize that he was, indeed, alert, given that he clearly had been out of it just moments before. She finally convinced herself to chalk up his nasty behavior to the drugs. Still unhappy, but reconciled to a temporary dysfunction, Anna drove home.
When she got home, her eye caught Mordy’s very untidy desk. Mordy was just not organized. Perhaps it would lift his spirits when he got home if he saw all his papers in some kind of system. She set about the process, neglecting things of her own that she had to do. Four hours later, every last paper was in a category and each pile was placed in a desk bin with a cardboard label on it. What a thankless task! But if it would demonstrate clearly to Mordy how much she cared, it would be well worth it.
Two days later, Mordy was released. He had tried to forget what he called his wife’s treachery but could not actually get over it. He was glum as they rode home. Anna hoped that this mood was still a result of the overmedication. They walked in the door and Mordy headed straight to his desk, anxious to catch up on work. He stopped in front of it in amazement. “What in the world…?”
Smiling, Anna came up to him, “I did it for you,” she said. “But, Anna, I can’t find anything!” he exclaimed. “How will I begin?”
“That’s easy,” she answered. “See, I’ve labeled everything.”
“Yes, but I’m not used to those labels. I don’t know how I can work with them. You know I’ve got my own way of remembering things. I think you did this because you can’t stand the mess!” he said and walked out.
Anna was left speechless and miserable. The next day, Mordy phoned Jeff and vented.
Where is Mordy coming from? He’s married a long time; why does he assume bad in his wife?
Here is my take: It’s victim thinking. Victim thinking has four components:
- An immediate feeling of sadness, pain, or injury over an event which could have been interpreted positively instead.
- The bad feeling is “explained” to oneself by seeing an attack, a slight, an insult, blame, criticism or neglect that was not there.
- This is followed by feelings of anger at the presumed perpetrator.
- This is followed by an attack “back.”
You could say that the second bullet point is a failure of giving the benefit of the doubt and working on that thinking process is a good step. But more is needed. The person who attacks back as a last step in the process does so because he—or she—feels completely justified. The attacker never for a moment realizes that the entire thing would have been avoided had he not felt that unnecessary pain at Step One. That is where the work is needed.
How To Think Differently
Let’s rewrite the scenario. Suppose Mordy, hearing his wife talk to the doctor, told himself that he can relax because his wife is taking good care of him. Step one was Mordy’s interpretation that something unpleasant happened. The bad feeling was a throwback to his childhood in which he saw himself as a victim.
What about the messy desk? He could have thought, “Oh brother; how will I find things this way? But you know what? Maybe I will keep the categories and work hard to use them going forward. Maybe that way I won’t lose things so much and waste so much time looking for them.”
Or, he could have recognized that his disorderliness was incorrigible but could have allowed himself to enjoy the neat desk for a few minutes.
The point here is that victim thinking means you jump to feel badly instead of good because you have labeled yourself a perpetual victim. If that’s what you really “are,” then, by definition, everything that happens to you victimizes you. And, of course, you’re entitled to retaliate. To Mordy, there is no “getting angry over nothing” because he has slid through points one and two in a split second.
It’s self-labeling, circular reasoning which prevents a person from ever needing to reflect on the foundation of his thinking upon which everything else rests. Once your thoughts are straight, it is amazing how the anger will dissolve. [Okay, you do have to work on your automatic, habitual responses as well. That’s for another post. But get your thoughts right first, anyway!]
Under this analysis, it really is over nothing. Well, there was something, but that something was inside one’s own heart, not in the behavior of the other.