Yesterday, in a post entitled “red balloon,” I talked a little more about the idea that no one can make you happy. I hope you’ll take a minute to read that first, because a lot of important groundwork is laid for what follows here. Today, I want to talk about an equally important truth:
No one can make you mad.
I was talking about one of the chapters in my book, “The Best Advice So Far,” with a friend of mine yesterday. He seemed to have no trouble accepting the idea that no one can make you happy, that you have to take responsibility for that choice yourself. But when I introduced the idea that no one can make you mad, he balked. He huffed. He puffed. (But he really didn’t blow this house down, because it stands up to some pretty good huffing and puffing.)
I had sushi with a new friend in Boston later that evening, and this idea came up yet again. My friend said that a particular public view advertised on a billboard made him angry. He had a similar reaction to my friend’s from earlier that day, when I suggested that no one can make us angry.
It seems this is territory that many people feel strongly about protecting.
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. And I do think there is room for debate about whether the initial feelings associated with anger are within our control, or whether they are more akin to a pain response when we get hit. But I believe that either way that coin lands, the responsibility for being angry – maybe not “getting” angry, but being angry – still lies with us.
Hear me out.
I was staying with a friend a couple of years ago. I was in another room, when suddenly, a ruckus erupted elsewhere in the house. Someone had knocked at the front door. My friend let them in and began yelling. A girl’s voice protested. My friend escalated. And soon thereafter, the door slammed. I heard my friend stomp to his room, muttering loudly. I gave it a few minutes, then went to see what had happened.
I knocked lightly on his door. I heard him sigh on the other side. “Yeah … come in.” He was still fuming.
I poked my head in. “Hey, are you OK? What happened?”
He launched in, and I could tell that he truly believed that he’d been in the right with the altercation. He explained that his girlfriend had come by. Apparently, after knocking for a minute or so without his answering the door, she had called his phone to tell him she was outside. He said she had been irritated that he wasn’t letting her in. “I left the [expletive] door open for her! How stupid do you have to be to not try turning the [expletive] knob before you stand out there knocking for a [expletive] hour! And then, she treats me like I’m the idiot – like I somehow forgot she was coming.” He growled, screwing his eyes closed. “She just makes me so mad!”
I have the kind of relationship with this friend where we can usually just say it like it is. So I went there.
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “If it had been another friend” – I suggested the name of a teen we both know – “and she did the same thing exactly, would you have responded the same way?”
The air rushed out of him with a lot of the heat, and I could see him coming back. “Uggh. No.”
I continued. “How do you think you would have felt or handled it, if it had been her? Same scenario.”
“I … probably would have just opened the door and apologized that I didn’t hear her.” There was a short pause, then he added, “I’m an idiot.” He shook his head at the sudden realization and actually smiled. “I don’t know why I get so mad when it’s her.”
When I get so mad. Ah … progress.
We talked for a while, about how we become comfortable – sometimes too comfortable – with those closest to us. We take them for granted. We stop treating them with the common courtesy we would give to most anyone else. But the real core of this talk was what was introduced above. No one can make you mad. My friend had realized here, based on the scenario where he imagined it had been another friend, that he could control his response. His girlfriend wasn’t making him do anything. And that leaves only one option.
We choose our responses.
Whether with a girlfriend or with the guy in front of us who is driving too slow for our liking, we choose.
As I said regarding the idea of anyone making us happy, it is certainly easier with some people to choose to be happy. So it is with anger. It is easier with some people than with others to choose not to give in to anger. But in the end, whether easy or hard, the choice is still ours.
If we can accept this, while it will require some real work in order to change our responses, it offers a level of freedom and personal peace that is well worth the effort.