One of the most difficult relationship in our life is the one we have with ourselves. The difficulty of it lies in the ability to accept the things about ourselves which we cannot change, whilst making the effort to change the things we can. The balance of maintaining discipline without beating ourselves up for the smallest failure is the hardest thing to get right. And so, a lot of the time, this tricky relationship oscillates between two extremes: self-deprecation/hatred and an overestimated sense of one’s own value and perpetual innocence. Both are harmful.
We are surrounded by slogans such “Be good to yourself,” “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” and hipster motivation posters, currently very popular on social media, which are meant to make us feel better about ourselves. Paradoxically, these messages won’t do much for a person whose inner critic is in full rage. The reason for it is that, as David Wong, the author of 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, says: “you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.” If “being good to yourself” means being kind, gentle and understanding towards our own weaknesses and comforting us in our state of inertia, then it can only reinforce the dissatisfaction we have with ourselves.
I’m currently devouring an excellent book by Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and use if for life. In a chapter dedicated to “scratching,” a term she uses to describe the first phase of every project, i.e. looking for ideas, she talks about maintaining the “White Hot Pitch”. This phrase, borrowed from office jargon, refers to the kind of temper tantrum a boss is likely to throw at a meeting to wake his employees up when a project is going badly. Interestingly, Wong’s article quotes the famous speech given by Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross. Blake tells a group of lousy salesmen them that they’re about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned. While some people might welcome this harsh wake-up call and be grateful for a lesson, the more common reaction is resistance and bitterness. “What an a*hole!,” many would say, and begin to look for anything about the boss they can criticise.
Baldwin’s tantrum isn’t nice. He’s loud, offensive and vulgar. But that’s the sort of emotion Twyla is referring to when she says: “Throw a tantrum at yourself.” Get angry. Do something!
As someone, who used to struggle to control anger in their teenage years, and spent the years following puberty learning from the stoics how to approach life in a calm manner, this sort of advice was, until very recently, quite shocking to me. I used to perceive anger as a destructive force I had to break from, not something to initiate. In that process, however, I had gone one step too far because I failed to recognise and use the constructive potential of getting angry.
There are different types of anger. Getting wound-up in a situation which we have no influence over is a waste of energy. It’s the sort of anger people manifest when stuck on a bus or faced with bad weather on a long awaited holiday. But feeling angry in a situation we can change can be very beneficial. Not only does is provide an insight into how we’re actually feeling about the situation, but it gives us a motivating force to change it, despite existing and potential problems and barriers.
Artistic work and creativity are the areas which on one hand offer a great potential of action, and on the other — breed stupendous amounts of frustration. One of the reasons is that a creative self-directed job requires a lot of discipline and hard work, and involves going through failures and getting lost. When faced with stagnation, lack of progress and ideas, Twyla’s advice comes in very handy. “Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. It is a special war zone where first you make the rules, and then you test the consequences. (…) So, pick a fight – with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines,” she says. She suggests a few exercises to generate anger, emotion, combustion, and heat, such as doing exactly the opposite of what the very first impulse tells us to or changing our workout routine to something that feels uncomfortable.
The same angry energy she recommends for waking up our brains to think creatively, can be used to push ourselves to act in other areas of our life. It’s easy to suppress the thoughts of dissatisfaction and hold onto the status quo, with a layer of bitterness underlying everything we do. Bottling up negative emotions is a bad strategy, for the bottle will explode sooner or later, possibly injuring someone. Therefore, provoking ourselves to admit that we’re angry about something, and that we should act on it, can save us a lot of time and energy. The change might be daunting, if it’s something as serious as changing a career or a relationship, but living in a state of perpetual frustration, hidden under a layer of (badly faked) calm, is destructive.
So we burst out. We admit that we’re procrastinating with the book we’re meant to be writing, that we hate our job, that we’re sick of not having enough money. And then what? The main challenge here is to make sure that action follows anger. And we need to act fast. “Remember, though, that emotions are short lived — they come and go. So, it’s imperative that you strike while the iron is (literally) hot and use the angry energy to your benefit before it evaporates,” says W. Doyle Gentry from Anger Management For Dummies. If it’s not followed by some action, the expression of anger is merely a fruitless vent.
The other important aspect of using anger to our own benefit is that we pick the fight with ourselves before starting a battle with the world. Unfortunately, many angry artists often address their emotion at the wrong recipient, which doesn’t lead to any constructive action. Artists get tense about lack of money, clients, attention, commissions, funding – and blame other people for it. “The world only cares about what it can get from you,” says Wong, and suggests that instead of asking “How can I get this job?”, one should ask themselves: “How can I become the type of person employers want?”. Getting frustrated because a bunch of publishers don’t want to publish my book is silly; instead of cursing the competition, I’m much better off thinking about ways to find the right readers, or self-publish, or crowd-fund the publication. We spend a lot of time concentrating on others, on what the world should be doing for us, as opposed to thinking about how we could contribute to the world and find our own place in it. People notoriously complain about the funding cuts. How about creating a project that doesn’t require a substantial budget? Or if it does, crowd-fund it or take a loan? If it’s any good and benefits people, then you’ll eventually get the money back. If you’re not sure about its value but just want money because you think that the world owes you money, perhaps it’s worth rethinking the project. And your attitude.
“The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defence mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict,” says Wong. The most powerful force of anger is stripping off those layers of self-delusion, question our own actions, and demand honest answers from our gut. It’s a strong weapon against impotence, which, as W. Doyle Gentry points out, reaches far beyond the sexual kind. It’s a weapon not only in the fight with inertia, but for general self-defence. Gentry says, “Anger is the fight component — the part that moves you to take offensive measures to defend yourself against actual or perceived threats.”
So – be good to yourself, get angry! Maybe anger is “a cheap adrenaline rush,” as Twyla says in her book, but “when you’re going nowhere and can’t get started, it will do.”