Getting Angry To Avoid Your Feelings

There’s a funny thing that people often do. I’m sure you’ve seen it, done it, or had it happen to you. We get critical or angry about something that we used to appreciate as a way of pushing it away or avoiding how we really feel about it.

This has been coming up for me lately. I’ve lived in Oakland, CA for 23 years and next week, I’m moving to Seattle. For the last month or so, I’ve been getting together with friends to say goodbye and of course, one of the topics that comes up is how I’m feeling about this change. I’ve noticed that the closer I get to moving, the more irritating I find some of the things about the Bay Area that used to not bother me too much. I was aware of them, but I simply accepted them as part of living here. Last night, I realized that I was doing the same thing that I’ve seen people do over and over: I was getting critical of the Bay Area in order to manage how I felt about leaving.

It’s a funny pattern that we fall into. It’s sort of the opposite of “new relationship energy,” which is when we’re so excited about a new partner that we can’t even see their flaws. At some point (often around the 1-2 year mark), those initial bonding hormones start to wear off and we start noticing those annoying habits that we used to ignore or think were cute. But for that first year or two, NRE keeps us from seeing them. Even when we do recognize them, we don’t really get upset about them.

What I’m experiencing is the reverse of NRE. Rather than accepting those things like I used to, I’m getting annoyed or frustrated or irritated. I’ve been catching myself using them as a justification for moving. And in a few cases, I’ve noticed that I was hoping to get my friend to agree with me so they’d want to move north, too. If NRE is all about bonding, this pattern is all about disengagement.

I see this a lot in relationships. When one person is thinking about breaking up, they start noticing the things that they don’t like in their partner. It’s a way to push them back and feel justified about it. And it’s a way to avoid noticing the sadness or grief that can come up during a breakup. It’s much easier to feel righteous anger about how inconsiderate your boyfriend is than to turn towards your feelings and feel the sadness of the breakup or the fear of change.

I think this also explains the unfortunately-common experience of many women when they get catcalled. A guy may start off with, “You’re so beautiful. Give me your number.” But when she rebuffs his advances, he’ll respond with, “Bitch! You’re too ugly for me anyway.” He can’t cope with the feelings of rejection and attacks her. He retaliates for the pain he feels, avoids that pain by covering it up with anger, and reduces his desire for her by seeing her as less attractive and therefore, not worth getting worked up over.

It’s ironic that the more we want something, the more we have to reframe it as undesirable in order to get some distance from it. It’s the same mechanism we employ when we tell kids, “If they were really your friends, they wouldn’t treat you like that.” Rather than making room for the emotions of rejection, pain, sadness, or grief, we try to make the other person less attractive. We’d rather lash out than feel our feelings.

It’s been really fascinating to see how I fell into this cycle, too. It was much more subtle than the catcaller’s response, but it’s the same defense mechanism. That part of me would rather feel annoyed by the things that I used to shrug off than feel sadness about moving away from some of the most wonderful people I’ve even known. It would rather spend my last couple of weeks feeling righteous about moving than feeling grief at what I’m letting go of.

Without excusing or justifying the behaviors of harassers and catcallers, this shows me that there’s a resonance between us. I can better understand them and what they do, which is the foundation of being able to challenge them with fierce compassion. I can’t demonize them for their lashing out without demonizing myself. That doesn’t mean I excuse it. It simply means I understand it and that I’ve done something similar.

So my plan for the next few weeks is to practice letting myself appreciate the Bay Area for all of the amazing things it has brought me, to let myself feel sad for leaving, and to not use anger to protect myself from that. I’m moving for reasons that have nothing to do with the little annoyances I was getting worked up over. I don’t need to justify my decision, and I don’t need to convince anyone else that it’s the right call for me. This is going to be a more challenging path, but I’d much rather part on good terms with a place that has brought me adventure, pleasure, and a lot of sweetness. I think that’s a much better way to say goodbye.