I have had a bad habit for most of my life… punching holes in walls or breaking things in anger. Surprisingly, I don’t think I really have that much of a temper. I am usually rather patient with people. I haven’t been in a fight since I was a kid, and I can normally deal with most setbacks rather calmly, in my opinion…. as long as I still have some kind of control or power over the situation.
However, when I am powerless, and the situation is something that is deeply important to me, the frustration sometimes builds into a rage that, if I’m unable to calm myself, can occasionally erupt in a destructive manner. Once, when trying to describe the feeling during these outbursts to a friend, I explained that it felt like I was like a caged animal with no hope of escape, a feeling of complete powerlessness.
It turns out that this description might be more true than I realized. It is theorized that anger comes from our base “fight or flight” instinct that we share with almost all animals.
The past couple of weeks, I found myself in a dark place mentally. It came on rather suddenly, and there were a lot of factors involved. It actually took me about a week or so to start to realize what some of those factors were. There were a few different ones, but one I want to mention here is that feeling of powerlessness.
This was last week when I started to come to that realization, and part of the feeling was frustration with what I saw online and in the news: the conspiracy theories and protests against the stay-at-home orders and, what I felt, was a callous disregard for and outright hostility towards public servants who were trying to do their best in an almost impossible situation. I became extremely agitated and angry at those people, and worse, I felt incredibly powerless. I have no real platform, there is pretty much nothing I can do to reach these people and reason with them. At one point, the futility of the situation boiled over and I threw my phone across the room. (The phone case was a wise investment…)
Not long after that moment, I came to another realization. Many of those people are likely dealing with those same feelings of powerlessness. One of the things that attracts people to conspiracy theories is that they offer the illusion of control in a chaotic world; and if you “broke” the secret code, you have an element of power now. The feeling of anger and powerlessness at being told to stay home by politicians and having your normal life completely upended leads one to want to take back some of the control. So you throw your AR-15 over your shoulder and force your way into the state capital as a demonstration of power.
However, just like my throwing my phone across the room, those actions do nothing to improve the situation, and instead just make things worse.
Ironically though, the same basic frustration with feeling powerless that led to my tantrum while reading about those conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations is likely the same frustration that lead those people to conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations in the first place. When I realized that, it calmed me down and gave me a better perspective and understanding.
I was already thinking about doing a blog post on this, and linking it to the fact that May is Mental Health Month. Then George Floyd was killed and the resulting protests and eventual riots occurred.
The feeling of powerlessness I feel when I lash out at inanimate objects or that the lock-down protesters feel is absolutely insignificant when compared to the level of powerlessness the black community feels in America. The feeling that an entire society regards you and your kind as less important, as expendable.
I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to be black and face the culture and system that they face. I’m not going to go into those details here, because that’s not the point of this post. This is about the powerful rage that comes out of feelings of powerlessness.
When I feel powerless and angry about the myriad of things in my life, I have nothing specific to direct my anger at so I hit walls.
When the lockdown protesters feel powerless and angry about the government responses to COVID-19, they direct their anger and rage at the government officials.
When an entire race of people have consistently had their power taken from them by a society throughout centuries of history, they are going to direct their anger and fury at that society as a whole.
Now to be clear, this is not to justify or condone any of these activities. My punching walls is wrong and counterproductive. Promoting conspiracy theories is wrong and counterproductive. Armed demonstrations to intimidate lawmakers is wrong and counterproductive. And rioting is wrong and counterproductive. Those are simple facts.
It is easy to stand back and judge others for such actions, but that does little to help. We need to try to better understand each other and help each other so we can improve society and avoid the situations that eventually manifest in destructive actions. Because these destructive actions come out of a basic feeling .… a frustrating sense of powerlessness.
Mental Health Side Note:
As I mentioned, this realization came out of a depressive state I’ve been in the past few weeks. Recently, I started binge watching the Sopranos, as I hadn’t seen it before. During one scene with a psychiatrist, there was a line that resonated well:
Depression is rage turned inward.
I found that extremely insightful. It turns out there is some merit to that as well. These feelings of rage and depression and powerlessness are all things that need to be addressed due to their impact on mental health.
May is mental health awareness month, and as I’ve written before, I’ve had my own struggles. During this difficult time in our society, mental health issues are becoming even more pressing. We need to find ways to cope and be willing to accept that such difficulties are normal.
It’s OK to have those feelings. You just need to find constructive ways of dealing with them. Including self-reflection, talking to people, therapy and medication if necessary, these are all OK.
Remember to help fight the stigma.
Mental Health Links: