This is a big one and one I have struggled with in the past and more recently following the miscarriage. The cards in this Happy Place column will walk you through enough to get the idea but I’ll try and expand a little on them to illustrate what I mean.
The first one is easy and hard all at the same time. Wait. Feeling angry is one thing but acting on it is another and what we say and do when angry is nearly impossible to fully recover from once we have calmed down. Anger can be useful if directed appropriately, the difficulty is that when angry decision making is impaired as we often do things to increase our anger to justify it rather than take a step back.
At the root of it is often fear of losing or having lost control. This is a feeling we can all understand. When harrowing events take our children away from us we have no control. It goes against all that we were told is the natural order or the belief that things happen for a deeper cosmic reason or that life should be fair.
Life isn’t fair. This isn’t the howl of the cliche of the angst ridden teenager or denied toddler but an unpleasant truth. It’s not as bleak as it first appears though. Life is a huge concept encompassing a massive complex architecture of connected systems. As such it is neither fair nor unfair it simply just is.
There’s an element here of managing our own expectations, a sort of deeper “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” approach. I had a similar discussion with a friend before the miscarriage. She had clocked that something wasn’t right and asked me how I was. After some evasion I admitted my fears about my wife’s pregnancy, that history would repeat itself, spinning detailed prophecies about dire outcomes and my fears about what it would do to me, to us.
I have a good friend and she told me that there was little point or value in worrying about what could happen. That didn’t mean not to prepare for it but that the anxiety itself over an outcome that hadn’t occurred yet was wasted energy that could be better directed towards supporting my mental health and that of my family. It also meant that if anything did happen I would have to approach it with depleted batteries making it harder not easier to cope with.
Ultimately my worrying served no greater purpose. It didn’t better equip me to handle the eventual outcome, it sapped the little joy there was about an exciting new pregnancy and all the possibilities that could have been there had nothing happened to the contrary.
This illustrates another card in the pack about using (imaginary) friends when we feel that sense of anger rising. Seeing someone angry is an ugly thing and anger is one of those emotions that consumes all to fuel itself and keep that rage burning. The more it burns the greater we can convince ourselves that this ugly feeling is justified. It’s an intensely personal and internal process with its own specious logic. It thrives on assumptions and mistaken belief into our own unique insights into another persons thoughts. It ignores anything that counters its conclusions looking only to whatever evidence supports it.
The hope is that if we saw our friends doing a similar thing to destructive ends we would do what we could to help them calm down rather than encourage that feeling. It’s not always possible or desirable to contact a friend in these ugly moments so one solution is to use an imaginary version instead to help ask those questions of ourselves as a friend.
Do we really have a unique insight into the thoughts of others? Do we think it realistic that others would have unique insight into our own tangled string of thoughts? Is the motivation behind a thoughtless word or act exactly that rather than some complex malicious intent? Much of my own unhappiness and resulting anger has come from falling into these exact traps. I can see it in my previous posts. I can see it in my most recent post.
I was angry about things I could not control and ultimately had no reason to think were within my control. I can not control the resourcing of a hospital at a weekend, I cannot control whether a doctor will listen to me. This seems at first glance an even worse approach, a sort of defeatism or learned helplessness.
The difference is in how I perceive those things to make sure that any anger is justified and directed at the right place. While I cannot control whether a doctor will listen to my concerns about treatment I can control how I present myself during that time. I set out the situation, the background context in a way that acknowledged the constraints he operated in but challenging whether the chosen approach was the most appropriate. I did all I could have done given the circumstances. Hindsight is a treacherous thing. I could have done things within my control differently but would it have changed the outcome. In the warm blue glow of a computer screen away from that glare of the hospital lights and antiseptic halls it’s easy to think of better ways to have handled some aspects but would any of those ways have worked in a context where we are still dazed, scared and exhausted?
Aim to try
This is another aspect of the pack and is about expectations and control. The latter can often seem as though its about winning. The competitive focus can be useful but as a mindset it is not always appropriate for the day to day battles. I may not be able to always win but if my aim is to try and I do try then I have achieved that aim. Going back to the earlier point about things outside of my control, this isn’t to say that I shouldn’t do anything about them, it’s recognising where there are limits. I cannot control how a hospital is resourced nor how bereaved parents are treated. That is outside of my direct control and if I expect to change it by myself I will fail and be unhappy.
What I can control is how I use my experience to inform and influence those responsible for decisions that affect the system and culture. I don’t do this alone, I join my voice with others to make the shift from anecdote to evidence. We may not be able to prevent these things from happening but we can try.