Never Get Angry Again?
I recently discovered the work of David J. Lieberman. Despite the seemingly shallow title, ‘Never Get Angry Again’ (I choose to read this as an instruction as opposed to a promise) contains information which is of immense practical value to anyone with an interest in understanding and mastering anger and ego, whilst developing healthy, reality-based self-esteem. Full disclosure: I was recently plagued by a number of resentment locusts which required immediate surgery. I personally applied a number of the principles described by Lieberman in NGAA – and was delighted with the results.
NGAA is a handy reference book for those of us working 12 Step Programs which emphasise the central role that resentment plays in relapse. Given that Lieberman recognizes spirituality for its vital role in human actualization, the book contains a number of references to God – but it is also underpinned by the basic tenets of psychology. I would hope that this fact would render it more accessible to those who describe themselves as agnostics or atheists. I would recommend this book to anybody in recovery from addiction, particularly as an adjunct to the inventory process. I have asked the librarian in the prison where I work to order several copies of this book, as well as some of Lieberman’s other titles.
Below are several extracts from the book which I intend to share with my clients in the prison and contacts in the recovery community:
Ego vs Self-Esteem
Three forces within us are often at odds with one another: the soul, the ego, and the body. In short, the soul seeks to do what is right; the ego wants to be right and see itself in an optimal light; and the body just wants to escape from it all. When you make any decision in life:
- You can choose what feels good.
- You can choose what makes you look good.
- You can choose to do what is good or right.
We gain self-esteem only when we make responsible choices and do what is right-this is a soul-oriented (moral or conscience) choice. Indeed, this is how self-esteem and self-control are intertwined. Emotional freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we feel like doing; rather, it is doing what we truly want to do, despite our desires at the moment.
To the degree that we refuse to accept the truth about ourselves and our lives- and overcome our laziness and fear of pain—the ego engages to “protect” us, and it shifts the blame elsewhere. In other words, If there is nothing wrong with me, then there must be something wrong with you; or the world is unfair; or people are out to get me. Seedlings of neuroses and paranoia then take root. For us to remain unblemished in our own minds, we are forced to distort the world around us, and if our grasp on reality is flawed, then our adjustment to life will suffer.
When a person loses his sanity—the ability to see, accept, and respond to his world—it means he has lost all perspective. Emotional instability—the seat of anger—is fundamentally a lack of clarity, the degree to which the ego infects us.
Responsible (soul-oriented) choice leads to self-esteem increasing, which leads to ego shrinking, which leads to perspective widening, which leads to undistorted reality, which leads to seeing and accepting the truth (even when difficult or painful) = positive emotional health leads to acting responsibly.
Irresponsible (ego-oriented/overindulgent body) choice leads to self- esteem decreasing, which leads to ego expanding, which leads to perspective narrowing, which leads to distorted reality, which leads to being unable/unwilling to see and accept truth (when difficult or painful) = negative mental health leads to acting irresponsibly.
None of us wants to admit, even to ourselves, that we are selfish or lazy, much less a failure or flawed. The ego is thus equipped with an elaborate array of shields and buffers—defence mechanisms—to thwart the harshness of reality. Of course, instead of protecting us (rather than itself), these defence mechanisms lead to increased instability and insecurity. And the wider the chasm between the truth and our ability to accept it, the more fragile our emotional health becomes. In Reality Therapy, Dr. William Glasser writes:
In their unsuccessful effort to fulfil their needs, no matter what behaviour they choose, all patients have a common characteristic: they all deny the reality of the world around them.… Whether it is a partial denial or the total blotting out of all of reality of the chronic backward patient in the state hospital, the denial of some or all of reality is common to patients. Therapy will be successful when they are able to give up denying the world and recognize that reality exists but that they must fulfil their needs within its framework.
It is the by-product of tension between the soul and ego—when we choose to either accept reality or reduce dissonance by any number of defence mechanisms. The most common of these are avoidance, denial, or justification.
Take A Good Look At Yourself, Son
We may not even realize how much of our attitude and behaviour—indeed, our values and beliefs—we style to avoid self-reflection, to compensate for self-hatred, and to project an image that betrays neither. In the exchange, we lose ourselves, contorting to the rules demanded by others to win their praise. Unsurprisingly, we never feel truly satiated. When we don’t love ourselves, we can’t give love, and we can’t feel loved.
King Solomon, the wisest of men, wrote, “A lacking on the inside can never be satisfied with something from the outside.” People who seek self-esteem from external sources can never be truly content. They are the very epitome of a bottomless pit. We are hardwired to love ourselves, but when we can’t nourish ourselves through good choices and thus gain self-respect, we turn to the rest of the world to feed us. We make a desperate but futile attempt to convert their love and respect into feelings of self-worth. Our ever-shifting self-image becomes a direct reflection of the world around us. Our mood is raw and vulnerable to every fleeting glance and passing comment. We erroneously and frantically believe: “If they care about me, then maybe I’m worth something, and then maybe I can love me.” Yet it doesn’t work, and herein lies the basis for many failed relationships. When we lack self-esteem, we push away the very people we so desperately want in our lives because we can’t fathom why anyone would love someone as unlovable as ourselves. And whatever affection or kindness forces its way through to us, we hardly embrace it. Such overtures don’t serve to comfort but, rather, to confuse us; and the ego’s mandate is clear: reject others before they have a chance to reject us.
Discipline Equals Freedom
To compound matters, the less self-control we have, the more desperately we manipulate events and people around us, especially those closest to us— either overtly or passive-aggressively. We intuit that self-control fosters self-respect, so when we cannot control ourselves, we need to feel as if we are in control of someone, something, anything, to feel a sense of power.
Self-esteem stimulates the desire to invest in ourselves and provides the energy for self-discipline. When our self-esteem is low, our interest and attention shift from long-term to immediate gratification—if it feels good, do it, regard- less of the consequences. The most appealing choice will be the one that satisfies our immediate urges. We resemble the child who would rather have one lollipop now than five lollipops tomorrow. Five lollipops, of course, is the better bargain, but the child doesn’t think about that. His focus is short-term, shallow, and narrow. He is occupied with the here and now, often forsaking his long-term self-interest—let alone the bigger picture or, even more so, the needs of others.
As self-esteem fades and the ego’s noose tightens, our entire decision-making system falls prey to corruption. We descend from thinking to feeling and too often respond by shooting first and asking questions later. We become stuck in a perpetual cycle of bad decisions, and then we feel further compelled to justify our previous actions, regardless of the consequences.
Growth is internalized when we tell ourselves, I was wrong, and now I will do what is right. We must be able to accept that we have been doing something that never made sense—or no longer does—instead of hiding behind a wall of explanations and rationalizations. Those whose egos reign lack self-esteem and can’t afford to question their own judgment, worth, or intelligence. Justification then binds them to the past and drags their mistakes into the future.
All roads out of reality lead to the Land of Suffering. Avoidance is not coping. It’s crashing in slow motion. It’s easier, too, for us to ignore reality than it used to be. In days of old, we tended to make better choices because the consequences of our poor judgments were immediate and trickier to conceal. Today, we have a “buy now, pay later” mentality.
Meaning = Pleasure
As life becomes increasingly more comfortable, we’ve fallen out of the habit of exerting ourselves. We’ve come to believe that comfort is the path to happiness.
Perhaps even more damaging is the notion that comfort is happiness. The idea of sacrificing our creature comforts to pursue our goals and dreams has become foreign to our thinking. In our minds, life should be easy. Lying on the couch and watching TV is undoubtedly comfortable, but hardly meaningful, and so, by definition, offers no genuine pleasure and certainly no fulfilment. To be more precise, the feeling is not really pleasure at all, but mere comfort, which is the avoidance of pain. If we seek to avoid the pain, though, of legitimate challenges, then we are, in essence, avoiding life, and rather than minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, we will maximize suffering and live exceedingly unfulfilled lives.
Chasing Comfort = Pain
Our fruitless attempts to hide from life not only deny us pleasure, but also move us into the waiting arms of emotional disease, because in the attempt to bypass pain, we short-circuit our mental health. Research shows the more modern a society, the higher its rate of depression. Technology leaves idle hands and frees up many hours each day. With this freedom, we can fill our lives with either time well spent or time misused, abused, or utterly wasted.
Emotional health demands allegiance to reality.