I still remember the day Pat McKee uttered the words that would change my life. I was slouched in my chair, half asleep for a lecture describing the early metaphysical views of primary and secondary characteristics of objects. I found the discussion rather tedious; in my mind there was little benefit in learning antiquated metaphysics that had long been replaced by scientific inquiry and modern metaphysical theory. It was interesting from a historical standpoint, but as I had learned the same things in prior classes, I was only half listening.
As the lecture continued, I began to notice a certain level of discontentment in the room, something common to philosophy classes, but interesting nonetheless. It was at this point that a student rose his hand to voice said discontentment. He stated that he was angry about the thoughts the current philosopher had on the subject – Descartes or Locke, presumably, I don’t quite remember – and that he was frustrated about the way it was being taught. He made it clear that his feelings were more than just simple disagreement, or a lack of understanding leading to frustration. He was indeed angry at the material he was learning, and visibly so. That’s when Professor McKee said it, a phrase I still remember to this day:
I find that, with little exception, when you are angry at someone, you are really angry at no one but yourself.
The student was stunned. He was clearly ready to retort, but the professor’s words had sliced through his response, and rendered his tongue immobile. He moved his lips to speak twice. Both times he failed to utter a sound. The professor continued with his lecture, and the student slouched back into his chair, pondering what the professor had just said. I presume we all were.
Since that day, I have spent a very large portion of my time on self-reflection. Looking at all the things that made me angry, I realized that, just as my professor had said, my anger was rarely directed at the correct sources. At the time, I was in a long distance relationship with a now ex-girlfriend, and I was battling feelings of jealousy: feelings I knew were irrational, but that I couldn’t shake nonetheless. She had been spending a lot of time with another man at her university, and would often neglect facetime or texting with me while she was working at his house. None of this was very surprising. She always had a tendency to prefer male friends over female ones, and with the amount of work she was expected to do, it was a wonder she found time for me at all. And yet, I was jealous. I was angry at her for spending so much time with her friend, and it was both unreasonable and unfair for me to act that way.
I didn’t see it at first. I directed my anger towards her, claiming that she wasn’t spending enough time on our relationship, claiming she clearly didn’t care about my feelings, claiming that she was showing signs of infidelity. I had made up my mind that the feelings I had were all her fault, and that she was responsible for fixing them. I was wrong. After the spectacle in the philosophy classroom, I began to think more reasonably. The reasons for my jealousy and anger became clear.
I was angry because I felt inadequate. I wanted to be everything for her, and when she had found someone else to fill some of the gaps my absence had left, I felt threatened.
I was angry because I felt trapped. I wanted to get the full college experience, but I was scared to. I used her and our relationship as an excuse to avoid taking risks and responsibility for my actions.
I was angry because I felt dependent. I didn’t want to feel like I needed her, because it made me feel weak and vulnerable. I was angry that I couldn’t be stronger.
Anger and jealousy, I have learned, almost invariably stem from the same dark reaches of the psyche: the realms of fear, inadequacy, and self-hatred. They will not be destroyed by the actions of others, but only through self discipline and an updated attitude.
Unfortunately, the typical conception of love holds tacit assumptions that jealousy and anger are not only healthy, but even necessary for romantic relationships. Arguments along this vein typically point towards jealousy as an indication of loyalty, and anger as an indication of passion or a desire to solve conflicts. This kind of logic is very infatuating, especially to those who are inclined to defend unhealthy qualities such as dependence and possessiveness. It falls apart, however, with the knowledge that such feelings typically have very little to do with the other person, and instead one’s own feelings of inadequacy and fear. Jealousy and anger can much more easily be seen for what they are when they are no longer assumed to have an external cause.
Irrational inadequacies and self-inflicted discomfort are not healthy, whether or not they are masked under the guise of a relationship. Conveniently, however, your brain is very good at convincing you that you’re not at fault, due to the overconfidence effect and self-serving bias. As quoted in the brilliantly satirical Making Relationships Suck:
When someone or something evokes an emotional response in you, whatever it may be, you will tend to feel that your emotion is justified. Why? Because the ancient, pre-linguistic parts of your brain from which your emotions come are the same parts of your brain that tell you whether or not your emotions are justified. It’s a clever and tidy system. When you feel angry, your emotions will tell you that it’s because someone has made you angry. When you feel jealous, threatened, or insecure, your first impulse will be to believe that it’s because someone has made you feel these things.
While we often may feel that our anger is justified due to the actions of others, this is rarely the case. For example, if one of your friends fails to accept your invitations to hang out, anger and inadequacy may encourage you to think they don’t care about me. They never want to hang out. They must hate me. These are very convenient lies to tell one’s self, as they allow one to become a victim and to avoid any responsibility. A more rational response would consider the other person’s feelings and situation. Perhaps they have been very busy with their work recently, or they’re having struggles in their personal life. Such an empathetic response would also include a recognition that one’s anger is coming from one’s own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and will help to avoid conflict in the friendship.
I will most likely expand upon the nature of love and jealousy in future posts. I apologize for not having posted recently; while many of you had the courage and gumption to write a post every day in observance of Blogmas, I instead spent most of the time with my family and girlfriend, and so found very little time to think and write. I look forward to continuing to write in the coming year, and making up for lost time, I hope you’ll join me for the journey ahead.