The most underrated quality

When I started writing this post last week, I picked four different qualities that we underrate, and riffed on how we might develop them in ourselves. Then I watched Marriage Story on Sunday evening, and I realised there was really only one that I was so interested in, in equal part because I find it so hard and because it’s so important.

There’s a scene bout two-thirds in where the two main characters Charlie and Nicole, a husband and wife staring down the barrel of a divorce, try to have the conversation they’ve previously employed therapists and lawyers to have on their behalf. You could write a thesis on both the script and the acting, but what had me riveted was the weight of the words that each person had carried inside of them for years, finally getting a chance to be expressed.

Precisely because they know each other so intimately, Nicole and Charlie spar verbally as equals. The tenuous fragility they’re both feeling in their disintegrating relationship comes out with absolute seething venom, designed to wound and maim, and even to kill. Rather than siding with one party, I was fascinated by how the anger they had both felt for many years overrode their ability to communicate with their partner, because all they wanted to do was to hurt the other person.

When I watched Marriage Story, I thought about my own relationships, as it seemed everyone else did. When you love someone, you learn the words that will silence them, haunt them, torture them. Charlie and Nicole showed me that when I too let rip, my anger is masked as aggressive self-defence. I have said unforgettably cruel things to JCB in anger. In trying to rent the barb from my own heart, I instead get it tangled in his.

Whether justified or not, anger will always be an emotion most of us are incredible vulnerable to, so the underrated quality I’ve been trying my best to unpack is learning to safely communicate our anger to another person without hurting them.

Learning to separate our fear of the pain and the pain itself is the first step towards safely communicating our anger. To share what is making us upset means that we have not let either the anger, or the fear of the anger overcome us. We can learn to name the fear, the frustration, the anxiety, the one who hurt us. I think this can help us to not be so scared of our pain, because forcing it onto others will not make it disappear.

Maturing enough to communicate our anger also contains a choice: we can learn to remember, even in the darkest, foggiest or most stressful of times, that we are not our emotions. The emotions are a signpost, and certainly one to pay attention to. But our emotions tend to be the blustery, show-stealing what that get in the way of the more introverted, elusive why.

Inevitably, the why will touch on some of those deep, dark fears we keep away from light and expression, and for good reason. If we can wade through the miry muddle of arrogance, self-pity, and shame that tend to accompany outrageous outbursts, and learn instead to give the why a voice, we have sucked the fuel out of our anger and begun the hard, hard work of bearing our pain without firing it back at those in the vicinity.

I fully believe that this takes a lifetime of learning (or unlearning), such is our often unconscious reaction to respond to pain with more pain, our difficulty communicating what is causing our anger, and our wariness of spaces where vulnerability is celebrated instead of mocked. It takes emotional intelligence, exceptional verbal skills, empathy and humility.

This ability is so underrated that I can’t think of one word that captures its essence in English. Maybe there is one that I don’t know; I’d put money on there being a word in another language that sums up what I mean. This isn’t a classically admired value like humility and wisdom, two others I was writing about this time last week. Safely communicating my own anger captures me because I fail so often at it, and because I’ve hardly ever heard anyone talk about how to do this.

I’ll finish with a disclaimer that proves Dunning and Kruger were bang on the money: you’ve read a post about a psychological concept I can’t name, based solely on my own experience and nothing else. I’m not a psychologist, counsellor or therapist. I haven’t studied this traditionally – I’m trying to be a student of my own experiences and of what I see around me, and this is what landed. There are splintered words lodged deeply in everyone’s skin, and I just wanted to try and write about it.

Today, I’ve served you up half-baked (at best) but I still want to post, if only because while writing is how I figure out what I think, there comes a point where you realise that what you’re blogging about is one half of a conversation that’s begging to be taken offline. Those who can read between the lines will see that this is less a piece to be taken as read and more a piece to be unpacked together. I know some of you will reach out to do that, and I really look forward to it.

-JB

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