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How Righteous Anger Keeps You Up the Tree (And How to Get Down)

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Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.
—Aldo Leopold

My feeling is, the better we feel about ourselves, the fewer times we have to knock somebody down in order to stand on top of their bodies and feel tall.
—Odette Pollar, Dynamics of Diversity

Anger isn’t automatically a bad emotion. It depends on what generated it and what we do with it. Often people become angry because they’re not getting what they want or they’re not receiving the recognition they believe they deserve. Jealousy can flavor our anger and/or be a trigger for it. Sometimes people get angry because others don’t agree with their perspective or their opinion. Other chronically angry people may overlook their anger by excusing it as being their “competitive edge.”

When we are angry, instead of investigating our anger as a next step in resolving it, we often get even more indignant or self-righteous, further exacerbating our sense of alienation from others in the process.

They would rather be dependent in a hostile environment and combat it every day than manage their own lives. In this way they avoid having to confront their own anxieties and discomfort about activating and asserting their real selves.
—James F. Materson, Search for the Real Self

I had a childhood nemesis; I’ll call her Erika (These days she would be referred to as a “frienamie”). She lived down the street; her father was a psychiatrist and her mother a nurse. She was the perfect child. Even my father (who was not free with compliments) would say how remarkable this girl was. Sadly, he would compare us, expressing his wish that I could be more like her.

She gave the right answers in school, wore the proper clothes, and responded to the adults around her as if she spoke and understood their secret language. I just wanted to be her friend, but our encounters usually ended up with me holding the short end of the stick. One day when I was ten, we decided to see who could get the furthest up a tree. We used a ladder from her garage to get past the tree’s long, wide, branchless trunk. When it was my turn to scamper up the ladder, I succeeded in reaching the tree’s highest branch. As I stretched for that last limb, however, Erika walked off with the ladder. I could not get down safely! After hours of feeling stupid and stuck, I did somehow get down, although I have no memory of how I managed to do it.

What bothered me wasn’t so much that she had left me up in the tree. What bothered me was that no one else knew that she frequently played these kinds of tricks on me. She was consistently and secretly unkind to me. This theme carried into my adult life: Someone would come along, invite me to “play,” and then leave me up in a tree. There I would sit, feeling stupid, belligerent, and alone. I had several ladders taken out from under me. Typically, just as when I was ten, it appeared that those around me knew only the other’s version of the story. My side of the story somehow was undermined or ignored. Others therefore would not see how I had been wronged, again.

Finally, when I was in my thirties and found myself up in a tree once more, I decided to focus all of my energy on ending the agreements and assumptions that kept this story active in my life.

Through the silence of meditation and contemplation, and after a nice hot walk outside, I became aware of the places where my habitual assumptions helped “write” this particular script. Immediately this awareness loosened its grip on me. I came to understand that what kept me up in the tree was far more of an issue (and pattern) than how I got up there in the first place. What kept me up there was my wanting others to see who had left me up there—the need to receive validation and reassurance from others that someone had “done me wrong.” I would feel angry, resentful, and indignant. I would never initiate a conversation about this experience unsolicited. Instead, I  silently stewed in my own opinion that others just didn’t seem to “get it.”

Theoretically, I could have wasted a significant amount of my life sitting up in a tree waiting for others to finally “get it,” to take my side, (or to support my viewpoint). Today, I consider even ten minutes of this a huge waste of time. The real truth of the matter is that our need to have others take our side or see the “awful truth” about how others have treated us will only keep us shackled to a sense of misery and hopelessness and prevent us from being truly at peace with ourselves and our lives.

Once I freed myself from this habitual story, I found that I didn’t end up stranded in trees anymore. Greater still, the view that others had of me took a backseat to my own view of myself. This was a boost to my sense of integrity and my freedom. I found it possible to navigate and enjoy a diversity of environments and people without getting caught up in their story or their perceptions of me.

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How To Get Down From Your Own Tree
To get down from your tree, you will want to name the patterns and assumptions that keep you up in your tree. You will have to be honest with yourself. From your side of the equation, what is tripping you up?

Listen to the emotional content of the dynamic––what’s it really about? What’s the story here? Let it play out in your mind. How might it be connected to some experience in your past? (Most likely it is.) You get down from your tree and become unstuck when you take ownership of your part of any undesirable dynamic (especially ones that arise repeatedly). There are an abundance of toxic people and institutions that we meet up with in our lives. There are people likely waiting on the sidelines to take your ladder away once you get up that tree. But if there is something that is showing up in your life as a pattern (internally or externally), it is worth taking a look at.

UnknownIn processing this, you too may come to realize that the actions and opinions of others count only if you say that they do. Here is a great teaching story found in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and The Zero Point Agreement: How to Be Who You Already Are.

“Is That So?”—A Teaching Story
From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In great anger the parents went to the master.

“Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed. A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth—that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again. Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was:
“Is that so?”

See if you can be like Hakuin. Look at events that may trigger you to anger and instead of engaging with them on an ego level, try and see the events dispassionately, almost as if they are happening to someone else, not you. “Really? Is that so?” This will allow you to gain perspective and help you to get down from your tree (or to not be stranded in its branches initially).

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About Julie Tallard Johnson

Julie Tallard Johnson is a psychotherapist, creative writing consultant and concept manager for individuals and businesses. She has been studying the scientific basis of thought transformation, inspiration, and creativity for 35 years. She is the author of several books, her latest, The Zero Point Agreement: How To Be Who You Already Are is available now in paperback and Kindle. She is a writing instructor at the UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. She enjoys being a writer for Blogcritics and is in search of her next article. She lives in rural Wisconsin on 40 acres of restored prairie and woods.
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