Jan 29, 2011

Rejection, Anger, and Productive Responses

A few days ago, an actor friend of mine brought to my attention an interesting blog post, written specifically with actors in mind, but whose broader implications I saw straightaway.  It was titled How To Deal With Rejection, and three things caught my attention as I read it.  First, the advice it contained applies not just to actors or even to other performers, but just as much and just as well to academics, for reasons I'll mention in the minute.  Second, instead of simply giving advice, it led the reader -- entertainingly, too, which is a plus -- through some tempting though ultimately self-damaging responses to rejection, before suggesting a different, insightful, and ultimately more productive response.  Third, what the author, Josh Pais, wrote in his short piece fits in well with, and would provide a good springboard for, several classical thinkers' theories of anger. 

What is really going on in our responses to rejection is a set of emotional responses, closely tied in with our verbalizable thoughts, other emotions and moods, coalesced in more or less malleable habits.  Anger is a common affective response to rejection.  In fact, one might say it is the common affective response, if it were not for the other emotions rejection tends to evoke in people:  sadness, despair, fear, even perhaps in some relief (if the rejection means one gets out of something causing anxiety).  Notice, though, that these other emotions differ from anger in a very important way:  one tends to remain in them, or turn to something else to displace or numb them.  They are not particularly active responses.

But, anger is an active response.  Even if the response of anger is choked back, that takes effort (until it becomes habitual, and then the effort to maintain the calm, even pleasant mask becomes concealed, unconscious).  When it goes underground, and becomes transformed into passive aggression or into bitterness towards oneself, others, one's situation, it manifests itself in activity.  If misdirected, at the wrong people, the wrong things, flaring up on the wrong occasions, or perhaps fanning out to color one's response to everything surrounding oneself, it is active.  When one becomes angry at the right object, that which inflicted injury, which treated one or those one identifies as of little value, that which threatens the loss of some good. . . (the listing of general dynamics could go on) -- then the active nature of anger unmistakably shows itself.  It gets the person feeling it ready for conflict, for engaging in a battle in which, in the angry person's mind, the first shot has been fired, the first blood already drawn.

Like every other affective response, anger does not take place in a vacuum.  By the time you are reading this, you have a long history, your thoughts, feelings, typical responses and actions have flowed through and etched within your psyche currents, grooves, ways of responding, so much that they have become, as Aristotle called it, "second nature."  When you become angry, that affect is channeled along  into the manifold of habitual dispositions, outlooks, the lasting residue of feeling past emotions, outlooks, attitudes, assumptions.  I won't go into this deeper or belabor it further, since that is such a basic and widely acknowledged commonplace of moral philosophy, spiritual direction, and psychotherapy.  Pais notes one danger:
If we don’t catch it we can build up armor from a series of rejections. This armor blocks our heart, our bodies, and ultimately our creativity. Soon we go into situations where we must create spontaneously and we can’t offer our full brilliance because we are protecting ourselves from potentially even more rejection.
What I will say is that as an emotion, as an affective response, anger has a peculiarly paradoxical relationship with rationality, more so than any of the other passions of the human soul. This is something which the great classical moral theorists productively discussing anger -- I have in mind Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in particular, but there are many others -- all notice.  Anger arises not just as a simple response to any old stimulus, nor even to any stimulus of pain, but as a response to the perception that another is doing (or threatening) harm to one or ones own, disvaluing one or something one identifies with or is connected to, interfering with one's desires.  It involves another judgement on the angry person's part, namely that what the other person is doing is wrong, unwarranted, done from bad motives -- and this is why anger is, among other things, a desire to punish, to retaliate,  to impose upon the other, to demand, as they say in the old movies, satisfaction from the person who has transgressed.

Anger involves a reasoning process, both on the front end and on the back.  The angry person reasons that they have been wrongly attacked or interfered with, and that they ought to redress this, that they have right cause to do so, that anger is the appropriate reaction.  Feelings and habits grease the tracks, so to speak, but there is a reasoning process also going on, one that Aristotle saw when he compared anger to a hasty servant that listens to the first part of the order, and then rushes off to carry them out without listening to the rest.  The angry person also reasons how precisely to satisfy their desire.

Notice I'm not saying that the angry person reasons well!  You see, reason works on multiple levels, and what seems perfectly rational at a lower level may, when rightly regarded on a higher level, reveal itself to be irrational.  This is particularly true when it is a matter of what philosophers call practical rationality -- that all-encompassing sphere of thinking out, making decisions about, following our various desires bearing on, and pursuing what is good for us, both in general and in specific situations. And here, anger shows itself to be irrational -- it takes over our reasoning processes, directing us to go after something that seems good but may not actually be so.  It blinders us so we look only at certain features of the situation and ignore other pertinent ones.  So, for instance, we leave out the fact that we do love someone and the reasons we love them, and we start recalling, correlating, tallying up (i.e. reasoning about) all the bad things they have done.  Or, putting aside our long-term goods, we focus solely on the moment, making choices which promise a feeling of satisfaction right now, but come with a eventual price of having better things.  When angered, we even forget -- those of us who in calmer moments or in regret afterward, realized we need to work on our anger -- our previous resolve to step back and follow out the discipline of looking at things more rationally!

Pais commiserates about a set of what he calls "mantras" -- typical first anger-responses to rejection.  these range from the straightforward "F them!", through "why don’t they see my brilliance" complaints, to  sour grape counter-rejections like “I didn’t really want it."  These are typical responses not only for actors, but for academics who are expected to present their work, and who are very often shot down in one way or another by publishers, conferences, peers, even (sometimes daily) students.  Anyone writing for a living faces this as well.  I would go so far as to say that anyone in working in business fields, writing reports, making proposals and pitches, sometimes has to deal with this.  I expect we could multiply these mantras almost infinitely.

Pais then notes that these responses do not work very well, and he goes on to suggest an alternative:
When you get rejected… Feel it. . . .Feel the sting of it. Breathe and feel where in your body the dart has landed. . . DO NOT DRAMATIZE IN YOUR MIND!!! SIMPLY FEEL WHAT YOU FEEL IN YOUR BODY. . . . So, the game is not to stop feeling rejection. The game is, when it is there, experience it. By simply experiencing it you will burn it up. Throw gas on the fire, feel the flame, and then be done with it. 
What this actor and writer has discovered presumably through experience replicates what a number of Ancient and Medieval thinkers explicitly taught -- precisely because in their own times and places they had to work out the same basic problems we still face today, those stemming from our human nature, which always involves living together, having emotional responses, and being frustrated and provoked by other people to some extent.

We can distinguish between the response of an emotion and everything else that goes with it.  One can allow oneself to feel angry, to feel the pain, to feel the desire to respond, and yet not follow that desire.  That is -- in many cases, but not all, because there are times when we ought to be angry and act on it -- the rational thing to do -- rational on a higher level than simply reasoning how best we can do what our emotion demands.  Realizing that one can feel the feeling without acting on it is liberating. . . well, eventually.  It is more liberating when one does it, and does it habitually, and gradually becomes more and more free in the process -- not free from anger itself -- but from its effects.  This allows the actor, Pais writes, to go into each audition, into each new situation as if it is a brand new slate, untinged by previous rejections.

Pais rightly notes that if you simply try to ignore or to "move on" from the pain of rejection, the pain arousing the anger-response, if you try to distract yourself from it by those very anger-responses, it will stick with you.  It will do so all the more if you dwell on it, if you -- and here actors just might be more vulnerable than others, since narrative is their bread and butter -- dramatize it, if you continue to play out the scenes in your head.

On reflection, philosophers --  and anyone else who works with arguments as their trade (for instance, lawyers) -- are also vulnerable in a different way:  skilled in finding rational accounts, explanations, lines of reasoning, they are perhaps even more subject to the temptation to keep finding further and further reasons to remain in their anger.