Channel your outrage or transform it but don’t let it consume you

Posted on May 29, 2010



I’m feeling outraged, and on a regular basis these days.

A multi-national gazillion dollar oil company drills in the Gulf of Mexico – but didn’t have a ready and available contingency plan if something went wrong???

An energy company produces energy from coal – and continued business as usual despite warnings or safety issues or concerns of its employees???

Financial institutions invested in credit default swaps and other mysterious investment vehicles, then took bailout money from the government AND made borrowing more difficult for ordinary consumers???

That jerk in the beemer just cut me off  in the exit lane???

I think these outrage-inducing scenarios share common characteristics, specifically:

  • The perpetrator broke the rules
  • Everyone else (as far as I can tell) was following the rules
  • The perpetrator appears to go unpunished – or even rewarded
  • I feel powerless

These scenarios arise all the time, though only the biggest ones get reported in the news.  Anyone ever have their lunch or their drink taken from the company refrigerator?  Anyone work hard and follow all the rules to get a promotion only to see the smooth talking sales person get it?  Anyone get frustrated trying to find parking at the mall during Christmastime?

I think most of the time people swallow their outrage, continue to behave nicely and follow the rules.  But keep it up – and the pressure starts to build and – whooo boy, something’s going to give.

A healthier approach is to either channel your outrage or transform it.

Channel that outrage.  There’s a lot of energy inside, and it’s burning a hole in your psyche.  Social niceties (and the possibility of prison time) may prevent you from doing what your initial instinct suggests.  But that energy has got to go somewhere or it’s going to work on you.  So use it:

  • Write a letter to the editor, or to your congressional representative or your state agency and complain.  Or write in your journal.  You don’t have to send the letter (especially for the thoughtless colleague incident, ‘cuz, dude, those folks can’t help you recover your missing sandwich), just write the thing, include every hateful and thoughtless thing done by the perpetrator, all the terrible consequences and collateral damage of their actions, all the things you wish you could do to them and what you wish the authorities would do to them.  Stew, rant, rave, curse, complain.  Add illustrations.  Then burn the sucker (the letter, that is).  Let it go.
  • Use your passion to recruit and collect  ‘offset credits.’ There are groups that sell carbon offsets – you can purchase carbon offsets to eliminate your personal carbon footprint.  Buy extra, certain energy companies need the help!  Or just think of offsetting in other ways to personally rectify the outrageous situation – can you personally plant trees, donate hair, push for stricter safety rules?  Can you start a lunch club with co-workers to share meals?
  • Just pound it out – sometimes we need to physically pound out our outrage.  Pound a punching bag or a pillow.  Run, swim, bike until your lungs are sore.  Scream or yell at the top of your voice (uh, you may need to make arrangements so people don’t call the authorities).  Take a martial arts class.
  • Sometimes, just releasing it gently works.  Breathe.  Meditate.  Do yoga.  Get a massage.

You can also transform your outrage.  This requires shifting your perspective (which can be really, really hard.  If transforming is too hard, go back to channeling your outrage and hang out for a while).  Try:

  • Understanding the perpetrator’s perspective.  Could the traffic scofflaw be hurrying home to a family emergency, or could s/he have lost his/her way?  Could the lunch snatcher be pregnant or suffering from perilously low blood sugar and in need of a quick carb boost to avoid fainting?  Or could the parking space thief be hurrying to pick up a child that might be worried that they’re late?  Not saying these explanations are always or even usually true.  There are thoughtless people all over the world.  But if we leave our minds open to the possibility of a good explanation, we save our psyches from unnecessary stress.
  • Ask – how have I contributed to this? Maybe this is crazy talk.  But this post is ultimately about losing the outrage by feeling more in control.  So, I challenge you to consider: is there anything that I have done to contribute, in any small way, to the situation?  Have I demanded or expected gas to be cheap?  Do I drive a gas guzzler?  Have I punished politicians who threaten to impose or raise gas taxes?  Have I voted against government regulation of energy companies or financial services companies?  Have I chanted, “Drill baby, drill!”  What about buying stocks in companies with borderline safety and environmental records?  Have I invested in mutual funds that invested in risky investments because their returns are so juicy?  Do I follow cars so closely that no one can safely merge into my lane?
  • Consider changing your behavior. Divest, baby, divest.  Keep extra food in your desk 🙂  Figure out your highest priority values – and make sure the companies you invest in honor those values.  Support politicians for taking values- based positions on issues that matter to you.  Walk or ride your bike to work (or to one activity every week).  Take public transportation.  Turn off every electrical device in your house for a few hours every day.

Bottom line:  As individuals we can’t change the rules (for the most part), we have little influence over the people and institutions in charge and the people and institutions that do us wrong.  If we focus on our powerlessness when things go wrong, we feel outraged.  That outrage can hurt us.

To avoid hurting ourselves, we can assert control over our own mindsets and activities.  We always have influence over our own thoughts, ideas and actions.  And which type of life would you rather live?  The life of an outraged victim?  Or the life of a serene activist?  Your choice.

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