It happens more often than I like to admit. There’s an angry inner voice that seems to have a mind of its own.
“I hate everybody!” the voice hisses angrily in my head.
For years, I’ve joked that there’s a wide-ranging conspiracy to make me a misanthrope — and I fear it’s working. The joke has been my attempt to reconcile two things which can’t be reconciled:
— I choose to love others, for their benefit and my own.
— I hate so many of the people around me every day.
Those two things can’t be reconciled, so I make jokes about it. The more contact I have with humans, the more I feel like a misanthrope — and I hate feeling that way. It makes me feel so wrong inside, but something in me wants to lash out — needs to lash out — as though I’m defending myself.
And I think I finally understand why.
My unconscious reactions of anger toward others are all about fear and hurt. I don’t like admitting these things to myself, much less to you. But it’s true. Without any conscious intent, I find myself afraid of being hurt again, so I lash out in a pre-emptive way against those who I know could hurt me.
When I feel angry — and when that child-like voice in my head screams, “I hate everybody!” — it’s because something has triggered a scary memory lurking in my unconscious. It’s not necessarily a memory of a specific incident, although that can happen, too. Instead, it’s usually a very unconscious link in my mind between being treated in a certain way and then the subsequent feelings of hurt that have come from that interaction with a person.
In the moments when it happens, I feel anger and even hatred. I want to lash out. I can even feel a sense of being boxed in. A feeling of panic. A feeling of being attacked.
When it happens, it’s hard for me to realize that the rage I’m feeling isn’t necessarily about the person about whom I feel the anger. Not really. It’s such a gut-level experience that everything in me is certain I’m right to be angry at this person, even if I couldn’t explain that to someone else in rational terms.
I spent much of my childhood feeling hurt and scared, but I didn’t realize that at the time. I understand now that this denial was a necessary defense mechanism. If I expressed even the slightest disagreement with my father, I would be beaten and screamed at in abusive ways. He might even suddenly quit speaking to me for weeks on end.
No child is equipped to handle this sort of treatment. A child doesn’t even know that there’s anything wrong with it. All the child knows consciously is that he’s been bad — and that he has to try harder to be loved and to gain approval.
Everybody I’ve ever worked for has paid a price for this old buried fear. As I became an adult, I experienced the same dynamics with each boss in a work situation as I did with my father. Every time there was any criticism — no matter how mild — it triggered the panicked feeling that I wasn’t good enough. But I was old enough by then to need to fight back. And that need came out in extreme inner anger.
As I got older, more and more of the anger started seeping out. For a long time, I didn’t even know what I was angry about. I just knew that I would suddenly feel paralyzed with rage. It took years to understand that my body was trying to finally let the old trauma out in a safer way.
Our reasons for feeling anger and hatred toward other people are trivial in the objective sense, but all of us know what it feels like to be triggered by such things.
For many years, I explained my anger and occasional feelings of hatred as evidence of how terrible the people around me were. Part of me still wants to believe that. But in my heart, I finally know that when I feel angry with you, it’s because I’m terrified you’re going to hurt me or humiliate me or shame me — in some way that brings up what happened to me as a little boy.
The same principles apply in larger group dynamics, too. You can develop feelings about other groups which push buttons in you — in places where you didn’t even know you had buttons. You have no real reason to be angry at political opponents or work rivals or anybody else. But because we fear loss or hurt, we react in rage and hatred.
Admitting the fear — to ourselves and to each other — can go a long way toward allowing us to defuse the anger into which we turn the fear. If you’re able to say, “I’m angry at you and I think it’s because I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me,” we can lay the foundation for conversations of empathy and understanding.
But it can be terrifying to tell someone that you’re afraid he or she is going to hurt you. That is admitting weakness and vulnerability, which is why our unconscious minds find it easier and less threatening to feel anger and hatred instead. And when we lash out in fear, we then have to justify to ourselves what we feel — and it can become impossible to back down after that.
I am most afraid of two types of people.
I am afraid of anyone with power over me. Even the slightest exercise of that power means I fear that I’m going to be under someone’s thumb in the same way that I was controlled and manipulated by my father. I feel rage at that — and I want to fight back and then run away.
I am afraid of any woman who I love. I am terrified that she is going to abandon me and leave me without the thing I need most. I feel tremendous anxiety and hurt about that — and I fear I will never be loved as I need to be.
The first of these groups is best symbolized by my father. He hurt me in all those ways (and more). The second is symbolized by my mother. I grew up without her — and hurting deeply as I needed her love — which left me feeling on an unconscious level that I must not be good enough for her to love.
This is a fairly straightforward cognitive explanation for the anger and hatred I can sometimes feel for people, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to instantly be able to turn the mechanisms off when I’m triggered. I can try — and I will try — but it’s going to be a long process to try to change these triggers.
I don’t want to feel angry at other people. It’s absolutely useless and it does harm to me on the inside. And I really don’t want to feel hatred for others. I want to love others. I believe that we’re all better off if I can love you, even if you still feel anger or hate for me.
The Peanuts character Linus famously said, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” I would like to suggest that a more accurate reading of his heart might be, “I love humanity, but I am afraid of the real, flesh-and-blood people who keep hurting me.”
In order to love other people — and in order to get love in return — we have to be vulnerable. It is impossible to really love someone without giving that person the power to hurt you. And if that person hurts you enough that you close yourself off emotionally, you soon realize you don’t love the person anymore.
We need love badly enough that vulnerability is worth the risk. We have to put ourselves into positions by which we can be hurt — and then we have to hope that someone is willing to do the same for us, even though experience tells us that most people are prone to making excuses and running away from us instead.
I don’t want to be angry with you. I don’t want to be angry with anyone. But I’m going to be vulnerable and hope I find those who are worth trusting — who can finally help me get past the constant fear that I’m going to be hurt all over again.