In a world more and more derided and vitriolic, it can be important to reflect on and assess how this impacts us interpersonally. For many of us, the combination of pandemic changes and social disorder has led to increased anger and frustration, often without somewhere to direct this anger. For so many people, anger hasn’t been an issue until recently, when so many aspects of our lives have been taken from our control. Yet this is a very ancient part of human life as we have used anger to survive and protect ourselves from danger for thousands of years. From this contrast it can be disquieting in the present day to explore: What am I supposed to do with this anger?
An emerging school of thought shifts the discussion from anger and toward righteous indignation. And before we get there it’s helpful to note that the field of psychology has long considered anger a secondary emotion, meaning that unlike sadness, joy, and fear, anger is not a response to our environment, but a response to our interpretations of our experiences. For those of us living in 2020, the fight/flight/freeze response (a reflexive nervous system response) is transformed into something wholly different. We call this righteous indignation because it is no longer reflexive for us, it is a category of behaviors for responding to our world.
The important component to consider is that there is always something underneath anger: sorrow and hurt. When we look at righteous indignation specifically, we are typically looking at the sorrow of not getting what I want. All of us know this feeling, likely from a very young age. Not getting a toy we wanted, not getting as many cookies as our siblings. A life is filled with either not getting what we do want or getting what we don’t want. It is hurtful and deflating to have these things happen to us, and yet it can happen constantly. Examples include a sports team losing, a date goes poorly, the other person gets the promotion, or our political candidate is beaten. Not to mention: I can’t go into my work, I can’t see family, I can’t travel, I can’t do things that I used to be able to do because of the pandemic. There is a deep pain and sorrow with these losses, and many of us choose righteous indignation as the primary response to that sorrow.
Righteous indignation has many qualities that a potent drug has: it is both anesthetizing and energizing in the short term. It quells our sorrow and ignites us to action. This ignition has three components
- Person rating: “You idiot!” (underneath this is that I am above and you are below)
- Demandingness: “You must not…” (I am going to demand someone respond to me how I want!
- Entitlement: “I deserve something different than this!” (this buttresses the first two components)
Importantly, all three of these actually feel good. This is why we may call righteous indignation the drug of choice for us humans when not getting what we want. All of this information can be helpful, yet what we do with this righteous indignation when it shows up can be life-changing and liberating.
There may be ways to turn the furnace of that ignition down. Often, working with therapists can help us dispute or defuse from thoughts that add fuel to fire. We can explore what happens when we take those three components really seriously, and assess if that’s what we want from our lives. Sometimes the answer is yes! The world is filled with indignity and we have a right to be righteous toward that! It can be deeply meaningful to move into valued-directions from that very place when we see injustice in the world.
At other times, though, forgiveness may be the most meaningful way forward. This does not change the facts of what has happened it simply changes my relationship with those facts. Forgiving is most certainly not explaining, understanding, forgetting, or excusing the behavior of others. In fact, forgiveness is a deeply self-compassionate act as opposed to being for anyone else. It is a dangerous world, how do you choose to be in it? We often confuse forgiveness with reconciliation, which can also be a meaningful action when confronted with righteous indignation. Reconciling is giving that person the chance to hurt us again in exactly the same way. It is an inherent risk, and it is done with an open heart.
No matter how we choose to interact with our righteous indignation, it may be enormously meaningful to acknowledge and honor the feelings underneath: sorrow, pain, hurt. They are the emotional experiences that we have transformed into a fire. And it may be those very experiences that we are left to come back to and face. With the sharp and harsh state of our world today, it’s unlikely any of us have avoided righteous indignation. Instead of fueling the fire of that indignation, we may honor the pain beneath it.
This blog post is supported by presentations on Righteous Indignation by Hank Robb (http://www.hankrobb.com/)