Loyalty, voice or exit
According to economist Albert O. Hirschman, a luminary in the study of organizational behavior, there are three possible attitudes you can adopt toward a social system: loyalty, voice or exit.
- People who feel lots of impotent rage tend to act loyal, complying silently or cooperating without complaining. This may look virtuous, but if you're legitimately angry, it's a doomed strategy. It will wither or sour your emotional connection to others, in the name of keeping the peace.
- Voice, or expressing anger, is a more difficult but productive alternative. To do it effectively, you must not only define exactly what's bothering you but also be willing to help solve the problem. When you voice your own anger, be careful to pinpoint the issues that upset you. Always suggest a positive solution (an apology, a policy change, a salary increase) that would satisfy your sense of fairness.
- In severely dysfunctional systems, exit is the best option. People who are used to tolerating chronic rage resist this, staying far too long in toxic relationships, exploitative jobs and other horrific situations. Anger is the good friend that urges us to leave these situations, that won't let us feel comfortable enduring mistreatment. Don't wait until you're half-dead, physically or emotionally. When you see the sign that says exit, head for it. Sometimes exit entails physically leaving a person or organization. More often, though, it means detaching at a deep emotional level by acknowledging that you are on different wavelengths. Mental exit is often more powerful than physical departure. And it may be a crucial escape when you want to physically exit but can't. Try the Monte Cristo Exit, a strategy I named after the character in Dumas' famous novel who stays sane in prison by trying to tunnel out. It takes him years, but because he's working on his escape every day, he survives. The Monte Cristo approach requires you to work every day on your escape plan (finding other means of support, improving your health, saving money) while tolerating an unsavory situation just a bit longer.
Channeling anger into action
It doesn't take world revolution to rid you of rage; even small steps toward distant goals can free your heart from anger. For example, I occasionally get angry about the way society devalues and marginalizes my son, Adam, who has Down syndrome. Writing and speaking about this issue is enough to eliminate my anger, even though the changes I effect are tiny compared to the extent of the problem. I've also staged sit-downs in schools, medical offices, and public recreation facilities, sitting with Adam in a lobby or principal's office until someone is willing to give him the consideration any child deserves. As long as I continue to act by taking some action to create change, my discontent is a rare event, not a chronic condition.
A sense of impotent rage should not be part of your daily experience. If it is, listen more attentively to the voice of your friend anger. It is waiting for you to act on it intelligently and courageously, so that it can show you how powerful you really are.
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From the October 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine