How To Be Less Outraged

Fifty-one weeks ago today, Slate published a calendar of everything the internet had been outraged over in 2014 to that point. It painted a pretty bleak picture: Most of the stories had, indeed, gathered plenty of steam on social media and in online publications, but rarely for more than a day. Events like the UCSB shooting – something that seems like a no-brainer to be upset about – were bookended by overblown misdeeds like Jennifer Lawrence making a rape joke and Restoration Hardware sending out a 17-pound catalog. It made the internet’s outrage, an outrage that feels so big in the moment, feel small and petty.

I saw myself reflected back in that calendar. I saw myself getting outraged over Facebook’s real-name policy, street harassment, rape apologists, people giving Nicki Minaj flack over her butt implants, weight loss apps for kids, that Emma Watson nudes hoax, the University of Chicago’s “Electronic Army,” people’s perceptions of millennials, ESPN hosting an all-male panel on domestic violence, the Philosophy of Rape subreddit, who is or isn’t a feminist, Thug Kitchen being run by white people, sexism in the lit community, Maroon 5’s “Animal” video, The Fappening, Annie Lennox’s opinions about Beyonce, clitoral orgasms, people saying technology is bad for us, the New York Post profiling a street harasser, Columbus Day, Uber, GamerGate, Chris Noth calling fictional character Carrie Bradshaw “such a whore,” the New York Post saying that lesbians are on trend, Jenny McCarthy making a dumb comment  and that’s just the first month of my full-time employment at The Frisky. There was more, obviously, in the two months that passed before that Slate calendar came out.

By mid-December, I was exhausted by the particular stress that accompanies constant anger. When the outrage calendar was published, I looked up the definition of outrage, because I wanted to know where it came from. It turns out it probably derives from the French “oultrage.” As I described last year, though, oultrage describes the feeling of being upset by something hurtful, whereas outrage more often describes a reaction to that feeling. I decided to be less reactive, to validate my emotions but not to act on them.

By and large, I’ve succeeded, and I think that the practice of turning away from outrage has helped me to be a better writer and, maybe counterintuitively, a more compassionate human being. If you’re looking to feel less outraged, here’s my advice:

1. Recognize that your opinions aren’t important. Opinions are a dime a dozen; literally everyone has them. Opinions can be important – an expert opinion is valuable – but unless you’re an expert on a situation, you’re entitled to your opinion, but it’s not going to be valuable to the conversation. There are bright sides to this. First, if you no longer feel obligated to share your opinion, it means you no longer have to do the work of formulating an opinion when you might not know enough to do it well. You get to say, “I don’t know,” and that is both honest and very freeing. Second, it leaves space and energy for you to use your brain otherwise. The human brain can do so much better than formulating reactive opinions – it can formulate creative solutions, it can imagine, it can observe and analyze. De-prioritizing your opinions means prioritizing the better things your brain can do, and deciding not to have or share your opinion will help to pull you out of the mouth of the outrage ouroboros. (Of course, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that all of this is just my opinion.)

2. Exercise real empathy. See other people – people who make you angry – as human beings. I don’t mean a token acknowledgement of their humanity that you follow up with a “but” and then an explanation of your own upset; I mean, put yourself aside entirely. Stop thinking about your feelings. Think about the other person. Consider why they’re doing something that makes you angry. Consider whether they might be hurt, suffering, or scared. Empathize with their suffering and fear. Remember that acknowledging their pain and acting compassionately toward them doesn’t invalidate your own pain.

3. Consider the possibility that your outrage hurts people. If outrage is a reaction to feeling hurt, what do you think will happen if you lash out at someone in your outrage? This is why outrage is an ouroboros. Disagreements turn into fights, fights end up devolving into ad hominems, everyone feels hurt, everyone digs their heels in, and little to nothing is produced or resolved. Outrage can build communities around itself, and that’s valuable. But it’s possible, too, that it would be productive to feel community with people with whom we disagree. All manner of justifications are employed for being hurtful when you’re outraged, catharsis and “punching up” being two of the more notable. But what if we started talking about resolutions that didn’t involve punching of any kind?

3. Stop associating with people who take delight in their outrage. Bully for them, if outrage pleases them and makes them happy and enriches their life. It’s not for me to say whether or not that’s possible at all – I just know it’s not possible for me. This is a very old strategy, of course: If you have been engaging in a behavior that is destructive to you and you want to stop, you will more than likely get sucked back into it if you continue to hang around people who also engage in that behavior. Cutting ties with and quietly backing away from people who you like and respect but who will encourage you to do something you don’t like doing is about where you have to decide how important it is to you to stop feeling outraged. For me, it was worth walking away from friendships that were colored by outrage in order to have a more peaceful inner life.

4. Become an avid listener and observer. Instead of seeking out opinions, or commands, seek out information. If an issue or a story strikes you and makes you feel strongly, instead of elaborating on your opinion on the issue right off the bat, talk to people who are close to the story. Ask neutral, nonjudgmental, information-oriented questions. Try to get the most complete picture you can. Try to get many perspectives. You’ll find yourself identifying with people you never thought you would, the world will become bigger, and if my experience is any indication, you’ll feel a lot more confident in what you have to say about the situation.

If you’re planning on resolving to resolve your outrage, I wish you the best of luck. For myself, I’m resolving to be more flexible in 2016. Without outrage in my life, I’m confident I’ll have the time and space to move more freely.

Send me a line at [email protected].