A burning sensation began in the region of my small intestine and rose until the heat emanated from my face. My jaw tightened and my breath quickened. The ever-living nerve, I thought as I read the e-mail for the second time. Surely this was a joke. And yet, as I processed each carefully constructed sentence, I knew that it wasn’t. The anger only built as I started to type out a reply filled with glib passive aggression. I stopped myself. Convinced my brain was about to boil in the pressure cooker my body was becoming, I got up from my desk and took a walk. Lightheaded and seething, I paced around my office trying to deepen my breathing and get control over the unexpectedly visceral reaction to what appeared to be a normal request.
Feeling my anger is a recent development. I used to have a million ways to talk myself out of it, to convince myself that whatever had happened wasn’t a big deal. Now that I’ve opened the floodgates, I don’t exactly know what to do with the feeling. In these moments of pacing and breathing, I pray a question, Okay, Jesus, what’s really going on here? Through therapy, I’ve learned that the thing that sets me off isn’t the real issue. There’s generally something deeper that’s been simmering unaddressed on a back burner. The real problem in this scenario started one-year prior with a temp job.
Being a creative and a freelancer means occasionally working day jobs that suck the very marrow from your soul, not to be too dramatic about it. Since moving to the city, I’ve temped and worked in a restaurant periodically to ride out the dry spells. One such job was three weeks as an administrator for a non-profit. The opportunity came up during an interview at a temp agency and I leapt at it, eager to prove my grit and positive attitude. I should have heeded the first red flag when the agent said that the director needed someone who could stand up to her. But my obsessive need to impress authority figures managed to squeeze an, “Of course, that won’t be a problem,” from my mouth, even though I knew it absolutely would be.
I arrived on my first day to realize that, though there was no one to train me, my boss treated me like I should already know everything about the job and the office. She was planning for the bi-annual fundraising event that would take place at the end of the month, which added a frantic urgency to every task I was assigned. After being briefed with a basic rundown of my job expectations, I was instructed that my first priority would be sending out invitations to the big donors. “Okay, no problem. Where are those?” I asked. She replied that they were due to arrive in the mail later that day. Okay, so 200 invitations to stuff and send out in bundles to the table hosts, and the last mail pick up was at 5 p.m. at the post office. Not a problem.
Every time she checked in; a new problem had arisen. The invitations didn’t arrive until 11 a.m. We didn’t have a scale for me to accurately calculate postage. She didn’t have the addresses for several of the guests and so many other issues arose to make it a ridiculously painful process.
After three trips to the post office, I finally delivered the accurately stamped parcels at 5:10 p.m. The stress of successfully completing my first task had me frequently thinking, Maybe I’ll just get fired. Please, Jesus, let her fire me so I don’t have to do this for three weeks. When I arrived back at the office after dropping off the envelopes, my boss asked how it had gone. I replied that I had missed the deadline for that day’s mail pick up by ten minutes. “Oh, okay. Well, it doesn’t really matter,” she shrugged and went back to her desk. Tears of frustration welled up in my eyes, which I quickly swallowed as I left for the day. Surely it would get better as I learned more.
It never did. I was killing myself trying to do this job perfectly while also juggling my own business and social life. By the end of the assignment, I was exhausted, irritable, and had gained at least ten pounds from stress eating and not exercising. There was a moment in the weeks that I spent recovering from that job that I wondered, what was I trying to prove, and to whom? I had given exponentially, and who was there to be impressed at the end of it? Absolutely no one.
So, when I got an email a year later from the temp agency asking if I was available to help out with the event again, it all came flooding back. There was a line in the forwarded email from my former boss, inquiring if I could work part time, or even volunteer, as I was so organized and essential the previous year. That’s the one that sent me pacing around my office. Volunteer? Is this a joke?
And yet, in the heat of my anger and the presumption in the request, I wondered if I had a right to be angry. Certainly, my feelings are what they are, but had I ever expressed my frustration at the way I was treated? Did I even once push back and set boundaries? If I did, it was under the guise of being helpful and of service to the job and my boss. I threw myself into this temp job as if my very worth depended on my ability to do it well. I didn’t even express my concerns about the toxic work environment to the agency. I rode out my three weeks and walked away, washing my hands off the job and the agency. I was at the crossroads of my anger and my fear of confrontation, and the fear had won out.
I find myself in this place of compiled anger frequently, wondering if I am entitled to my anger when I never do anything to make the situation better, then feeling angrier at myself. It’s like being wrapped in an anger burrito and I don’t know what to do except sit and fume like someone is pouring hot sauce on my head. Yes, I’m already in therapy. It’s the reason I even feel the anger now, as opposed to numbing myself and minimizing. I’m told it’s a good thing. If I had kept bottling it up, it would have found its own way out. I’m told this is healthy. But moments like this always leave me wondering what’s next. What am I supposed to do with the heat that bubbles up and threatens to consume me?
Sometimes when I’m angry, I like to think about Jesus flipping the tables in the temple. He walks into his Father’s house and finds people selling animals for sacrifice and changing money, and he loses it. It’s nice to know that Jesus felt angry, too, so it can’t be all bad. Though his reason for property damage was a little more compelling than a boss with no sense of boundaries and unreasonable expectations. It doesn’t leave me with much of a practical sense of what to do with my anger.
I used to think that having a healthy relationship with anger means reaching a zen-like state where nothing will rile me. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that what needs to change is not the fact of my anger, but my perspective of it. Anger can be an excellent communicator that something is not right. My boundaries have been violated, a legitimate injustice has occurred, or a situation has triggered an unresolved issue that warrants further attention. Instead of obsessing over qualifying my anger as right or wrong, what if I could instead acknowledge the existence of my anger and ask, What are you trying to tell me here? I can then choose how I want to react. If I minimize and shove it down, the anger will find a way to express itself, either through passive aggression or emotional distancing.
For now, I reply to the email with a cordial expression of gratitude for the opportunity, but state that I am too tied up with my own business to assist. Best wishes on all your future endeavors.
Mary B. Safrit is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in the biggest of all the apples. She writes and speaks about singleness and relationships, femininity, and mental health, and has been featured in Fathom Magazine and on the Now She Rises blog. Her podcast, "Unsuitable with Mary B. Safrit," where she interviews single Christians about their lives and faith, is available on all major platforms. Hobbies include watching people take solo-selfies, glaring at cars that encroach onto crosswalks, and having existential crises. You can visit her website at www.marybsafrit.com.