Righteous Indignation was one of the earliest forms of anger I could give myself permission to feel. It was a “safe” anger. Anger, after all, was an emotion we were told good people didn’t have. But somehow, righteous indignation was different. With it came a “knowing” that I was above the person who had wronged or offended me. I could be indignant because “I would never do a thing like that”; I was protected by being on the “right” side of things. Over the years I’ve dug in and learned more about the function of healthy anger and I have grown in other ways as well. Judging oneself as better than another, however unconscious, has a natural consequence. And judging another person as wrong for doing what they do is another bad habit that locks us into a certain rigid position and out of our own full humanness. Many of my memories of having felt righteous indignation were in response to others having limits with me. Not recognizing what I had just experienced as another person’s expression of a personal limit, I would feel awash with anger, with which I did not have the slightest idea what to do. I would judge the person as off base and assure myself that I would never, ever do anything to anyone else that was so selfish or inconsiderate. I can see that now. All of us are different. We each have our own motivations to do things, our own priorities, and our own ways of seeing the world.
I can now see that anger has such a powerful and useful function in our relationships, and I have learned that it can help us get clear on our own position, that it is temporary and that our relationships can and will survive it. That is, if we know what to do when others let us down and/or we experience anger and disappointment with them.
First, it’s important to know that not being allowed to express anger as young ones was damaging to us, and made us develop alternative strategies that end up being disastrous in adult relationships.
Once we realize this, we can begin to get curious about the feelings we might have felt, explored, and learned about as children if our anger had been treated as acceptable, and our other feelings acknowledged – if we’d had the support we needed to move past the anger. For instance, to feel the disappointment, grief, vulnerability, fear, or embarrassment underneath. And with this knowledge as children, we could have moved forward into adult relationships much differently.
Instead of leaping to judge others as wrong and feeling righteously indignant, we could have considered the possibility that we might be feeling hurt or frightened, and we might have risked sharing our experience with someone who could validate our feelings and help us work through them. Often that is all that is needed to get the full benefit of our emotions. Through this process, we deepen our understanding of ourselves, allow ourselves to be seen, and work past the uncomfortable feelings without responding in immature ways and damaging our relationships.
The flip side, of course, is trying, ever harder, to be blameless so that we can somehow “earn” the status of “righteous enough” to be angry at those who have wronged us.