Concentrate Your Fire

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ve been reading Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 book Psycho-Cybernetics. While the book occasionally strays into the neighborhood I call “crackpottery,” there is a lot of useful information. I’m not a fan of the term “self-help,” but it’s the term that’s commonly accepted, so we’ll go with that. If some of the ideas put forth in Psycho-Cybernetics seem familiar, that’s because it is considered one of the first major self-help books. It was largely based on a practice that came to be known as cognitive behavioral therapy and was an influence on many contemporaries such as Tony Robbins.

The book deals a lot with self-image, goal setting, and using experience and feedback to stay on track toward your goals. Those are all topics we might explore in the future, but one passage in particular caught my interest. In one chapter, Maltz writes about “failure symptoms.” These are signs and symptoms that can either overwhelm us or helpfully alert us to a negative situation to be avoided. Emptiness, resentment, and frustration, are among the examples he cites.

The author’s statements about aggression especially interest me. Is it my imagination, or is our society increasingly aggressive, and not in a good way? (Smarter people than me think it’s just my imagination.) Aggression can be expressed in ways that are hurtful to oneself or others, such as physical violence, aggressive driving, gossip, excessive worry, etc.

Pickup truck and other vehicles driving on wide suburban road
Use your aggression effectively instead of taking it on the road

Step one, according to Psycho-Cybernetics, is recognizing aggression in ourselves when it occurs. This is very difficult and probably why so few of us are able to successfully do it. This kind of mindfulness takes time to develop but it is essential to dealing with aggression appropriately. To quote Maltz: “If you feel like snapping at someone, stop and ask yourself – ‘Is this merely my own frustration at work? What has frustrated me?’ When you see that your response is inappropriate, you have gone a long way toward controlling it.”

Eliminating aggression entirely is clearly not possible. Recognizing the emotion, we can ideally channel it productively, not only in life but in our creative efforts. Again, quoting Maltz: “The best channel of all for aggression is to use it up as it was intended to be used – in working toward some goal.” Breath new energy into your acting or singing, throw paint onto the canvas, pound away at the typewriter laptop keyboard. Put your anger into your work for a while without thinking too much and it might add the emotional edge you’ve been looking for. In other words, as Maltz says, “concentrate your fire.”

Barring that, vent your anger in some other productive way, in what Psycho-Cybernetics calls “safety valves.” Rearrange the furniture. Go for a run. Hit the gym. I’m rediscovering my djembe drum and finding that it has a calming effect. Another “safety valve” suggestion from Psycho-Cybernetics: “Write a letter to the person who has frustrated or angered you. Pull out all the stops. Leave nothing to the imagination. Then burn the letter.” (This is good advice but I don’t recommend writing this letter as a draft e-mail!)

Djembe drum
He ain’t heavy, he’s my djembe

Finally, Maltz also mentions aggression self-awareness as a way to defuse aggression directed toward you. Once you recognize misdirected anger in yourself, it’s easier to recognize it in others. This doesn’t just help deal with real people. For fiction writers, it can be a valuable tool in character development.

Feeling aggression is part of the human experience. Like so many things in life, how we respond matters as much as the event itself. Use aggression to your benefit, don’t let it use you.

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