It ricocheted around in my mind all day and night like a pinball, pinging off the corners of more static, ongoing concerns like homework, sports, and later, work and children. The question was woven, inextricably it seemed, into the fabric of my every interaction and relationship. It would keep me awake at night, looking up at the little glow in the dark stars on the pink ceiling of my childhood bedroom, wondering what I could do to fix others’ perceived or real beefs with me, and later as an adult, rehashing an email or a telephone call at work.
I would beg reassurances from friends, teachers, relatives, colleagues, and yet would never really get what I was looking for. I was a bottomless void of insecurity and need to know and be reassured that no one was “mad at me.” Often, peers would use my fear of their anger sadistically against me, as a power play. Or they would be confused by the question, or dismissive.
I learned to tune in to other peoples’ emotions before I learned to walk, both intuitively and out of necessity. Modern pop-psychology calls this “EQ,” I believe.
My father was closed off, something of an emotional black box, and my mother was in many ways the opposite. She was depressed, anxious, traumatized, and intensely interactive with me all at the same time. Like all children and mothers, my life was in her hands, and honing in with acuity on her emotional state seemed like information I needed to survive.
Navigating New York City, too (which I was doing alone by the fifth grade) meant I had to thin-slice strangers on the bus, street, or subway. Size people up; sense who might be violent or dangerous. I still feel that I have a sixth sense for this. An intuition so strong and true, that even now I don’t doubt for a minute when I look into a man’s eyes whether he is prone to violence.
But some time in the past few years, mostly since I’ve started writing this blog, actually, I’ve begun to put that question—“are you mad at me”—aside. I’ve stored it in my mental attic, and it’s begun collecting dust up there.
I’ve had to, because I’ve managed to make a lot of people mad during this period of time. Mad about my tone of voice and choice of language. Mad about my opinions. Mad because I made an insensitive joke.
Suddenly I was hurting people’s feelings, which I regretted and didn’t mean to do, but which, it turned out, is what inevitably happened sometimes when I stopped worrying if people were mad at me, and instead started being myself and prioritizing my voice, needs, and feelings in service of self-expression, self-care, and self-actualization.
It was as if I was given a limited amount of energy to care about the answer to the question "are you mad at me," and the reserve of that energy is finally just depleted from overuse.
I’m hardly ever offended or “mad” at anyone, but on the rare occasion that I am, I recognize that this emotion is first and foremost my responsibility, not that of the alleged perpetrator, and the same is true in reverse. When I know I’ve made someone mad, as I inadvertently have and will, I feel sympathy for the unpleasant feeling they’re experiencing, instead of an urge to rectify and resolve their anger for them on their terms by modifying my behavior in unreasonable, unrealistic, and often self-destructive ways.
In short, I now accept that people will sometimes be mad at me. Some relationships (most, fortunately) can withstand mundane conflicts. I don’t ask this question very much anymore, and the price is a little bit less sensitivity, perhaps, to the feelings of others.
I’m not happy about that, but on balance, it’s worth it.