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How we’re manipulated to rant about stuff we know nothing about

There’s a game being played around you — one that makes you mad about things you have absolutely no control over.

Ramit Sethi

In grad school, I was the RA (resident assistant) of a 50-person house. We had a house budget that we had to decide how to spend on things like a house party or better food.

HOLY SHIT. I’ve never seen a worse side of humanity than when a small amount of money being pooled has to be used for a group decision. This was when I first learned that whenever a group has to decide how to spend its money, everyone loses their mind.

Whiny kid: “I don’t want to use my $20 for a house party … I don’t drink.”

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Staff: “Um, we’ll be serving Coke/Pepsi/non-alcoholic punch too.”

Whiny kid: “Well … uh … I still don’t want a party.”

Imagine this conversation happening about 90 times with increasingly angry college kids. I tried to calmly explain how house dues work — you contribute a little bit of money, and the staff votes on how it will be spent. Seemingly normal people turned into monsters over $20.

My room was on the second floor so, unfortunately, jumping out head first wouldn’t have ended the pain. I just stared, like a Vietnam vet’s thousand-yard stare, for hours upon end. People weren’t even willing to give up a LITTLE bit of money for the greater good.

Years later, I’d learn that these irrational attitudes don’t change when we grow up — the amounts just get bigger. 

Take taxes as an example: “I WOULD be happy to pay my taxes, but not if they spend it on X.”

(This is EXACTLY why I don’t listen to anyone’s stupid complaints about their tax money. In college, I learned how people act when the stakes are low.)

We may not understand how house dues or billions of dollars of national funding are spent. But we sure know how angry it makes us when we see money taken out of our paycheck every month. That anger — count how many times you’ve heard someone ranting about their taxes — is so much easier than actually learning how things work.

Here, I’ll show you. Pop quiz: How much do we spend on foreign aid? (Just ballpark it.) If you ask a random American, the average answer is 31%.

The reality: It’s actually less than 1%. 

Similarly, if you ask people if crime is up, they’ll say yes. (Wrong.)

I’m picking these examples not only because people are wrong (which is fine, nobody can be expected to know everything), but people feel VISCERALLY ANGRY and PERSONALLY AFFECTED by them. Just like that lame college student who wouldn’t have a party under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

Like taxes — the topic that nobody understands yet everyone “feels” mad about. To show you how little people understand about taxes, look at this:


alt text here

You are wrong and will be wrong for the next 50 years. But I understand, you “feel” right.  

OMFG.

Let’s examine the psychology of this guy. He genuinely believes that because he got a raise, he now makes less money than before. He is wrong.

(Dear guy, it’s called marginal taxe—ah, forget it. At this point, it’s impossible to have a logical discussion. That’s why approximately 239,283 of you are getting your spindly little fingers ready to write me an angry email. Don’t bother.)

The most insane part is, he will probably believe this for next 40 years of his life. Imagine him at a party when someone brings up taxes. You and I can totally see this guy launching into a rant about how it’s not fair, how he’d happily pay his taxes if there wasn’t so much “waste,” and how there’s no incentive to work.

He’s wrong, plain and simple.

So what’s going on here?

It’s easier to get angry than to get educated. I guarantee this guy has never read a single book on personal finance. And, to put it charitably, no CEO has ever decided not to grow his business because of taxes.

As the famed philosopher Gotye said, “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness.”


giphy
Preach, Gotye. Preach.

But for a lot of us, it’s not sadness. It’s anger. ‘I’m ANGRY that I have to pay for dates.’ ‘I’m ANGRY that I have to pay so much in taxes.’ ‘I’m ANGRY that baby boomers are stealing our future.’

Look, I’m not the guy who tells you not to get mad. I’ve made it a life skill to get mad at thousands of things. In college, I created an entire blog called THINGS I HATE!!

But I also know there’s only a certain amount of rage we can all hold. Is ranting about national tax policy really going to change anything? No, of course not.

You’d be better served to focus on being mad at Kate for stealing your lunch from the fridge every Monday at work. Why don’t you do something about her?

Or why not take a look in the mirror and get mad about not following through on the things you said you would?

I got mad about the personal finance industry lying to everyone and decided to do something about it. In 2004, I started a blog that nobody read and I just kept at it, week after week, until it finally started to break through. But it took me 13 years to get from there to here.

Think about the chain of changes this guy would have to go through to change his view:

  • “Hey, I’ve noticed I get mad about taxes A LOT.”
  • “Hey, I’ve realized I don’t actually know much about taxes.”
  • “Hey, I’m going to do some research, find the best 2-3 books on taxes, read them, and develop an educated opinion.”
  • “Hey, I might have been wrong.”
  • “Hey, I’m going to stop ranting about taxes and talk about something else.”

Let’s just say … this is unlikely. You’d be more likely find me dressed in leather chaps dancing around a fire with a bunch of unemployed life coaches than see this guy doing even one of those things.

Don’t just laugh. It’s exactly the same for you. Maybe not with taxes, but you have an opinion that’s become part of your identity, that you’re viscerally angry about — and that you don’t really know anything about.

Will you recognize it?

Will you change it?

Will you make the decision to focus on the things you can control, pick them carefully, and do something about it?

Most won’t.

And only a few will.

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55 Comments

 
  1. Delmania

    Feels before reals, as the expression goes on Reddit. Otherwise, a good post on a fundamental tenet of stoicism, to focus on controlling only what you can control. I have found that when you focus on that small sphere of influence, it grows. I think it's important to note that trying to deny or suppress the anger is counter productive. It's better to let yourself feel it, but don't attach to it. Simply go on with what you had planned, and the anger will subside.

    • Steve M

      Very well written. I agree. Be angry fir a minute and get back to what you do. Works for me… mostly 🙂

    • Ramit Sethi

      Excellent comment. Thanks for leaving it. A lot of IWT readers are fans of stoicism.

    • David

      Man I totally have experienced this. I was mad about being unsuccessful at my job until I decided to stop being mad and ask why. This caused me to look into ways to improve and low an behold I have doubled my earnings compared to 3 years ago. from 20K to 40K per year.

  2. Justin

    I've found that anger isn't the real emotion. It stems from some other source–disappointment, jealousy, frustration, sadness, fear, etc. This has helped me dissect and understand my own self pretty well, but sometimes it's just fun to be angry.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Agreed with both! When I'm bored, it's easy to focus on jealousy, etc. Also, it's politically incorrect to say, but sometimes it's just fun to get mad. This is the entire basis of reality TV!

    • Danielle

      YES, there are more feelings out there than just anger. Shame drives a lot of bad decisions… (Brene Brown ted talk on shame was enlightening).

    • Melanie

      Loneliness. You don't feel so lonely when you're united with others in your outrage! (Even if it's misguided outrage.)

  3. Lisa

    I agree with a lot of what you said here, Ramit, but no one is ever going to convince me that the government taking my money against my will in order to go drone children in another part of the world is OK. Never.

    • Ramit Sethi

      I understand your point. But the way you've framed it — that you're paying taxes so our government will "drone children in another part of the world" — ensures that you will continue being angry. There are other ways of framing taxes (and still retaining your opposition to war). Try it and post a different alternative.

    • Mario

      I guess taxes need to become part of our controllable sphere, rather than being outside of our control.

      I want to be responsible for all my income and pay no taxes. To do this I will cancel the residency in my home country and start living offroad as a traveler. Applying for visas nonstop. If tax regulations in the future will not change in my favor and I want to become stable and create a family, I can still run my business from another country with far better tax regulations. Take control of your life, screw the government but don't get mad. It robs your energy and is pointless.

    • Ramit Sethi

      I'm not sure that sounds like the most reasonable conclusion…but if that's what you want, go for it…I guess.

      I am trying to be more polite in my responses.

    • Kris

      It always astonishes me that someone can read a post about self awareness and then *immediately* forget everything they just read when they hit the comment section.

  4. Adriane Cooper

    Pure gold! Reminds me of 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving Fuck' by Mark Manson: a great read if you haven't yet!
    And ok, ok, ok, I will try to start learning about what makes me angry!

    • Melinda

      LOL. I literally learned nothing from that book. And not because the book isn't good or Mark Manson is a crock – but I realized I already don't give a f*ck.

  5. pf

    BS detector? When the other person starts attacking you personally instead of responding to your points. You've won. Walk away.

  6. Karen

    Loved reading this because it's very timely for me – I've been very angry about a couple issues and actually stepped back to try to figure out why I was so angry, then lo and behold this article comes along. It seems we get angry when we feel something is out of our control. To counter that anger, we can focus on the things that ARE within our control. It was great to read this in black and white as an affirmation I'm headed the right way.

    • Justin

      Control is how we combat dependency or vulnerability! It makes a lot of sense to get angry when things are out our control.

    • Danielle Schulz

      Indeed. Trying to focus my anger on positive things as well. Takes a lot of work!

  7. Karl

    Great post – as always. Since my wife and I started following you (and taking your Dream Job / 6FC courses) your style of thinking has steadily crept into our daily language. So hearing a term like 'invisible scripts' to be thrown into a discussion about daily challenges, and then actually inspire real thought, is pretty damn awesome.

    You're like the mutually accepted Switzerland of constructive criticism.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Awesome, I love it. Glad IWT can make an impact on your day-to-day lives!

  8. AJ

    Right on. I get mad at very little these days. I've got it pretty good so why raise my blood pressure over foolishness!?

  9. Kelly

    Yo, I totally agree that people rant a lot about stuff they don't know anything about due to a carefully orchestrated propaganda effort on the part of the various participants in cable news and/or print media. HOWEVER, I disagree that the answer is to ignore tax policy since we have no direct control over it. I believe it's our civic duty to learn about this stuff so that we can participate in politics as informed citizens, SOMETIMES by ranting and having conversations with our fellow citizens.
    But hey, look! It's the thing I get angry about that I have no control over – other people's habits of determined ignorance!

    • John

      Would love to see Ramit's response to this.
      And btw, I'm a CEO and both myself and other founders I know indeed have chosen to avoid growing their companies in the US over this, or at least to temper that growth and move some overseas. Of course he framed the point strategically (implying they wouldn't grow their company at all anywhere) but it's ridiculous to think tax policy doesn't have a huge impact on business strategy – it's often the primary factor affecting choice of office location, even within the US.
      Ramit says overseas strategy is "unreasonable" above, but the technology he advocates is making it easier for everyone to start companies is the same technology that is making this option more and more reasonable for large, small, and tiny businesses.

  10. Hans

    What's the ratio of talkers vs. doers, those that complain about something or claim they could do a better job vs. those that actually try and do it, even if they fail? 99 to 1? Lower?

    My favorite 2 examples:

    A good friend of mine is employed in a landscaping business and when I first got to know him, he went on about his current projects, most of which in the low to mid 6-figure territory by my guess. He kept complaining about the many mistakes being made by his superiors and how they could save so much money doing this or not doing that.

    I thought "Hey, this guy could go into business for himself and make a lot of money. He has all the knowledge and experience."

    Months later I finally realized that he just wants to talk big about that stuff, with no intention of actually doing anything about it, ever. The entrepreneur inside me just assumed he was like me, as we naturally assume other folks to be like us, but that's rarely the case.

    The second example is folks belittling the achievements of others. Somebody is a Millionaire or, god forbid, a Billionaire? They just inherited everything from they parents, cheated their way to riches by screwing honest and hard-working folks over etc etc. Somebody has a killer physique? It's just the steroids. "I could do that too." No, you most certainly couldn't. In fact, a thousand bucks says you can't (imagine the friends you'd make at parties with a wager like that).

    It's sickening, but in the end these are merely ways to justify their own mediocrity.

    It takes a lot to be brutally honest to yourself and say "I'm not a Millionaire, because I haven't work hard and smart enough to get there." or "I'm not in fantastic shape because I'm too lazy to exercise frequently enough." Or maybe "I'm 20k in debt because of bad spending habits and not because of 'predatory' lending."

    • Justin

      "I'd be shredded too if it was my full-time job to look good" –bullshit. These people were shredded long before it was their full-time job.

    • Ramit Sethi

      These are great examples. Anyone can talk, but very few will do it. I love your last paragraph about being brutally honest with ourselves.

  11. Christina

    Yep, I can totally see this happening in real life. I'm from the US, but live in France, and here's a composite conversation based on several I've heard or had:

    (Disclaimer: Not picking on the French, it's just the people I live with and have experience with…)

    Random French guy: "All these immigrants come over just to live off our benefits. They don't even speak the language and the government gives them housing, a free cell phone, education, etc."

    Me: "Um, I'm an immigrant. I speak French. And I don't get any government money. And I work like 50 hours a week. That's 15 more than the average French worker."

    RFG: "No, not immigrants like you. All those other immigrants from Africa, Syria, etc.."

    Me: "How do you know they're not like me? You just said "immigrants come over to live off the government." I'm an immigrant and I don't. There are probably lots of other immigrants like me too. Do you know any Africans or Syrians?

    RFG: "Well, yeah. There's Mamadou at work. But he's not like those kinds of immigrants."

    Me: "So… which immigrants are you talking about?"

    RFG: "All those people who come over just to live off the system without paying taxes."

    Me: "You know that 51% of the French population doesn't pay taxes, so there's a slight majority of French people doing the same thing."

    RFG: "Yeah, but those are French people, it's normal that they get to. Not lazy immigrants."

    Fortunately they're not all like that (although 68% percent of French people do think the country gives too much to immigrants…), I've heard similar things in Mississippi, where I'm staying for the summer.

    I've been here just one week and already heard numerous similar conversations, just substitute "immigrant" with "African American".

    I'm like "Do you actually know any African Americans, and have you asked if they've tried to find work, why they're protesting, what they face on a daily basis, etc.?"

    Or talked with them to find out what they think of the state flag and why? (Note: that's the big controversy du jour here because the state flag includes the confederate flag on it, and many people here feel it's "just our heritage and should be preserved." Others feel it's a remnant of a misguided, outdated belief in white supremacy and belongs in a museum if we're ever to move forward).

    But yeah, in both cases, you can't even argue with these people with facts and figures because they'd rather just rant and rave about the perceived problems…

    In the end, I just roll my eyes. *sigh*

    • Ramit Sethi

      Bingo. Great example of feelingz > facts.

  12. Derick

    I don't care how they spend the taxes. It's the collection of them that I believe to be immoral. But I also don't spend a lot of time being angry over it because that won't change anything. I would rather take that big issue and see if there are small steps that I might be able to take in hopes of moving towards change.

  13. Brandon

    It's much easier to bitch about something than to take responsibility, put your head down, and get to work.

    Interested to ask you about this — awhile ago you mentioned that you don't meditate, yet a lot of high performers credit meditation for helping them be less emotionally reactive to annoying things that get thrown at us.

    Obviously you have created a mental framework that allows you to think rationally and come up with constructive solutions.

    If meditation doesn't work for you, what "mental framework" have you created that helps you to be less emotionally reactive?

  14. Ashley

    This is so true of many aspects of life. This article came to my inbox at an opportune time. I had already spent way too much time this morning angrily stewing about a situation I can not control, thinking of the perfect things I could say to the person creating this situation. After reading this article, I felt so silly. Why am I focused on being mad at this person and situation that I cannot change? There are so many things in my own life I can control, and that need improvement, why not put my energy into those!?

  15. Jamil

    Great post, Ramit. Since you have done a lot of this thinking for yourself, what are the things that you noticed you were mad about without really knowing about it?

    Personally, after leaving my religion I was very angry at religion in general for a long time, and thought that religious people were stupid and "sheep". It took a long time before my anger subsided and I realized that even though I don't believe in it there are plenty of people who do not oppress others and who get a lot of personal fulfillment and benefit from religion.

  16. Henrique

    I loved your text, but help someone that doesn't know much about personal finance, please: Why is this guy wrong?

    • Ophira

      Marginal tax rates (which is what the US has) are on the last dollar. If you have 0% tax up to $10,000, 10% tax from $10,001 to $20,000, and then 20% tax, someone who makes $25,000 would be taxed $0 on the first $10K, $1,000 on the second $10K (at a rate of 10%), and another $1,000 on the last $5K (at a rate of 20%). The total tax burden would be $2,000, with $23,000 after-tax take-home pay.

      When the person goes from earning $20,000 (and having a tax burden of $1,000) to making $20,001 , just edging into the next tax bracket, their burden goes up by 20% of *that last dollar only*, or $.20. Meaning, they go from taking home $19,000 to taking home $19,000.80.

      What this means is that there still could be a disincentive to work more, but it would be because, say, you charge $100/hour and once you hit the 30% tax bracket perhaps your time is worth more to you than the $70 you'd be able to take home (of course in real life this is less after state and other taxes). But the disincentive does *not* come from making less total money when you move into a higher tax bracket. And of course you can try to increase your hourly rates to make more work worth your while.

  17. Gabi

    Interesting, Hmm. I don't get angry about taxes, I go out and vote. Happy I have a great job and a beautiful family.
    However, in Maine the people actually voted to pass a tax (last November) that increased the taxes for the income made over 200K . This tax would help to fund the education costs of K-12 schools, schools have been "promised" funds each year from the State, however the amount given to the schools is never as much as needed. The school I used to work for (had to quit because it didn't pay enough and had crap benefits) tells the towns they have to keep increasing property taxes to pay the bill for the schools.

    The money to run the schools has to come from somewhere… but the Governor of Maine would only pass a budget that would repeal the tax increase ('cause taxes are evil, right?). So I fully expect my property taxes will continue to go up. Starting to think you are right about the not buying a house thing. Where I live the rental properties are few (and many only available in the summer for $1200 per week! So it actually is better to buy.
    Could you come and teach the Governor about taxes?

  18. Aron

    I know a lot of doctors who get mad about their patients not being "compliant."

    I've noticed two types of patients that come to see me: 1) Patients who feel crappy but don't think their actions affect how they feel and 2) Patients who feel crappy but are willing to do whatever it takes to improve their situation.

    Type 1) patients often let life get in the way, are always looking for the latest and greatest treatment, complain about the costs involved, or don't stick with anything long enough to see a difference. Type 2) patients ask great questions, proactively do their own homework, show appreciation, and actually do the things that will make a difference.

    I care for all my patients, but the type 1) patients leave me feeling sucked dry of all my energy while the Type 2) patients make my work feel like a dream come true.

    I can't control who decides to come work with me, but I can control who I target and how I communicate to attract more of the Type 2 patients.

  19. Steve

    What is your recommendation for the best 2-3 books on tax?

    I've read and implemented plenty on investing and feel like learning about tax should my next goal.

  20. Melissa

    Our only household rule is that whoever does a thing that needs to get done automatically did it right because they actually got up and did it. The only appropriate response is, "Thank you!" If you have a thing that you feel must be done in a certain way, you can be the person who does that thing. There's no, "You loaded the dishwasher wrong," or whatever. It saves so much time and aggravation.

    I do a lot of volunteer work and I occasionally hear people muttering about why a certain thing is managed in a certain way. It's because that's how the person who is doing that thing managed to/thought to get it done. Sometimes it's awful, and sometimes it's great, but if you don't like it, you can always volunteer to help or take it over or whatever. Whenever I get a complaint about how someone doesn't like how something was done, I invite them to join the team. I've never had a repeat complaint yet! Complaints are a great way to hear about things you can do better when you're trying to think of what to improve, but in general it's about the worst way to get someone to change and do something the way you want it to be done.

  21. Kristi

    I've known people who refused raises for years because they think the new tax bracket will lower their income. If you try to explain it to them, they become furious. They are so convinced that they would rather complain about it than learn how it works. At this point, if they learned they were wrong all this time they would feel so foolish that they would rather go on believing incorrect things than learn they were wrong. There is someone I know who believes that he has to pay his $3000 deductible up front every single time he goes to see a doctor about anything. He becomes irate and refuses to listen if you try to explain how deductibles work. He'd rather just complain about his health and not go to a doctor because each trip would cost $3000 so he can't afford it. He tells everyone about Obamacare ruining his life. I think he just enjoys complaining.

    • Ramit Sethi

      Dear god

  22. Im Just Saying

    I love the post, but it doesn't actually explain how we're manipulated to get angry every day by the things around us, as the headline and email suggest. Again, love the post, but I wish it had a bit more about how industries are using this propensity to manipulate us, or change the headline and email content.

  23. Krystian

    love it!

  24. Angie

    Ugh. I'm angry cause you're right. Again.
    ❤️ Thanks for this, needed it today.

  25. Hannah

    Anger is like pain. It exists to bring change. If you're angry, it means something isn't right. You gotta find out what that is and ACT on it.

  26. Karen

    I think the biggest thing for me and my husband right now is that we totally judge other people based on the way their kids behave…and then complain about how annoying their kids are when they are whining, misbehaving, etc.

    Yet, lately I keep working on reigning myself in when I (or we) start criticizing. First of all it's not really our business how other people parent their kids, and we ultimately can't really control what they choose to do.

    Secondly, my husband and I are the ones who are choosing to hang out with certain people (despite their crazy rugrats)…so I suppose we can't always choose to hang out with them less or just deal with it when we want to hang out with them.

    Or we can do what we've been doing lately…which was sit back, relax, and appreciate our own situation while other people were chasing their kids around (we only have one, so we're never outnumbered).

    • Karen

      Opps, typo: I meant "we can always choose to hang out with them less". Not can't.

  27. Rachel

    Great post!

  28. Tiffany

    It wasn't until I started my own business (Thanks ZTL!) that I began to notice just *how many* of my conversations and relationships were built upon complaining about things that were out of my control or that I didn't have the cajones to deal with directly:

    "Ugh! So-and-so is such an asshole. It's SO hard to be in class with her."

    "My GOD. My boyfriend totally won't do chores consistently then *I* have to do more work!"

    "Climate change! THE POLAR BEARS!"

    It wasn't until I actually started focusing on my own growth – in tangible, measurable ways – that I began to see that all that preoccupation with politics or irritating friends or irrational bosses was actually a way to avoid looking in the mirror.

    I then began to notice the strange phenomenon happening around me. My friends would get together and spend HOURS talking about the things that frustrate them (TRUMP! I mean, shit's fucked up, but talking about it with people who agree. all night. doesn't change anything), and then not doing anything substantial to change it. Or to change their own lives.

    I was then able to see Old Tiffany much more clearly and be even more grateful for New Tiffany and all the entrepreneurs out there who are committed to taking action vs. simply talking about the action that *should* be taken.

    LOVE this article.

    • Ramit Sethi

      New Tiffany vs. Old Tiffany. I like New Tiffany a lot better.

  29. Sean Meyer

    Ramit, for what it's worth…I've been an avid reader over the past year – and this is hands down the 2nd best article I've read (I don't think the Power of Brutal Honesty will ever be dethroned).

    It also comes at the perfect time as I just finished reading Darren Hardy's book, "The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster", and he talks about how anger can be a good thing…if used correctly.

    As he puts it, fighting something is the force that keeps him going…and that force can work for anybody.

    From what I got out of this article, this is the underlying narrative you were trying to portray (and I'm not putting words in your mouth, just how I interpreted it)…and one that I think a lot of people could use to help themselves.

    With all that said, the counterintuitive part of all this is the message about taxes.

    I'm an IRS Enrolled Agent and when I first used to hear people talk about how more income meant less take-home pay (because they don't understand the marginal tax system)…I used to become absolutely livid, but now – it just makes me laugh.

    It almost scares me at times and I don't know if it's just because I'm getting soft in my old age or because I've read too many books on stoicism…but either way, it's funny how much we can evolve – if we want to.

  30. Nicole

    Ramit, since no one has said it yet let me be the first to say, you are ABSOLUTELY hilarious! Every Ramit post I read is filled with subtle bits of wit and crack-upery. My favs this time:

    "As the famed philosopher Gotye said, “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness.”

    "You’d be more likely find me dressed in leather chaps dancing around a fire with a bunch of unemployed life coaches. . ."

    Didn't I read that you wanted to try doing some stand up comedy? You should do it.

  31. Jolita Kavaliunas

    It seems to me that it's not that the guy didn't want to spent $20 for the greater good; it's that he didn't want to spent $20 for the good for others–something that he wouldn't share in. But perhaps, I'm wrong, i.e. by Greater Good you mean the good for others.

  32. Melinda

    I guess I'm atypical and slow to rage… all common sense!

  33. David

    You made a good point Ramit, although I thought the article was going to talk about how we are manipulated to stay distracted to avoid focusing on real issues.

    I have learned that many people are angry all the time, just as you said, about their own inaction. And that we all have the tendency to react that way.

    When you try and help these folks understand the issue they are angry about, they get upset because they don't want you to take away their boogeyman. When you understand that the boogeman is yourself, then you can change things.

    I'm glad I read this, I was just about to send you a pair of leather chaps and an invite to our life coach bonfire. I'll just wait until next year then.

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