In Suppressing Anger is Not a Spiritual Value I touched on my own personal history with anger.
As children, we make up our minds about certain things, we internalize our assessments and carry them in to adulthood. You wouldn’t take advice from a 5 year old about much, but that is essentially what we do. In our childhood we perceived things and we made up our minds about it. By the time we’re adults we have largely forgotten our childish thought processes that had us arrive at that assessment, and we are left with the judgement.
This is how it was for me about anger. What I saw was my mom always seemed angry, and my dad never seemed angry. I didn’t like angry, and I liked not angry. So I decided that I angry was bad, and so that was not me. Thus goes the logic of childhood.
Anger isn’t the only emotion I squashed. Happiness too. With a, “See, I told you you would like this” from either parent, my own happiness could be used against me. As if I couldn’t have figured out on my own that the outcome did not match my expectations. I became a refusal to alter my negative stances. If I disliked spaghetti, I would dislike it until the day I died, so as to deny my parents the pleasure of delivering a see-I-told-you-so. Now, as a parent myself, I see how tempting it is to say “see, that wasn’t as bad as you thought”, but with my own personal experience that it hurt to hear it, I avoid it.
Fast forward twenty years and in to a loving relationship, and things started to go awry. Turns out my 5 year old self was missing key bits of information:
- what I witnessed in my parents was not one angry person and one not angry person, it was a breakdown of communication… on both sides
- emotionally healthy people feel the full spectrum of emotions; I had gaps (chances are so did my “not angry” dad)
- it is silly to judge an emotion. emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are
- it is destructive to judge emotions, in yourself and in others
I was better than “those angry people”… I didn’t get angry, I was just always right.
Instead of getting angry, I got “helpful” (as in, “here, let me inform you of the error of your ways”), concerned, bothered, irritated, but I would bristle at the thought that those were cover ups for just plain angry; if I were in fact angry, then that meant I was the same as all the angry people that I judged as inferior to me. I would be no longer superior, just the same, except with righteousness thrown in.
I had to do a lot of prep work to get to the point that I would even be willing to acknowledge such a possibility… I had to give up my comfortable martyr/victim postures.
I had been real good at being a victim… appearing forlorn, moping, pouting, taking myself away. Of course, none of these behaviors are direct. They are indirect; covert.
Being a martyr was easy too. Fishing for sympathy, enrolling others in how difficult my situation was, taking a quiet sense of pride in what a good person I must have been for putting up with her bullshit, secretly hoping someone would notice— or even better— that they would come to my defense.
Sounds wimpy? Yup, I was. These behaviors are easy to see in other people yet hard to see in ourselves.
I had to realize that both postures were strategies I employed to avoid standing up for myself in the face of whatever I percieved as too frightening to face.
Before we were married, Kathy and I used to attend a regular couple’s group. Trained facilitators listened and were great at ferretting out issues, locating sources of upset in either one of us, and guiding us to resolution.
One particular session, I was sharing, and one of the facilitators, Joanne, said to me, “It sounds like you’re angry”. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning. I was shocked. First of all, she was right, I was angry. And second, it was news to me! How could I be angry and not know it, but be notified by someone else? Imagine having to be notified that you are happy.
It was an epiphany moment: a veil had been lifted… the veil that had been placed there by me— some twenty years prior— to keep me unaware of my own broken communication strategies, protecting me from having to address that which I feared. I Was Angry!
That one comment started me down a whole new path. Thank you Joanne! I had always been angry, but as long as I remained in denial about it, I was unable to address and resolve it, so I basically smoldered. For 20 years.
Now, about 20 years since that couple’s group, I’m better with anger. I recognize my old bad habits of martyrdom and victimhood, but I don’t pay much attention to them. I’m quicker to speak my upsets and get them resolved, so they don’t smolder.
The best path away from anger is through it.