I sat in my therapist’s office feeling defeated; tears were welling up in my eyes. In a stern voice he says, “Come on; don’t dissolve into tears! Let it out.” He motioned towards an empty chair. He wanted me to pretend a certain person was sitting in it, and to yell and scream at the person. But I couldn’t. All of the anger I was experiencing towards that person was suddenly directed at myself. It was my fault. It was all my fault. I was stupid. I let the situation occur. I should have known better. I could have avoided it. I could have been wiser. And so my self-imposed emotional beat down began.
Blow by blow, I sank deeper and deeper into the couch wishing I would disappear. I was really giving it to myself, but every figurative punch, slap, and kick wasn’t painful. I began to feel numb, which was better than angry. I was much more comfortable accepting a beating than doling one out to the person who hurt me, even if it was a pretend beating which the person would never know occurred.
Psychologically, I’m like one of those abused children who tolerates beatings more easily than hugs, and hearing, “You’re stupid,” is normal, whereas compliments are completely foreign and often fall on deaf ears.
My therapist noticed I was becoming consumed by my inner dialogue and decided to try something else.
“I’ll yell at the person for you. Just tell me what to say.” That sounded reasonable.
He sat next to me on the couch. I mumbled why I was upset, and he began shouting at the empty chair. He even added his own observations about the situation, which were pretty accurate. I was impressed by how in tune he was with my feelings and possibly more aware of what I was experiencing emotionally than I was.
I continued to tell him what to say, but as I spoke the words aloud I felt absurd. The internal beating was still taking place. They didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. It was my fault. Almost inaudibly, I fed the words to my therapist, who in turn regurgitated them out. He even included the person’s name in his diatribe, which jolted me out of my internal resistance to the activity.
I slowly warmed up to the process, I suppose because the words sounded more believable coming out of his mouth than mine. The internal ass-whooping halted. I began to feel validated. Maybe I really DO have a right to be angry with this person. And not just that person, but with other people, too.
Eventually I joined in, expressing my angry thoughts in a mostly calm voice. I didn’t have the courage to yell them out, but at least I was speaking and saying them out loud. Eventually I got angry enough to punch a pillow and throw it on the ground. I felt childish, but it was cathartic.
Later that evening, I sat in my bedroom with the door closed and cried. I felt a sense of helplessness. What did punching the pillow accomplish? The person who hurt me still got away with it. Everyone who has ever abused or hurt me got away with it. There’s no vindication. It is up to me to protect myself from getting hurt, and I failed again. I just get to sit here and suffer. What will allowing myself to feel angry accomplish?
Eventually I was able to use a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) exercise to draw me out of that negative feedback loop and stop crying. But I wasn’t relieved, just numb.
The next morning, that sense of helplessness flooded back to me and I felt as though I would asphyxiate on it. All of the frustration and pain—the immense anger searing my chest, hardening my heart—coursed through my body and I felt physically weak. Walking through Grand Central station, amidst a crowd of men and woman hurrying to get to work on time, I felt completely alienated and as though I might collapse.
Beyonce’s “Halo” began to play on my iPhone.
“Remember those walls I built…”
Yes. I need them. These walls. I’m safe behind these walls.
“…they’re tumbling down.”
No, I need these walls.
“They didn’t even put up a fight.”
Oh yes, I’m fighting!
“They didn’t even make a sound. I found a way to let you in…”
No. No. Keep everyone out.
As Beyonce’s voice continued belting out words about vulnerability and trust, it suddenly hit me: the anger I carry is, in a warped sense, my mind’s attempt at protecting itself—protecting me.
It was only in the last 2 years or so that I began to experience myself as an angry person. Anger was not something I allowed myself to express or even feel for most of my life. Anger was bad. As a child, an angry adult meant abuse. Abuse meant I wasn’t lovable. Let’s not make anyone angry, ever, if we can help it!
As I grew older, I continued to let people trample me, but chose compassion instead of anger. I tried to rationalize and be understanding of what peoples’ problems and setbacks were. I was extremely forgiving and eager to prove how loyal I was as a friend. You can imagine the kinds of people I attracted into my world with this mindset. Emotional vultures and hyenas, to put it mildly.
Gradually, acceptance of everyone’s bullshit turned to tolerance, and tolerance became intolerance, and intolerance became rage.
Rage became guilt, because anger is “bad.” Anger = abuse. I mean, that’s what my 5-year-old brain believed and that’s the belief I carried until recently.
I went from being extremely open, understanding, and forgiving, to closed, jaded, and callous. No amount of personal development workshops, self-help books, meditating, or any of the numerous ways I’ve tried to “release” the anger has helped, and that’s because the only way to release the anger is to feel it and express it (constructively). And I have many years’ worth of anger to release.
The first step to changing my relationship with, and belief about anger, is acknowledging and accepting that I am allowed to be angry. Anger is an important emotion. Healthy anger, otherwise known as indignation, often leads to constructive change and the serving of justice. Anger doesn’t have to be reactive, abusive, or retaliatory.
The second step is empowering myself against the idea that I am not safe from people and from life. This fear of being hurt fuels the anger, and the anger keeps the walls up. These titanium steel walls grant me a false sense of protection; however, what they really do is shut joy out of my life.
The third step is practicing expressing my anger when I feel it instead of stuffing it down. I think this will get easier as I continue to work on steps 1 & 2.
As I grow older, I continue to develop a shameless view of my humanity. I begin to loosen the chains of propriety, of being perfect, of doing the “right” thing, and become more comfortable honoring my truth, however ugly it is. More importantly, I begin to be okay with the consequences of being a fully expressed human being, flaws and all. At the expense of being judged, abandoned, or disliked, I choose me and my truth.
I was a slave to people’s opinions and ideals, all in an attempt to garner their approval and solidify my place in their lives. The result of that was losing my sense of self-worth, my sense of self, even. And so, I honor my angry feelings. And if YOU happen to be reading this, (“you” represents a good number of folks), I love you, but FUCK YOU.
That felt kinda good. One day I’ll be able to say it without softening it with the “I love you,” but I think I’m off to a good start.