Anger terrifies me. Other people's anger.
I'm quite comfortable with my own, though it's rare that I get truly angry.
My husband, however, has what he calls a "steam valve". He routinely lets loose with a string of expletives, or slams a door, or snaps at one of us. He's far better, thanks to a half-dozen sessions of mindfulness training. He's learning to respond rather than react. Still, it happens.
Ten seconds later, he's absolutely fine. Hardly remembers what he was annoyed at. I, on the other hand, have a knot in my stomach. I feel shaken.
And I hate it.
I hated it when I would wake in the night to my parents fighting. The yelling. The thuds on the wall that divided our bedrooms. The slamming doors.
I hated it when my brother would suddenly turn from the guy I adored to the guy I feared. Once or twice I was so battered and bruised my mother suggested a trip to the ER. Unfortunately, nobody was sober enough to take me.
So the math in my head goes like this: Anger = Chaos + Violence
In my world, if someone is angry, anything can happen. Marriages can go poof. Friendships can dissolve. Brothers can betray. Everything can fall apart.
I didn't want my childhood shaken. As long as nobody was angry, we could pretend that everything was fine. It wasn't, of course. My mother drank to quash her anger and hurt. My father drank to forget his frustration. My brother drank and smoked pot to silence his anger and confusion.
I ripped the pink flowered wallpaper off my bedroom wall in a fury at 17.
I stormed out on boyfriends. I screamed at a teacher who took issue with one of my assignments.
I fought with my mother when she'd come home from the psychiatric hospital for a day or a weekend, despite my father's demand that I "behave". When she'd ask to go back early because of our argument, I would be blamed for "ruining the visit".
Girls aren't supposed to be angry. And so I drank too. I drank my shame. And I drank my hurt. And I drank my disappointment and my fear. And I drank my anger.
By my 20s, I had only two responses to pain: Absorb it. Or rage.
Usually, I would absorb as much as I could, doing my best not to rock the boat. I continued to drink, which often distracted me from pain. Though there were plenty of nights when the alcohol allowed the wall to thin just enough, and then my grief would pour out. Or someone would say something I took offence to, and my anger, grateful to have a target, would unleash.
All of which created a second equation: My Anger + Expression of it = Shame
Which brought me to the point when I learned of my husband's cheating. I swung wildly between debilitating emotional pain and a red-hot fury that consumed me. I destroyed an expensive watch, I trashed a diamond necklace, I knocked a television set onto the floor. I threw a hot pizza at my husband. I felt crazy. I was crazy.
And then, my anger spent, I would feel empty. Void of anything except a deep shame at my lack of control.
All of which kept me from taking steps to address my husband's infidelity. As long as the focus was on me and my anger – and I was locked in my own shame – I wasn't dealing with his behaviour.
My therapist taught me how to feel my anger without breaking things. She taught me that my anger was legitimate, that it had something to teach me. She gave me a new equation:
Healthy Boundaries + Violation of Those Boundaries = Righteous Anger
I started to pay attention to my anger before it consumed me. I tried to notice when I'd get that flicker of irritation because my husband said something, or did something or didn't do something. I'd take the time to check in with myself. I became able to ask myself what my anger was telling me. Was I being disrespected? Taken for granted? Devalued?
We often talk on this site about how anger is a mask for hurt and fear. Which it is. It's what my therapist calls a "secondary emotion". Except. Except when it's not a secondary emotion. Except when it's a signal of something that deserves our attention. Except when it's signalling that we're in danger of betraying ourselves.
I don't always get it right. I'm still guilty of dismissing my anger sometimes until it makes itself known in unhealthy ways. I recently lashed out at my son for leaving his clothes lying around the house because instead of addressing it early on, I'd muttered to myself as I picked things up. My anger was telling me that I was feeling disrespected. That I was feeling unvalued. Taken for granted. He deserved my honesty. I deserved courtesy. Instead, I got angry, he responded with anger and little got resolved.
So...I'm learning. Anger might always be a problem for me because those early-life lessons leave deep marks in our hearts and our brains. But, slowly, I'm learning to use my anger to stand up for myself in a way that gets me heard.