I read an article last night about parents letting their kids experience anger … that it teaches them that they can have an impact on their world. This morning, I can’t get it out of my head. My mom and siblings and I are survivors of physical and emotional abuse by my dad. He’d be buying "Star Wars" tickets one second and literally in a rage the next. Nobody — and I mean nobody — was allowed to be angry in our house except my dad. The one skill I am most accomplished at is being the peacemaker. Kind. Polite. Diplomatic. Forgiving. In most areas this has been a blessing for my life.
Except that some things REALLY do make me angry. It takes a lot for me to confront whatever it is. Often when I’m trying to express anger, nobody but me realizes I am angry. A co-worker recently witnessed me on the phone talking to someone I was livid with. After I hung up she said, "How will she know you’re mad if you’re so nice?" About a year ago, I told my husband that I was seriously considering divorce. He was shocked. Claimed he had no clue. Told me he had never once in 20 years thought about or wanted to split up. Evidently, even in this most important relationship, I’m not getting through about the things that are important to me. HELP! Can I learn to express righteous anger at 43 years old?
— J.H., Carson City
Did we grow up in the same house? Are you my sister?
"Nobody was allowed to be angry in my house except my dad." Right there with you, J.H.!
Yep. My papa was The Grand Duke of Anger. Anger was his kingdom and his alone. No one was allowed to trespass this holy ground. Anger, if expressed by myself or my sisters, was quid pro quo disrespect and immediately punishable as same. Punishable, of course, with his anger.
If it means anything, you’ve put your finger on a much wider pattern; that is, a much wider cultural phenomenon than just your family of origin or mine. The past 500 years or so of Euro-American childrearing patterns are dominated by the largely unconscious but nonetheless blatantly obvious "ideal" of separating children from their emotional reality. Especially anger.
Children are born with "spontaneous enthusiasm" (Alice Miller, 1923-2010). They cry when they are distressed or in pain. They rage and tantrum when frustrated. They squeal with wonder when they see Santa Claus or a butterfly. They are sublimely uncensored.
Of course, children need to be socialized. This includes teaching them to manage their emotions responsibly. To feel and express emotions with increasing maturity. But, regrettably, Western child-rearing patterns often twisted into a different message: Feelings and emotions are themselves the problem. You’re not allowed to have certain feelings. And we, the adults, get to decide what feelings you’re allowed, how much of that feeling, and when you can have it.
It sounds so odd, these many years later, to say it out loud, but lots of children in lots of homes are expected to be really OK with parental scorn, degradation, humiliation and sometimes violence.
Many different things can happen to a person who is thusly separated from his/her anger as a child. In your case, J.H., you withhold, hide and deny anger. Certainly from others, and often, likely, from yourself. You became a peacemaker. And, yes, much of this, as you say, is a blessing.
But we can’t, in the end, be whole, well people without our authentic anger. And we don’t love others well without it, either. Your husband’s surprise at your marital unhappiness is evidence of this.
Unacknowledged, disowned, unexpressed anger turns to resentment. That is Cosmic Law. And resentment kills marriages.
No, J.H., it’s never too late to learn to claim our authentic anger. You’ll be better for it. Theodore Rubin’s book "The Angry Book" (Touchstone) is a great place to start. You also can take on six to eight sessions of therapy focusing on this specifically. I have used songwriting, weightlifting and intentional breathing exercises to find my anger.
I’m still lousy at it. I’ll probably never be comfortable with my anger. It’s very painful, not to mention damn scary for me, to be angry at people I love. But, unless love can include authentic anger, then love turns into a cardboard facade.
Go, J.H. Begin your Anger Adventure. Your daddy hogged all the anger in your family. It’s well time for you to have your share.
Originally published in View News, July 13, 2010.