My family calls me short-tempered, everyone else says the opposite. And they are both absolutely right. I can go from calm functional adult to raging maniac in seconds, if I’m turning my anger on my family. Other settings just don’t seem to set me off.
Why am I rude and hurtful to the people I love, and kind to those I don’t?
Martha Beck in this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine explains the syndrome well. In her terminology, I’ve been “stress-rolling” my anger at one thing downhill, to the people who are stuck with me no matter how unattractive my behavior becomes. It’s crazy hard for me to admit I’m angry, even to myself. Apparently I got so good at internalizing and hiding my anger early in life, or blocking myself or being blocked from expressing how I really felt, that I don’t even admit to myself when I’m angry.
But, as Martha puts it so well in this month’s column, “feelings don’t want to stay hidden. Like water held back by a dam, they are always pushing, seeking a crack to leak or entirely break through.”
So I’m going to try her advice on for size this month. I’m going to take the time to honestly focus on what is going on inside myself when I overreact, and force myself to break down those protective barriers I built up over 53 years so that they are almost, but not quite, impenetrable, and I’m going to deal with the heart of the problem. What is it that is really making me angry? The fact I’ve gone along with the crowd to not make waves or stand out or potentially be embarrassed or made to look stupid, and by doing that have silenced my voice? Or is it the anger that’s built up over the many times in which I didn’t stand up and fight for my right to credit when I’d done the work but someone else with a booming voice and all the confidence in the world took all the credit for himself?
For sure part of it is the anger that lies somewhere deep inside me from 22 years ago, when my son was born and I realized that more than anything in the world I wanted to find a way to spend time nurturing and being with him, but my then-husband said absolutely not, I could not quit my job, and for some unknown reason I was so lacking in self-worth that I acted as if his word was Law and did nothing, nothing to figure out a way to make things work so I could live the life I wanted for myself and my children? I’m angry at myself for not standing up for myself and I’m angry at myself for taking that anger out on undeserving others and I’m frustrated that it’s so hard to even get in touch with my own feelings to express them authentically and truly in the proper way and to the appropriate people.
Martha Beck says that, “‘[b]ecause the core issue is often so upsetting that you push it out of your consciousness, you may not be able to articulate it at first.” Yup, that rings true. And its incredibly frustrating, not to be able to articulate or even locate inside myself the core of what my anger is really all about. I’ll follow her advice this month and try to identify my deepest emotional trigger by poking at the general area of discomfort until I find the heart of the pain, and ask myself what is really bothering me and then, repeatedly, “what’s the worst thing about that?” until my irritation is overwhelmed by fear, sorrow, or despair.
That’s when I’ll know I’ve reached the root of the problem, when I’ll need the courage to face that fear head-on, and that by doing so I can hope to live more authentically, in my own voice, expressing anger when anger is appropriate … and surely sometimes when it is not but I’m human so that will happen … and not exploding with anger over some minor irritation caused by someone I truly and deeply love.
If I can be less irritable with loved ones and more honestly angry with those people who deserve it, I’ll be one wise woman … at least, I’ll be much more enjoyable for my family to hang around.