Tuesday, 14 February 2012

my relationship with anger

It’s taken me years to give myself permission to feel angry.  Somehow as a kid I got the idea that I shouldn’t feel angry.  This vague message seemed to apply to women in general and pastor’s daughters in particular.  So I spent more than half my life feeling guilty about feeling angry – not that I was aware of this, mind you.  As a kid I was probably more expressive than my older siblings who learnt to survive in their own quiet ways.   So possibly because I expressed things more easily, my emotions – when expressed - seemed bigger, or attracted more attention which did not always end well for me.   So I learnt to not express anger.  At least that’s what I tried to do.

When I got married, both Meyles and I realised pretty quickly that we were both uncomfortable with anger - Meyles grew up with similar messages about not expressing anger - and we had to learn to communicate with each other when one or both of us got pissed at the other.  I was the more expressive one and would badger Meyles to tell me stuff, and Meyles would withdraw, go quiet or get defensive.  I used to describe him as the ice-berg man - someone who I only got 10% access to, but with 90% of him inaccessible.   It drove me crazy, as I could tell he was holding himself back from me and not being completely honest or open.  He would vehemently deny this.  I could always tell when he wasn’t giving me the whole story.  I felt I had a perfect right to any of his information, as his wife.  And if he wouldn't tell me things willingly, then I would force it out of him by persistent badgering. 

All this came to the surface and it was crunch time when Meyles’ business went under after 10 years of marriage.  I was blisteringly angry and Meyles was gutted.    We had to sort out our communication issues, or end the marriage.  It took a crisis to learn new skills.  And we did this simultaneously.  Meyles learnt to share himself with me willingly, openly, honestly and transparently.  One day he said the best thing to me which I will always remember:  "You know, it feels good to be vulnerable with you!"  Fantastic!   I also had to learn to stop badgering and hassling him to tell me things he'd kept from me.   It was equivalent to emotional rape.  I had to stop that, because not only is it awful, but it had the opposite effect on Meyles to the desired one.  He would clam up further and be more and more protective and defensive.  It was not safe for him. 

A quote once by John Powell captures this:  “If I show you my nakedness, please don’t make me feel ashamed.”

Now, I can't actually remember the last time I was angry at him!  Well, ahem... actually I can now!  But it’s so minor it blows over quickly and comes and goes like a sneeze.    I believe Meyles and I would have a very different relationship if we hadn't learnt this.  Now, years down the track, both of us look back at that awful time and say it was the worst of times, and the best of times.   We learnt so much about each other and how to do marriage together, that Meyles’ business failure and our consequent financial loss was actually the best thing that has ever happened to us.  We would not have such a fabulous relationship if it hadn't been for that crisis.  It was awful suicide stuff at the time, but it took such an event to bring out the best in both of us with this communication-through-anger thing.

I still felt guilty about anger though, and I still didn’t know I felt guilty about it.  It was just a big nebulous cloud of strong and ugly emotion to me.  Although I was safe with Meyles, all was not as it seemed.  When a conflict arose with the leaders of a church during my 30s, no matter how much I tried to resolve it, it just escalated more and more.   This particular church had also reinforced many unhelpful messages about anger not being allowed.  The culture of this congregation was that happy clappy emotions and expressions were greatly encouraged and celebrated, while anything even slightly more serious or even questioning meant there was something wrong with you.  So being angry was way out of the scope of acceptability – unless you were the senior leader.  I remember attending services where I had a responsible role overseeing functions and teams, when I was smiling outwardly to fit the cultural expectations, and inwardly seething about unreliable people who’d left me in the lurch again.  The balancing act between my own anger and the expectations of the church eventually led me to step down from my role and hand it over.  Ultimately the cultural mix was a time-bomb waiting to happen.  The first murmur of unhappy emotion about anything would only escalate as the skills to resolve issues just weren’t on the menu.   Eventually along came a serious issue which we could no longer ignore.  Our attempts to open dialogue resulted in conflict of course, which only escalated to the point where the leaders rejected us and demonstrated behaviours which we felt were contradictory to the message we upheld.  After many months, we could no longer stay in such an environment where we could support these leaders and reluctantly withdrew our membership.  By this time we felt completely  gutted.  And we were angry at the superficial value placed on sincere people who had supported them for years.  And consequently for me, because of the anger, I also felt very guilty.  So more guilt about feeling angry.   The strongest emotion here for me was loss and grief.  My faith was now on the line and the sense of rejection by significant people which effectively excluded us from our community was excruciatingly soul destroying.   And as part of that, anger was a significant player.

During the long recovery process after leaving that church, I thought a lot about anger.  The thing was I realised I felt guilty, but couldn’t pin the guilt on anything in my behaviour which didn’t align with my values and beliefs.  (Usually I could find something and then I’d feel really, really bad and would beat myself up.)  But this started me thinking and I came to the realisation that I felt guilty about being angry – guilt was a secondary reaction to my primary emotion of anger.  And this compounded and confused the whole issue.   I started to see that anger was not a ‘bad’ emotion.  I also began to analyse my own responses to anger and recognise the difference between the emotion, the guilt, and the chosen response to both.  Somehow I began to feel not so guilty when I felt angry. 

I do much better with anger now.  I feel much more at peace in my own self about it.  But I find it hard when I'm pissed at someone else because I don't have the level of understanding or relationship with anyone else like I do with Meyles and I struggle between the sense of damaging the relationship if I tell them I'm pissed, or stay pissed and save the relationship which won’t work either!

I tried talking with one of my friends a few times when I got pissed at her – which was often the case, as it turned out - and sometimes I was successful and sometimes I wasn't.  She was very directive and assertive herself – some would even say, aggressive.  She was a great person to be around when she was not stressed.  Eventually as behaviours triggered anger, and my voice felt lost in the turmoil, it built to a point where I chose to let that friendship go for my own wellbeing.  I grieved the loss of that friendship but it had become destructive for me.  However I still got to try out my 'assertive muscles' with her a few times and for that I am damned impressed with myself as she's a very scary person to confront.  I don’t imagine many people would have the guts to do it.  But if you care enough about a relationship, you have to confront. 

I was saying to Meyles just recently about conflict - which most of us hate with a passion - that when a conflict is resolved, I mean properly resolved - not just surfacy resolved... it's just the best thing for a relationship.  It grows and gets closer.  It's fantastic.   The rewards are equivalent to the pain I reckon - actually no, the rewards are worth every bit of the pain.  The rewards are fantastic.  So from that perspective, conflict is fantastic and a great opportunity to build a relationship.  But I reckon lots of conflict doesn't end so well.  Probably the majority, which becomes a festering sore.

It’s not all been bad news though.  I was pissed at a small medical procedure which went a bit wrong during my breast cancer treatment, one that I had not been properly advised about regarding the risks or other alternatives available.  As a breast cancer patient I was at the time very vulnerable and emotions were high and in all directions.  I spent several nights lying awake feeling angry, like I had lost control over what happened to my own body, violated.  When I began to think about a solution, my energy was channelled more positively and I wrote a letter clearly outlining  the things I should have been informed about, expressing how the procedure had impacted me, and suggesting several solutions and asking for the doctor’s help in achieving it.  It expressed everything I needed to say in non-blaming language whilst respectfully explaining that I had not been properly consulted and requested a resolution which involved the doctor.  I wrote it only to clearly articulate my own thoughts and emotions, and I took it with me to the appointment I had booked with him to discuss the issue.  The letter was only for insurance – so I had notes to refer to, so I didn’t leave the appointment feeling like I wished I had said something, or I meant to say something but forgot.  I was so nervous I felt sick.  I sat in the waiting room with my heart pounding in my ears and my breathing shallow.  Finally the moment came and after explaining that I needed to say some things and may refer to my notes, I half verbalised/half read my letter to the doctor.  He very wisely sat and listened to everything.  I could tell he was reacting himself because his face went white, while his nose went red.  However, he was remarkable.  He responded very maturely and made sure he understood by clarifying and acknowledging and even apologised.  He also agreed to my suggested solutions and participated in this wholeheartedly.  I was amazed to find someone so experienced in resolving issues without getting defensive or making things worse.  I could not have hoped for a better result.  Trust was restored and I kept saying over and over to other people how impressed I was with this doctor.  This was a very different ending in comparison to the beginning of our medical relationship.  Conflict, when properly resolved, is a truly beautiful thing.

I still feel things strongly.  Perhaps that’s because after years of conditioning to hide and suppress anger, or avoid it, or avoid any strong unpleasant emotions, that the result has only been to intensify them.  So be it.  That’s what I have to work with now.  I will still keep exploring my relationship with anger.  I would not say it is a pleasant road, although I believe it is a whole lot more ‘pleasanter’ (a word) than it would have been had I not bravely tackled this emotional monster.  Furthermore, I am a lot happier as a person, than if I had a large vat of hidden and stifled anger within me that leaked out every now and then.  And with a few wins on the way – not the least of which has been the most wonderful marriage – I would prefer this road any day to still trying to keep the lid on, hide, suppress, and avoid anger.

I kind of have a forming idea that in Western culture now, with the increase in online technology and individualistic ideals, that over generations, we lose the skills of building, maintaining and growing relationships.  As a kid my family sat around on Sabbaths, conversing and socialising with no TV on.  It developed great conversation skills.  I notice the difference in conversation skills between Adventists and others now.  That says something to me, that the more time we spend doing things alone, the less we seem to use relationship skills.  And when faced with a conflict, we have no software to deal appropriately with it.    I heard stats on the radio that about 1 in 4 Australians feel disconnected and like they ‘don’t belong’ anywhere.  We all seem to want deep, strong friendships.  But somehow we are not meeting others who we connect with, and then connection itself is a skill that requires levels of trust, respect, vulnerability, acceptance, listening and empathy that seem rare to find.

In the last few weeks I have begun to learn techniques which really help to deal with unpleasant emotion.   This is the next step in my anger journey.  These techniques are about identifying emotions and learning not to fight them, but accept them and defuse them.  I am a beginner in this new skill, but it is promising so far and I am quietly excited about its potential. 

So this journey, as they say, is “to be continued...”


  1. Oh I wish I could hug you, what a journey, your gracious, warm, deep, have had an incredible journey and a lot of it I remember vividly, you know bothyou and Meyles are incredible people and I love you both to bits. My anger management class would not be a cless on smiling, but how about a big open field and scream if you want to

  2. Hi Victoria! Thanks so much for your warm response and I will consider myself 'cyber-hugged'. You were an observer of my life through a lot of this stuff and I am humbled and grateful that you still consider me a friend! Kindnesses received during times of crisis are remembered for years to come and I remember a few occasions when I was in receipt of your supportive and kind words. They were like water in the desert at the time. Thank you so much. xx