Over the past several months I have been writing about moving through anger while I’m doing it myself. Last week I gave you a glimpse into finding peace amidst adversity. The sun peeking through the dark forest, if you will. Personally, it is knowing the sun always rises that allows me to place my hands on the dark, damp, leaves of the forest and breathe in relief during pain.
As humans, we are conditioned to avoid pain for our own survival. As mammals, we have genetic coding to literally keep us alive. Yet as we developed as a social species and created hierarchies we also developed a great big lie (okay, many great big lies). The specific lie I’m writing about now is that the goal of life is to be happy and that happiness is obtained by achieving external desires.
The forever-running list of “if I just have, look, get, or accomplish I will be happy” purrs in far too many minds. It’s poison looping within our own minds telling us to escape anything that feels unhappy, anything that feels painful. I believe this is why so many of us choose what is wrong for us over what is right. Immediate escape to happiness over a lifetime of hard, right choices.
But what if we learned to choose differently? What if we chose to see pain as a powerful teacher and not something to fear? Pain as a phase and not a state of being? Pain as part of the human experience that allows us to live a fully abundant life? Not fully happy, but fully alive.
The Big Lie
I’ve struggled with this lie many times over my lifetime. Personally, I was not chasing external belongings but belonging itself. From this, I created a narrative of not wanting to do anything that caused harm to another person even if that person was hurting me. I thought by saying, “yes,” all of the time I could keep others happy and if they were happy we would all be connected and I would belong.
Then, when I belonged, I would be happy. I was a belonging junkie if you will. It took a very serious and dangerous situation in my own life to realize that I was dying from my own addiction to belonging. This situation forced me to face the pain of saying, “no,” even when it caused hurt to another person in order to truly find belonging in my own heart.
Saying what is right for yourself can be incredibly painful. It’s so easy to get lost in what is right for everyone else. Remember that part about humans being social animals? We genetically don’t just avoid pain; we also look for companionship, for our tribe. Sometimes we desperately want our tribe to be people who were never truly meant for us. Losing them is hard. Sometimes our own limits and boundaries feel life-threatening to those we love.
Don’t Lie to Yourself
I gently think of parents of a child struggling with addiction. You love your child yet through your love you have to let them go as you hold boundaries set by recovery teams. In less severe cases I believe all parents hold boundaries that can feel uncomfortable towards their own children.
Outside of parenthood, we all have a set of boundaries that protect our sacred selves. Boundaries are the lifeboat in the storm of life. The little raft you hold onto as the pain crashes around you and keeps you afloat until you wash up onto the shore of your next chapter.
By choosing what is right for yourself you must be willing to lose everything the world says is right in order to be strong and wise enough to choose for yourself. Each decision that is right for your own heart is one wave closer to the shore. As you lift your weary head, look around, and start to swim towards the shore you will see some people floating behind you while those who have always been by your side are applauding from the shore.
Choosing what is right for you can be easy at times. Other times it will feel like it’s ripping your soul in two. Perhaps it is the ripping that creates the space for growth. Each right (and hard) decision is the only way to live the life you were born to live. Life isn’t about being happy and comfortable all the time. The abundance of human emotions and spirit are all-wise councils. I’m not sure how happiness alone has sat on the throne for so long.
Authenticity is knocking and she wants her seat back.
Over the course of the summer, I’ve taken you through my understanding of anger. Quite personally I needed to write about it because it was pulsing through my veins. While I have an incredible amount of compassion, empathy, and a commitment to humanity, I am also a human. I cannot yet write fully about what caused this anger but I will tell you a broken system and injustice are involved.
As anger came to me I was overwhelmed by it. I knew that fear was a terrible driver (see blog) but I also knew my anger was real and there was no fear in my anger. It was raw rage. At first, I felt guilt and shame for the rage I felt. The only fear I had was not wanting to take it out on another. I am not perfect (to the woman at the 7th BMV I visited to get my adopted son his driving permit, I am sorry!). Anger pulsed through my veins and I did my best to not take it out on others. I was not my best self.
Dealing with Anger
When my anger spoke to me and said it would not go away I had to do something radical, something I’ve never done before; I sat with anger. Sitting with anger is incredibly uncomfortable. I’ve written to you about sitting with fear, hurt, and pain but never anger. The reason for this is that anger is an active emotion that needs an outlet and in our nervous system. Anger seeks a release. When we feel anger we want to get rid of it. We want to let it out! The problem with this is just as hate begets hate, anger begets anger. You cannot get away from anger by simply releasing it and by releasing it in its raw form you run the risk of hurting yourself or others. Personally, I become very upset if I hurt others or myself. I feel ashamed.
Sitting with anger allowed me to finally be able to see what it was telling me. Instead of looking at anger as an uncomfortable emotion that needed to be released, I chose to look at my anger as a pissed-off friend. I asked my anger, “what’s going on, what’s happening here?” When I lost my temper I quickly said sorry first to my own heart and then the person who received that anger. I don’t excuse the damaging behaviors of others and I certainly do not believe I have the right to damage another person.
As I sat with my anger I was able to see what was blocking my path, what was unjust, and what I could and could not control. What was out of my current control was, of course, the hardest to let go of. This leads me to write about peace amidst fear.
Anger & Fear
Personally, my tribe all knows about what I am fearful of and it’s a lot. Whenever I listen to Glennon Doyle talk about her struggle with anxiety from caring all the time I’m fist-pumping the air. At least half a dozen times a year I call my sister in a panic about something I’ve heard in the news. Mind you this is news someone else has reported to me because, for my mental health, I literally cannot read the news or stay on social media. Reading things like “girls in Africa have trouble going to school because of their menstrual cycle” (https://www.daysforgirls.org) or “the Native Americans are having a water crisis in our country” (https://www.navajowaterproject.org) just about break my soul in two. To me, worth is born the minute we take our first breath as humans, and when human rights are restricted and people are hurting, I hurt too.
I also know that so many of us are pretty well exhausted by the length of the pandemic, the wait for vaccinations for our young children, and hurt deeply by the divide amongst our country. It is a fearful time with no clear end in sight.
Reading through the works of spiritual teachers like Gabby Bernstein help me understand that peace is available to us all of the time. She and other teachers are not wrong in that peace does beat inside our hearts but there is a part of their teachings that I can’t get behind. It is taught that peace and a life of ease are the goals leaving so many feeling defeated and like they are not enough. Constantly trying to be a perfect yogi and find that place of zen as a way of life is not easy.
Learning from Anger
What I have learned over this past year is that pain, grief, anxiety, anger, and fear are simply part of the human experience. These usually coined “negative” emotions are just as natural as joy, happiness, laughter, love, and peace. You cannot know the feeling of a joyful emotion without knowing the painful emotion; you would have no reference point.
Life is not about staying zen, it’s not about being peaceful, loving, warm, and kind all of the time. Life is about honoring your own worth, sharing the gifts you are born with, navigating the storms that may come your way, and knowing that peace is available amidst it all. Peace is not the end goal, peace is a kind teacher that tells us we have a space to land as we feel, learn, and navigate our lives. Peace quiets the noise around us to tell us what’s real–both inside of us and out in the world so we can walk in alignment with the truest form of ourselves. Peace is the friend offering a hand, a hug, and a hot cup of tea when the world is crashing down around you. Peace is the calm in the storm.
We cannot stop pain, thus fear exists. We cannot also not stop love, thus peace exists. The goal is not perfect peace. The goal is radical self-love regardless of what is crashing around the shores of life.
Walk gently with your lives, my darlings. Do not get lost in the waves. Place your hand on your heart, listen to peace beating against your hand, and know all is well.
Over the course of the past several months, I’ve filled my audible account with one healing book after another. If you scroll through it you’ll see writers who supported me as I emotionally held my own heart through the grief and reality I was facing. I hope someday my writing and work can do the same for others.
There are so many inspirational and wise writers, yet one book, Whole Again, by Jackson Mackenzie, gave me a piece of wisdom that helped me understand and unpack much of the shame, guilt, anger, and rage I was feeling. I’d like to share because perhaps the wisdom I learned from Jackson will poke a hole of light in the darknesses another sister or brother is walking.
Whole Again & Judgment
The self-judgment and high expectations I impose on myself have been lifelong struggles. Throughout the years, when something is not working, my first response is to go inward and see what I can change. I also look outward to research because I love knowledge and research. I was learning (still learning) to put down my tendency to inflict self-judgment but when I was facing a divorce I couldn’t resist. I was analyzing my own behavior to try and see what, if anything, I had done so incredibly wrong to have lived through domestic abuse.
To the other victims or survivors out there this one’s for you.
In his book, Whole Again, Jackson recalls a child being punched, kicked, and hit by a school bully. The child who is being hit screams out, lashes out, fights back, and then goes home and thinks “what type of person am I to hit another?” The child hurting them is not having that dialogue with themselves; they are still stuck in taking their anger out on others. This was a game-changing piece for me.
Self-Judgment and You
You see I am not a child being bullied but I have lived through some very unkind relationships. In these relationships when anger, guilt, shame, and the like were taken out on me I was often not very graceful about when I responded. I think many of you have seen the video where I stormed the football field in my new town because my son was facing bullying. I exploded and to this day am a person that perhaps makes that football team uncomfortable. For a long while, I judged myself for that explosion. Now I give myself grace. My son did not deserve to be faced with racism, and my response was valid regardless of its own lack of grace.
Not giving myself grace is also true looking back at my own behavior when I was being abused. This may be true of your behavior if you were or are being abused. My darling loves, when someone is punching you (literally or figuratively) you cannot judge yourself for how you respond. If a person is tied to the stake and fire is sizzling at their feet would you ask them not to scream? No, you are not made to burn and you will scream to the skies.
Self-Judgment & Parenthood
Shifting gears I often hear parents asking if they are good enough in the early days of parenthood. Glennon Doyle reinforces that even by asking that question you are in fact a good parent because people who are not good parents never even consider the question. I have a tattoo (one of many) of the word enough on my right wrist to remind me of this. I am enough. And it is enough.
If we look at this example and apply it to unhealthy relationships and social encounters where you are asking yourself, “was I kind enough,” “did I mess it up again?” Just by asking those questions, you are announcing to yourself that you are a good person. People who are hurting other people are not asking themselves these questions. I hope someday they will but time and fate decide that not me.
I have personally spent a lifetime criticizing my own behavior to make sure that I’m showing up as my best self, that criticism has taken me nowhere but to stress. That criticism was a detour over witnessing what was really happening; abuse. If you are there, wondering what you are doing wrong because of how another person is treating you the answer is this; not a goddamn thing.
Don’t Criticize Yourself When You Think You May Be in an Abusive Situation
If you are in the middle of abuse you might still be screaming at the stake. Scream. It’s OK. I know it hurts. But after you scream, gather the strength you need to gain the knowledge, boundaries, and self-love to stay off the stake. You are not responsible for how others treat you, you are responsible for how you treat yourself.
Choose kindness, choose respect, and tell those harming you to leave. If they return, let it be with kindness and in their time, not yours. You might think you are losing everything but baby, you are gaining your life.
What do you do with anger that’s real? Anger that will burn cities and clear anything and everything in its path? Where did it come from and why is it here?
The very short answer is anger feels good in the moment–it’s the aftershocks that are damaging if they are unleashed without guidance. Anger is a release of pent-up emotions that have no direction to go. The ensuing explosion unleashes this anger and gives us a false pretense of power. Luckily, most of us feel horrible when we get this spot but there are people who abuse others during periods of anger.
Anger & Abuse
For those of you who abuse other people with your anger, know this: there is fear, hurt, shame, guilt, sadness, grief, and other emotions that lie just beneath your anger. While your explosions and “wins” over others may feel like triumphs they are in fact a loss.
When you give in to your anger you abandon yourself and your other emotions. You are also hurting others to make yourself feel better. This is never OK. Not ever. You can heal at any time by choosing to stop hurting others and tend to your wounds.
Onto the rest of us.
Coping with Anger
If you wield your anger like a weapon then feel guilt, shame, or other emotions after an outburst, you are experiencing what most of us experience. We all experience this at some point–no human is perfect (I promise).
Anger is a messenger that you have a lot going on and are either not taking the best care of yourself or are faced with a very challenging situation in life. Anger lets us know that we need love and care. Anger tells us to look at our brave hearts, kind souls, and human feelings and provide care.
Finding the Cause of Anger
Last week I wrote to you about rage. Rage, like anger, is a powerful emotion. When rage is the messenger and not the driver it can be destructive beyond measure. Without direction anger and rage are destructive to you, me, and everyone in our path.
After my first son, Henry, was born I suffered from postpartum depression which was exacerbated by domestic abuse. I don’t have words for the darkness I walked through during that time. I also don’t have words for the shining light of love I found in my son.
I fought my way through postpartum depression with therapy, medication, and a loving community. At the time, I still was not able to identify I was living in domestic abuse. When my son Declan was born less than two years later I was determined to avoid suffering from postpartum depression again.
Looking back at my pregnancy and the birth of my second son is bittersweet because the work and self-care I put in were incredible. None of it involved his father, other than my request to “not attack me while I have the baby.” It didn’t work. What worked was asking my friends and family to wrap me in support, encapsulating my placenta, and taking real maternity leave. I thought I had it down!
This is the point when I started to feel anger, shortly followed by rage.
Avoiding Manifestations of Anger
I remember being stumped when I thought about why I was so angry after my six-week check-up. I am not a quick-to-anger person unless I witness serious injustice. I asked my wonderful OBGYN, who supported me through both births, why I felt anger? She laughed, “you have two children under 2, this is normal!”
While I did not like this answer she was totally right. Henry and I had gotten into our groove over the past 20 months. I knew how to take care of the two of us, but caring for two babies changed our routine. I was also always walking on pins and needles during my previous marriage. My nerves were thin and my children were loud. I was sleep-deprived, nursing, and doing almost all of it on my own. Something felt like it had to give.
Anger told me I needed to find a way to take care of myself so I could cool down as a mama. I felt extreme guilt (as we all do) when I would lose it with my boys. I read this awesome book, How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids, and started a mom-tribe book club where we all applied the practices of the book while supporting each other as mamas.
I would be remiss to not mention the asshole things kids do sometimes. God I love them and, yes, they are all limbic systems, but this is so maddening when they have no survival instincts.
Not Losing Yourself to Anger
I want to let everyone know that anger is completely normal if you are going through early motherhood while living with domestic abuse. If you let the anger take over, however, you will spend most of early motherhood lost in its grasp. If I had totally given into anger I would have missed so many moments with my sons simply because I was depleted.
Now, two years later, while I still have my moments (don’t we all? Mamas?) I also know when I feel anger around the boys, what I really need is a quiet minute and to be present with them. I don’t always parent perfectly (OK, almost never) but ‘reset time’ only takes a few minutes and prevents anger from dominating my parenting, period. All because I listened to what the topography of my anger map was telling me.
Anger still comes for me, as does rage. When I see injustice against others, my children, or myself I can’t begin to explain the flames that rise within my heart. I do know that I unequivocally do not want to hurt another being. The quick release of lashing out in anger can cause long-lasting damage.
Channel Your Rage to be Productive
Anger can feel powerful. All-encompassing anger feels like it can get you anything you desire. I can promise you that this is a lie. What anger is really telling you is to pay attention to your own heart and world so that you can right a wrong. That wrong can either be how you’re caring for yourself (postpartum depression care or lack thereof) or how others are treating you (leaving domestic abuse).
If we choose to listen to anger and rage, rather than act on them immediately, we can learn they can be some of the wisest guides in our lives. Anger and rage tell us what needs to be corrected. Love tells us how to correct it.
You and I can use this wise messenger to become a warrior of love, create the lives we want to live, and build the better world we all envision. Don’t burn it down. Build it up.
Over the last several weeks I’ve written to you about staying true to yourself through trauma and the turmoils of life. As a woman, I used to think that staying true to myself meant being happy and polite all the time. The men in my life have been burdened with a similar mistruth of staying strong and brave all of the time. Brene Brown has a Netflix series and in it, she talks about these gender roles and shame. The pushing down of our truest emotions and the pressure of gender as well as societal roles.
A “Perfect” World
As a child, I was into books that created alternative societies creating a perfect world. Even then I knew the worlds created on the pages were harmful but I was curious why these societies were so “dreamy,” if you will. No one was themselves in these stories. A few examples of the books I read are Brave New World, Stepford Wives, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Giver. Each of these books has a different theme but the bottom line is the same; numb your pain, be quiet about your grievances, and do what’s best for the culture. Sound familiar? It gives me shivers and yes it sounds familiar. Don’t get me started on Disney’s Wall-E.
In these books, conformity is encouraged and societal defiance is looked down upon, with one hero/heroine who questions the metaphorical pillars of society. I would like to think we can all be our own similar types of heroes and find a way back to our sacred ground by honoring each beautiful part of our souls.
Anger & Rage
Anger & rage aren’t talked about enough. The lesson I was fed while growing up was not to make other people uncomfortable. Any emotion that is not pleasant is labeled as a negative emotion, anything negative is a problem to be fixed. But is it? Aren’t anger and rage normal human emotions that we all feel? I think so.
If I’m right, what will you do with the rage in your heart?
I don’t have a full picture of it yet but what I do know is that no human emotion is bad; it’s just part of the human psyche. There isn’t a single emotion that we are in charge of so why do we believe that there are emotions that are negative and others that are positive? That’s the part I’m seeking to understand through my own experience and knowledge as a clinician.
So, if rage is just an emotion and we aren’t in charge why do we care so much about hiding or showing it? Why do we create gender norms to say who has permission to feel and show rage? I wish I had a very educated answer for you but I don’t. I do have a gut feeling that it has a whole lot to do with power and discomfort.
Looking at All the Rage
Here’s what I know about rage so far: Rage is a powerful emotion that tells us something is not right around us, that a threat is present. It’s an external emotion. A messenger if you will. A messenger that loudly screams “I see a threat, I feel unsafe.” When rage screams at us we need to listen. Really. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t. Instead of listening to rage we either use it to lash out (puff up) or crumble (shrink down).
Rage is not a helpful emotion when we do these things. If we listen to rage, however, we can honor ourselves by demanding a life we are worthy of. A life where all our emotions are valid yet our behaviors following them are selected by us, not for us.
What about unfiltered rage? Rage exists as a reflex to perceived injustice. If you are not honest with yourself about what hurts inside of your heart, you, my friend, are at risk of hurting others or yourself with rage that will turn into hate.
Rage & Hate
Hate can seem sexy. It calls to you and whispers, “it’s not you, you are fabulous, wonderful; it’s them.” Hate tells us that we don’t have to feel rage and can quickly move back into happiness if we just remove the threat. Shame tells us we are in fact the problem and need to conform by pushing down the rage. Neither works, both steal a part of our voices and one desires to steal the voices of others.
If we are willing to tell hate we are all fabulous and wonderful but not immune from hurting others or above anyone, we could collectively unravel hate. In its place rage will stand nakedly in front of us demanding a place to be. We can’t let hate come at us. We can’t let hate tell us we are smaller or bigger than we are. We need to remove the hate from our rage to look at injustices both toward ourselves and the world.
I have often written about the forest and fire. That for new growth to come the forest must burn. If the fire is burning around us and we are lost in the flames hate has won. But if we are careful enough to stand amongst the flames, ashen, raw, and open to the change that is coming we can watch birth by flame.
Rage wakes us up and tells us, “you are not being honest, it’s time to come home to yourself.” I’ve written time after time about not numbing your pain, not losing yourself, and not letting the voices from the outside world swallow you. I’ve not been earthside long enough to be immune from cycles of rage and shame attempting to swallow me like flames in the forest. But I have walked through enough of these forests to know that peace comes after it burns and the sun always rises from the ashes.
Listen to rage, but do not let it take over your life. Instead, use rage to take your life back. Fires and all.