Poor John. I was so happy & peaceful when we met, fell in love, married. After we were hitched, he was taken unawares when some relatively trivial problem came up & I blew a gasket. Instead of coming right back at me with disbelieving anger of his own, he looked at me aghast, then asked one question, “What is the matter?”
I stopped cold in mid-rant, my jaw dropped & I said something like, “Whaaaaa?”
John looked me in the eye & repeated the question, “What is the matter?”
I was totally thrown – no one had ever asked me that question before. I launched into a heated description of what he’d said to tear my heart out. He listened.
He listened carefully, letting me get it all out. Then, he sat down next to me & said, “You heard me say…” and repeated back to me, exactly, that very thing. THEN, he said, “No wonder you’re upset by what you understood. What I MEANT by what I said was…” and he went on to explain the message he’d hoped to convey.
John, in that one exchange, won my deepest admiration & keenest envy – – I wanted to do what he did. Not getting sucked into an emotional maelstrom, instead listening through the upset for understanding. John was able to get past the angry person to discover the root of my anger. And although it was not justified by what he’d meant to convey, he could understand the furor based on how it had registered in MY brain, seeping through layers of ancient wounds. Wow…
Twenty-eight years later, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between anger & being angry. Anger is meant to be like a robust sneeze or, for me, a scratchy throat – a warning that things are not well, that attention has to be paid to something. It seems to me that being angry includes some loss of control.
The Whaaaaa problem that needed to be identified was that our separate processes were woefully out of sync, a common problem with newly weds (right up there with does the Christmas tree have large twinkly colored lights with a big flashing star at the top or steady-glow tiny white lights topped with an angel made by a brother back in 4th grade).
I’d like to say that I saw the righteousness of John’s approach & never ever fell into the pit of lash-out anger again. The old triggers of invisibility & disconnection still do the occasional back flip into my processing, sidelining a response to make way for a reaction. But John stays steady, still looking for what’s up at the heart of my distress.
It was John who taught me about the value of anger, that emotions are supposed to wake us up to what’s happening, positive or negative, constructive or unproductive.
It was a message I was ready to hear.
My own family has a long history of avoiding confrontation at all costs. The tendency from Mom’s side of the family was to tolerate pervasive conflict rather than face difficult reality. Which always seemed weird to me, even as a kid, because disagreements are a natural part of life. And having a disagreement, having to bring up tough topics in order to get past them, are essential tools for growth, both personally & within relationship.
I am forever grateful for having a sister-in-law who didn’t hesitate to share what she saw as off-kilter & did so without getty angry. She was heated but calm telling Mom, “For someone who talks all the time about communication, you do darn little of it.” Of course, we all thought it hysterically funny, but Pam was absolutely on target – Mom did NOT walk her talk. Small wonder. Experience taught her the “wisdom” of laying low – – stand up & get mowed down.
By hanging out with John, seeing how much better his life functioned than ours, Mom & I learned the importance of feeling expressing sharing healthy anger at appropriate times, in appropriate ways. Some things we discovered included…
> If you feel just cause to be unhappy with someone, look for a way to share it while the issue is active, fresh. Sidestepping issues can lead to disastrous results. Mom was an epic side stepper, although I doubt she topped the family member who, back in 1973, wrote to Mom about how awful I had been to her, that one reason she was happy to have moved away was that I could no hurt her. The kicker is that in the same paragraph, she acknowledged never talking to me about any of it – – but i was okay with her if Mom did. That never-shared anger, which she felt was justified, finally spewed out at a terrible time, in a terrible way – – 24 years later. How differently things might have gone if she’d shared with me how I made her feel, all those years ago.
> Be as honest as possible; leave doors open rather than using the “truth” to slam them shut. Since 2010, I’d tried to make contact with my sister & oldest brother through One Book, One Family. It ultimately reconnected me with Mim, no response from Peter. A couple years later, I decided to take another stab. John & I took over food from one of his favorite Chinese places. When I left it at the Front Desk of his domicile, the woman asked me, “Don’t you want to give it to him yourself?” I paused, then replied, “I don’t know how my brother feels about me NOW, but at one time I was like fingers on a chalkboard to him. His feelings might have changed, but I do not have the energy to risk they haven’t.” I was open, honest. And when we got home, there was a flashing light on the answering machine & a lovely message from Peter.
> Put improving communication – “What is the matter?” – over pinning blame. Brene Brown says she & her husband use the “story” line to help defuse testy situations. If she feels there is a problem, she’ll tell him, “The story I am telling myself about this is…” which acknowledges that a) it is a story, not necessarily the truth & b) she recognizes & respects he has his story, too. Their goal is to put finding common ground over blaming & shaming.
> Resist the urge to retaliate. Speaks for itself. I learned very early, from John, that retaliation & relationship are incompatible.
> Respect anger, honoring it as a tool to greater understanding. This was a particularly tough row for Mom to hoe – to her, all anger was from hell. She was used to people who were angry at her being abusive. It took her many years to accept that people can express anger without wanting to dominate, without others losing control.
BOTTOM LINE: Approriate anger, where we’re focused on the situation rather than the person, is fleeting, felt, expressed, learned from & moved past. It supports healthy relationships. ~ Abusive anger is rooted in our ego, cares squat about relationship, seeks to fix blame & attach shame, never to gain better understanding & deeper compassion. ~ Healthy anger is released; harmful anger lingers festers grows.
We are never too old to step past losing our anger with long-time triggers. Mim was 66 years old when we got past ancient gunk to create an new relationship. Peter was in his mid 70s! With both sibs, there would be times when flashes of the old arrrgggghhhh anger would flash, but we’d set it aside & move past it. I’ve seen more older people be able to set aside ancient sources of losing it, choosing relationship, than I’ve seen entrenched in a need for blame shame retaliation. Not a mere hope – actual experience!
Anger is just anger. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It just is. What you do with it is what matters. It’s like anything else. You can use it to build or to destroy. You just have to make the choice. – Jim Butcher
A man can’t eat anger for breakfast and sleep with it at night and not suffer damage to his soul. – Garrison Keillor
Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean. – Maya Angelou