“I have crossed the horizon to find you – I know your name. They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you. This is not who you are. You know who you are.”
Well, it’s December 1st. I’ve written four different drafts for the “November” letter and none would stick. I like the way this one has shaped up now, but my goodness. This fall has wiped me out! Not necessarily in a bad way – it’s just been really full. I’ve taken this self-improvement/codependency recovery work seriously, especially in the areas of courage, compassion, and connection. I joined a women’s running club and have been doing crazy things like waking up and running with strangers-turned-friends before the clock hits 5:00am. I’m going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 at the latest… and sometimes 7:30. I’m saying “no” to a lot of important things and “yes” to the few, most important things.
But writing has taken a backseat for the past two months and for that I apologize. These letters are important to me and though the fall wiped me out (even physically, I’m writing this six days into a nasty cold), I’m coming back strong. This month’s letter is all about anger and pain and redemption and connection and, well, most of these letters are, that’s true. But for this one I get to use my absolute favorite line from one of my all-time favorite movies (see above).
Several weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an article shared by The Gottman Institute (go and follow their page immediately). The title was “When Anxiety Presents as Anger, Not Fear,” and being a shrewd consumer of social media I shared it immediately without even reading the article. I was so taken with the idea of anger being an expression of anxiety at its heart. It’s as though something deep inside – most likely my inner child – piped up and screamed, “THAT. THAT’S IT. THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED.”
I did end up reading the article, which moved my inner child even more, particularly when the author wrote about what having anger-presenting anxiety looked like for her as a child: “When I was a kid and my sister was comforted for being upset, I was scolded for losing my temper.”
Now, I want to clarify that this isn’t a rant against my parents or my teachers or any other adults in my life who saw my anger and did the best they could to help. This is a testament to how, as a culture, we don’t know how to handle anger.
I used to be a highly anxious person. As a child, as a teenager, as a young adult – highly anxious. It didn’t always felt like anxiety, though. Not the way we’re told to expect it. I was unsure of myself. Desperate for a solid, consistent source of acceptance, affirmation, and unconditional love. (Who isn’t, right?) For some reason, my super-sensitive self was terrified of abandonment, loss, rejection, you name it. I was reeling from my parents’ divorce at a young age, a remarriage and another divorce on one parent’s side, and a remarriage and a new sibling on the other. Everything was threatening and I lived in survival mode, except it didn’t always look like it on the outside.
This all-encompassing anxiety – my deep fear that I was not lovable, that I did not belong, that I would lose everyone and everything important to me – rarely, if ever, expressed itself as fear or sadness. It came out as anger. Big time. And the thing about anger is that it’s not as “lovable” as fear or sadness. We sympathize with fear and sadness. But anger…
Another thing about anger is that while it’s the “only acceptable emotion” for men (more on this bullshit later), it’s universally vilified coming from a female. Most people have no idea what to do with an angry woman, except to write her off as being a bitch or completely hysterical – either way, there is no allowance for her anger – and that, too, is bullshit. (For more on this, read Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Anger.” You’re welcome in advance.)
People generally tend to treat anger as a conscious choice, and a poor one at that—even from a toddler—while treating fear or sadness with tenderness and empathy.
But anger isn’t always a conscious choice.
I never wanted to be angry, but that’s what came out.
You know that part at the end of “Moana” [SPOILER ALERT!] when Moana decides to approach the fire monster Teka, having finally realized Teka is actually the green goddess Tafiki, who had her heart stolen? And Moana sings to Teka and tells her “I know who you are – this is not who you are, you know who you are?” Moana gets in close and puts her head against Teka and she changes back into Tafiki – I swear I’m moved to tears just thinking about it. Because I have been the fire monster, driven to rage and resentment because of unresolved pain and unmanaged anxiety. I have had the heart stolen from inside me, to use the words from Moana’s song, however dramatic they may seem.
Can you relate to this? How many of us are walking around like Teka, desperate for someone to see that this is not who we are, to see the real us, and to help us be who we know we are once again?
The thing that gets me about this scene is how perfectly it illustrates a better way to address and heal anger – with courage, compassion, and connection. Maybe that’s why I love “Moana” so much – it’s basically a Brené Brown book.
It is completely counterintuitive, like how the solution to oily skin is more moisture (because our bodies overcompensate whenever we’re deficient), but anger can only be truly diffused if met with courage, compassion, and connection. I know how unappealing it sounds – who wants to respond to an angry, hurtful outburst with love and empathy? But people who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving ways.
I think we tend to see two responses to anger most frequently – disengaging completely or engaging with anger in return. I understand both. We disengage because we don’t want to get involved, we don’t want to enable, we want to teach them that we don’t accept their anger. Or, we meet them with our own anger because we’re feeling hurt or attacked. Neither response is remotely helpful on the whole. But there is another way: connection. And it requires courage and compassion!
We often treat anger, especially in children, as a behavior problem, when really it’s a connection break. It’s a feeling that needs to be noticed, not stifled. Released. Directed. Shown where to go – safely, helpfully.
My son will be three in January. His emotions are all over the place. But I know who he is, and I know his angry outbursts are a signal of something deeper. I know how to connect with him and help bring him back to himself. The incredible, wonderful, life-saving thing is that over the past several months I’ve learned to do this with myself as well. I know the signs. I know what to do when I find myself feeling angry – I ask myself, Where does it hurt? What am I afraid of? Where is the disconnect?
How different would the world be if instead of shaming anger or punishing it or keeping it at a distance, we approached it with love and grace and courage and compassion and vulnerability and said “I see you. Show me where it hurts.”
I feel like there are pages and pages I could write on this topic. To be honest, I’ve experienced a bit of “paralysis from analysis” the past few weeks trying to put this month’s letter together. It’s bizarre, because September I was all about accepting imperfection, only to be sidelined by it two months later. Such is the journey, friend. I am going to revisit this theme in a future letter, especially as I’m coming to terms with my own codependency. Those of us who have loved and lived with an alcoholic know anger, and we have every justifiable reason to. But that’s for another letter.
It takes a crazy amount of courage to choose compassion and seek connection with someone who is angry. I’m practicing this regularly on myself and with the people in my life. It changes things when instead of assuming someone is just an angry, ugly person on the inside I remember that they, too, have an inner child and a heart like mine and might be, just like me, trying to do their best when they’re feeling at their worst.
Until next time.