Thursday, October 18, 2007

Deconstructing rage

I don’t get mad much anymore. Some years ago I had this epiphany in which I realized that when I was angry, that anger was actually hiding…masking…what I was really feeling, which was mostly hurt, fear, and/or disappointment. After some heavy thinking I came to realize that my anger was actually a reaction to one of those feelings, anger being more powerful and empowering than allowing myself to experience, yet again, those emotions I had come to equate with being a victim.

What brought me to that epiphany was a think-session in which I tried to figure out why I cried when I was mad. Talk about dis-empowering! I used to be able to work up a good head of steam…a really intimidating rage…only to have its intended effect completely neutralized by the telltale red nose, watery eyes, and streams of water coursing down my cheeks. Anger…the towering rage kind of anger…used to be the “big gun” in my emotional arsenal. It was effective, it was intimidating, it got me what I wanted, right up to the moment I started to tear up. I knew the tears to be a sign of an escalation of emotion…an expression of a rage so profound I felt like I was going to explode with it, but my victims took quite an opposite view. Instead of the power of my fury, they saw a weeping woman, ineffectually spitting out blunted barbs.

Eventually I would withdraw to a place of privacy and dissolve into a storm of noisy sobs. When that was over, I would emerge and if the situation had not been resolved to my satisfaction, a cold fury would set in. This was the dangerous one, because it fuelled retaliation, rejection, or worse. There were no tears in this determined, steely-eyed rage. It was cold, calculating, and bent on getting what I wanted at all costs. It took me years to untangle this and ultimately discover that this was not my process, it actually belonged to someone else, and the tears were my own personal contribution to it…and my only clue.

By the time I reached my mid-thirties, the cumulative dramas and traumas of my life were beginning to take their toll. I fell into a deep depression and began having suicidal thoughts. When things that would formerly enrage me occurred, I would go to bed, curl into a foetal position, and wish for the dark oblivion of death. During this period I found a therapy group and began to participate twice weekly. In the group sessions, the women would expiate their rages by beating huge pillows with tennis racquets, but I simply observed, clenched and rigid, my rage returned and barely controlled. But by the time I returned home, it had returned to its hiding place beneath my depression where it lay dormant, coiled and ready for its next summons.

I’d like to say that the rage slowly seeped away, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I just got better and better at keeping it under control. A divorce and remarriage later, it still lurked beneath my surface, popping out occasionally for a snack on someone’s ego, never diminishing in strength or potency, but remaining increasingly closeted. And then my husband died.

For the next nine days I was nearly in a fugue. I was unable to eat anything, and slept only when I was falling-down exhausted…and then for only a few hours. My mind, always alert and active, seemed to be a blank. And I couldn’t cry. Finally he was buried and I skipped the family lunch, hosted by the brother-in-law who had spent his life ridiculing and belittling his now-dead brother. I just went home, took off my widow’s weeds and went to sleep. For 20 hours.

I woke up alone and suddenly realized that this was to be my new life. Oh, I had been alone before…I had been divorced, after all, and had been in a more than a few broken relationships in my life, but this time it was different. This time there was no fights and furies and break-ups and make-ups en route to my single status. No indignant “how dare he?” or “what was I thinking?” moments, no grand emotional production leading up to the apocalyptic moment of dumping or being dumped. This time there was a fragile kind of peace around me, a serenity that was not disturbed even by my numbness or sudden, unexpected moments of tears. I was alone, my heart was rent into ragged little bits, but I felt purged of rage. There was no one to be angry with, nothing to be angry about. He was gone, it was nobody’s fault, and he wasn’t coming back.

The next months of being alone were not, surprisingly, lonely. I spent a lot of time fiddling with the computer…something I do to keep my “upper” consciousness occupied with trivialities so my deeper consciousness can work things out and, eventually, kick them upstairs where I can ponder them. About five weeks after he died, my husband came to me while I slept and told me that it was all going to be okay and when I woke up, I knew.

I had a rather grim childhood and adolescence. To speak except when spoken to was to invite a backhand. Despite being a compliant and willing child, I was inept…as children are, until they have sufficient practice to master something…and so I received daily beatings from an unforgiving perfectionist of a mother. In so many ways I was a disappointment to her, and in so many brutal ways she let me know it. And yet, unlike so many children who buy the abuse and come away feeling at fault and therefore deserving of their victimization, I knew, every time that strap bit into my bare flesh, that what she was doing was wrong, that I was being unjustly assaulted…and I would get mad. By the time I was eight years old, I hated my mother with all the fervour an eight-year-old can muster. But to express that hatred was to invite further abuse, so I learned to be silent and nurture the rage, add to it with each new injustice, and eventually allow it to burst forth and defend me.

It took more than half my lifetime to learn that the rage was the mask that protected me from feeling the pain of my mother’s brutality. If I could focus myself on a rage, I would not feel the hurt. I learned to feel angry the moment I perceived any threat, for rage would not only keep me from feeling my fear, if it was big enough, it could actually drive off the threat. I soon came to realize that disappointment also provoked an angry response, too. We all have expectations of others, as well as ourselves, and I discovered that to keep myself from having to experience the pain of disappointment…or the guilt, if I was disappointing myself…all I had to do was stir up a fine rage and its fury would consume all those hurtful feelings so I would not have to experience them.

Once I had synthesized this in my head, I gave the idea to a few of my friends to see what they thought. Without exception, after some reflection on the matter, they agreed. In the throes of a break-up, if you get mad, it doesn’t hurt so much. Facing fearful situations, anger gives you strength, empowerment. And when someone tramples on your expectations, whether it is the third time the plumber has blown you off or it is some idiot who cut you off on the highway, the anger you feel is actually preventing you from feeling the disappointment of having your expectation unfulfilled: that the plumber would come at the appointed time or that the other driver would respect your right of way.

I have come to think of anger as a secondary emotion, an emotion that cannot exist in a pure state, as can fear, for example. Anger is a reaction or mask for certain primary emotions like fear or pain…disappointment being a form of emotional pain, after all. What all of these emotions have in common is that when we feel them, we feel vulnerable, victimized, powerless, at risk. Anger, however, is an empowering, pro-active emotion and the moment we shift from fear to anger, we no longer feel vulnerable, but powered by the adrenaline surge that comes with the advent of rage.

For me, crying through my rages was always a curious thing that neutralized the power of my anger. One cries when hurt or frightened, and it was those tears that eventually put me onto the track that lead me to figuring it out. Today, when I feel anger welling up inside me, I immediately analyze it…fear? pain? disappointment? Did that reckless BMW driver scare me when he passed on a blind curve? Did a person’s remark hurt my feelings? Did I really expect that woman to control her child?

I find that I am more prone to mild annoyance today than anything that approaches anger. I have found I can be outraged by something without being angry about it. I have discovered that there is very little worth working myself into a lather about anymore, not even in my marriage. Hubby and I have a very peaceful life…we hardly ever fight…I just state my case and then shut up until he comes around. Even if it takes him days…

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back.
    You've had many tough times and although its made you tough in parts, your heart is still soft in all the right places.


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