It was the second week of the Human Element Practitioner workshop, and I was in the shower trying to solve a mystery. Twice the day before my girlfriend (at the time) had been vulnerable with me and both times I’d made light of it. She got angry at me, I apologized, and then she got angry at me for not getting angry at her. I was frustrated and confused.
She was convinced that I had pent up anger at her and it was now coming out in other ways. She was convinced that I was “poking” at her in these moments of vulnerability because of built up anger or resentment. I didn’t think this was the case, but something didn’t feel right. I went over the clues in front of me:
Earlier in the week I found myself being open to the workshop group about my biggest childhood struggle. Instead of receiving openness from others, I received what I interpreted as judgment. Two other people in the group were then open about their own struggle but did it in a way that felt negative towards me. I was called inauthentic by many of the group and one person called me “snake-like.” I felt attacked.
What did I do? I kept it together, kept my emotion inside, and calmly tried to reason through the situation logically.
A few days later during an exercise, the instructor of the class told me “Things would be better between us if you dropped the facade and stopped being so fucking reasonable.” I know the statement sounds defensive, but I trusted he meant well.
Some people in the class occasionally did get angry (sometimes at me), and afterward I’d feel nervous around them. Once I followed up with someone who I thought might be angry at me. I asked “Are we good? You seemed a little frustrated or angry earlier.” He replied, “I don’t remember much of that, but I was angry and I spoke my truth and I felt better.”
“What an interesting idea” I remember thinking at the moment. People speak their feelings and then feel better? How does that work? What have I been missing? Isn’t anger a defensive and immature emotion? Why would I speak up and be angry? I like to think I’m better than that. If there’s a conflict between us, why wouldn’t I try to figure out what I can be accountable for, and apologize for my part? Emotion just gets in the way right?
Fast forward back to the shower where I was putting the pieces together:
If I wasn’t letting the anger I feel out, was it coming out in other ways I wasn’t fully conscious of? My girlfriend thought this was the case, and well, she has a tendency to figure things out about me a little before I do. *sigh*
I thought back to times that I did get angry at her. Here’s what I remember from them:
- She’d get angry and I’d remain calm. I’d try to reason with her.
- I’d quickly apologize for what I thought was my part.
- I’d try my best to suppress the anger I felt at her, often redirecting the anger at myself.
- I’d get resentful.
- I’d sometimes feel a weight on my chest for days afterward.
- I’d get codependent.
Yup, I’m Codependent
There’s a word I didn’t think I’d ever be using to describe myself. It’s what I do when there’s emotion inside me I can’t deal with myself. In my head I’d described it as “leaning In” when we had conflict in our relationship. I would want to cuddle more. I’d want to talk through the conflict and replay it the way I’d have wanted it to go. I’d want to talk about how much we loved each other. It was me basically saying “Please help me feel better about my emotions, they’re too much for me.”
I felt overwhelmed and behaved codependent immediately after we had any sort of conflict. This was a harsh realization, that I really didn’t like.
Was I suppressing my emotions and they were coming out in my codependent behavior and the passive-aggressive ways when I would “make light” or “poke” at her? ARRRGGG!! I was losing my empathy when I was harboring resentment.
That was it, that was the “Damn, she’s right” moment.
I needed to learn to get angry, let my emotion out, and the thought was really scary. It’s still scary. I care a lot (likely too much) about people liking me, so why would I behave in a way that might cause them to not like me? If I’m reasonable and not angry, there’s less of a chance of being rejected, right?
The problem with this, as you can see from above, is that if I don’t get angry and express myself it will come out in other ways. Thus, I will manifest the very rejection I’m so fucking afraid of.
What’s Scarier Really?
A. Someone who you can tell is angry at you but doesn’t express it and you don’t know why (withholding).
B. Or someone who is open about what they don’t like about your behavior, so you know exactly where you stand.
It’s obvious right? It always comes back to truth and openness, doesn’t it? Even when it’s defensive anger. Withholding is never the right answer. If you have to ask yourself “should I say something?” the answer is always yes.If you have to ask yourself 'should I say something?' the answer is always yes.Click To Tweet
The following week at the workshop my girlfriend and I got angry at each other, we blamed each other for things, and the funniest thing happened. We started to grow closer.
My anger and defensiveness is about me, it’s not about others. When I emote and get my feelings out, it’s me telling my experience. It is not the “right” experience or the “real truth”, but it is “my truth.” When I don’t express my truth when I’m angry I build resentment, and it effects my behavior, often in unconscious ways. It shows up in my lack of empathy when you’re open with me, in my internal feelings about myself, and in codependence.
The best thing I can do when I’m angry is to get it out. It doesn’t have to be defensive, but it can be something as simple as “I don’t think I like it when you ____.” Or even “I feel ___ when you do ___”. This is expressing information, and when I express this am I making my experience known. I’m not telling you this to try to make you feel anything. I can’t make you feel anything. Only you can choose your feelings.
Please get angry at me when you’re angry. I’ll try my best to do the same and stop being so fucking reasonable.
Gregg, thanks for sharing and I agree, anger is vital to a healthy soul. My only caution is to avoid being angry for the sake of being angry.
Anger is something IMHO that should be a “release valve” to properly communicate feelings and perceptions with an individual or group that you believe is important in your life.
I know that can be a hypocritical statement coming from me because I have a temper and have lost it a couple times when working with you – but every day and every action taken is an opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes.
I guess my biggest takeaway from my experiences in anger are (1) avoid making it personal and try to be objective as much as possible and (2) don’t expect exercising your anger will guarantee a change in the person or group you’re addressing.
I say the first because it’s better IMHO to say “Gregg, I’m really unhappy with the decision you made and I’m angry about why you did it and the fact that you’re not looking at the big picture here and potentially hurting the organization in the long run” rather than “Gregg, you fucking code monkey, what the hell were you thinking when you made that decision. You’re an idiot and I’m just pissed.” The former sounds healthier. 😛
I say the second as everyone perceives behavior and actions differently. Chances are anger is driven by your perception and the individual you take the anger out on may not perceive actions or behavior the same way.
Lastly, if you want to get your anger out, buy a heavy bag. I have one and when I notice anger starting to rise within me about something or someone I perceived did something to make me honestly angry, I’ll go out in my garage, break out on the gloves and focus all my concentration on taking my initial anger out on that bag.
30 minutes later and I’m usually physically and mentally exhausted but I’m then able to see past the “knee-jerk anger” and assess the situation with a clear mind. After a couple hours of rest, then I reflect on whether or not to address the situation.
If you want, next time I’m angry about something, I can skip the heavy bag and can meet you for coffee. =)
If you are carrying another’s burden, rather it be a secret affair or a misdeed from the past, anger will be the outlet whence you realize how it affects your life. You could direct your anger towards yourself (you participated)and achieve much better results than lashing out . Work the anger hitting golf balls or scuba diving etc.However, the issue should be discussed by all relevant parties, and new boundaries should be implemented.
Rachel, I mostly agree with you, up until you said that “You could direct your anger towards yourself (you participated) and achieve much better results”. Letting your anger out (even if it’s defensive) I think is healthier than keeping it inside. By letting it out (if you are truly doing it well) you’re letting your truth be known. Holding it in is not healthy. It will come out in other ways like I mentioned in my article. I’m sure my health is affected by it.
I used to do this too. I still do to some extent. My BF broke up with me and said I ‘needed to be more of a b*tch.’ At the time I was thinking that I’m not a mean person so why would I act like one? We’re friends but after discussing it with him, he meant I needed to stand up for myself more.
I’m the older sister and my younger sister was *extremely* stroppy growing up so I learned to just let her get her way and not say anything because it was better to keep the peace than to get screamed at or hit. At high school I was bullied, although not too badly, and learned to say nothing and keep my head down. The worst thing was being yelled at on the street by total strangers. I had sticky-out teeth back then so I would be called ‘Bugs Bunny’, ‘Goofy’, and have all that kind of stuff. Surprisingly, kids never did it – it was adults! I can find that pattern all throughout my life, including the time I was bullied out of a job by a coworker who was a pathological liar. Now I’m aware of the way I internalise everything, I can change it. I still don’t get that angry but when someone does something horrible and I feel a negative emotion from it – even if I can’t give that emotion a definite name – then I say something. I’m OK with speaking up to defend myself in a way I never have been before. It’s only taken me 33 years to figure it out!
Case in point, last night that same ex-BF mentioned above asked me to check his FB to see if his selfies for his Bumble account were public. They weren’t but while I was checking, I had this weird negative feeling, probably more a mix of negative feelings that I couldn’t identify. After we hung up, I realised what had been bugging me: of all the people on his FB list, he chose me, his ex girlfriend, to check to see if his dating profile photos were visible. Why did he think that was a good idea???! Ordinarily I’d have ignored it but felt crap for a few days; this time I called him out on his stupid choice, told him not to pull a stunt like that again, and felt a bit better. I’m still not happy about it but I feel proud that I stood up for myself even a little bit.
I’m not perfect and I’m still learning but I truly think it’s worth the effort to show my anger and will be valuable later on. Sorry, this is really long. I mostly just wanted to say your post resonated with me. 😀