It’s very hard to separate rational truth from what we were taught as children.
For as far back as I can recall I have strived to avoid conflict. With everyone, in every circumstance, regardless the consequences. Not only do I stifle eruptions of anger that well up within myself (even if justified) I do everything to avoid others becoming angry with me, especially in public. As would be expected this has exacted quite a cost emotionally and at times financially and professionally.
My husband challenged me recently to consider this pattern of behavior; to study it deeply and identify why I often sacrifice everything at the altar of ‘keeping the peace’. So I did. I took time away from distractions and set myself down to pray and pursue and unravel this compulsion that often costs me so dearly.
Here is what I discovered.
From the time I was a very small child my mother would frequently yell at me. It was terrifying, loud, sometimes accompanied by physical violence (throwing things). I never had to ask ‘why’ she was angry; she always volunteered the reasons:
~if only I was a good girl she wouldn’t be angry all the time
~I *made* her yell at me because I am terrible daughter/person
Paired with my Mom’s behavior was my father’s frequent derogatory comments and put-downs regarding my appearance, my personality and my behavior. He was on the same page as my mother in explaining why he treated me this way:
~I tell you this terrible truths because I love you and want you to become a good person
From both sides it was clear: I was a bad person. I could be a good person. If I could figure out HOW to be a good person, the yelling and the derogatory comments would stop. From this I could also extrapolate that if someone expressed anger with me in public everyone within sight/earshot of the scene would find out that I am a bad person (b/c why else would someone be angry with me?).
This may seems ridiculous, shocking, or unbelievable but I held onto this thinking well into adulthood. That is why others expressing anger has always been interpreted as terrifying reinforcement that I AM TERRIBLE. And since I don’t want anyone else to every hear “YOU ARE TERRIBLE”, likewise I rarely express anger toward others.
Jon’s prompting to *really* think about these issues lead me down a fruitful road. Not only did I honestly analyze the beginnings of these ideas and feelings but I was ready to evaluate them objectively. And that’s when, at age 35 (approximately 2 months ago) I realized my concept of anger is completely flawed.
Truth is, there are many reasons why someone might express anger toward me:
~ they are angry at something/someone else and taking it out on me instead
~I did something and it upset them and I need to evaluate whether their upset is reasonable (and take action to amend) or unreasonable (and let it roll off or explain to them why I’m not amending behavior). This doesn’t mean I am terrible, just means I might have some behavior changes to make.
~they are mentally ill
~they are sadistic
~they are jealous and want to hurt me
~they are proud and their ego is feeling threatened
~other (I am sure there are more reasons)
When I first came up with my list I sat down, stupefied, in the realization that I was able to rationally make sense of it all on paper. But would you believe readers that just because it makes sense on paper I still struggle with letting go of the old way of thinking? I’m working on frequent self-talk and corrective thinking:
“Anger != I am terrible. Anger != I am terrible.”
I repeat this mantra in my thoughts frequently, especially when others are clearly on the verge of expressing anger toward me. It’s very difficult in the moment of an angry scene to remember this truth, but I am working on it. And working on it allows me to stay emotionally reasonable and open to hearing what the angry person is attempting to communicate instead of curling up into a self-hatred ball inside myself. A long and slow road ahead but I have a map now. I have a map now!