Your Anger is Your Problem: How to End the Guilt Cycle When You’re Recovering from Abuse Yourself
“What’s the matter with you anyway?”
His tone was caustic and dripping with vitriol.
I’d heard this before. I had gone out and gotten my friend a piece of coffee cake from a bakery that he loved. Three pieces, in fact. He was now angry because he didn’t want it.
It was an imposition, he said.
An assault, he said.
Like I’m pushing food at him.
At what point does a person- who says he cares- attack you for going forty-five minutes out of your way to do a kind thing, accuse you of “assault?”
When does getting someone their favorite coffee cake become an “assault?”
For doing your level best to be kind and appreciative?
When someone is harboring deep anger. Smouldering anger that has nothing whatsoever to do with you.
Doesn’t feel that way, does it?
The problem is that for those of us who have been sexually assaulted and verbally abused, who grew up in alcoholic households, we wear that anger like a hair shirt.
Of course its my fault.
Of course I should have known better.
Of course you’re right, I’m stupid. I should have been a mind reader.
Some days, kindness. Others, a whack out of the blue for no conceivable reason at all.
For those crumbs of kindness, which keep us hooked in, we will endure endless abuse.
I liken it to walking around in a dark room where there’s a sharp pendulum moving erratically in all directions. You never know when you’ll get cut. Some days you miss it entirely. Others, it slices you right down to your liver.
Hard to function normally, be happy, in that kind of environment. With other’s unpredictability.
When someone else’s anger dictates their outbursts, and you happen to be a handy target. Those we say we love receive the greater sum of the childhood angst we carry.
What’s worse is that no amount of talking solves this problem. Most often you get faced with denial. Or, a promise to do better.
Then a few days later, the cycle begins again.
A few months back I was living with someone like this.
I don’t remember what caused the crack in my own consciousness. What final door I opened to see what I was allowing.
All I can remember was that I woke up one morning realizing that what I was seeing was someone who was carrying a vast anvil of anger.
It had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Nada. Never did. Never would.
I knew some of the family history. There was good reason for this.
Not a good reason to browbeat me. I may have my faults, but going out of my way to find beautiful red strawberries (which he loved) and then getting castigated for a loving courtesy isn’t one of them.
That’s way out of line.
And it’s not my problem. Not one bit.
Those of us who carry the burden of our parents’ transgressions often feel the weight of guilt of those we draw to us to help us move beyond those repetitive behaviors. We draw angry women, angry men to us. The journey is to not be victimized.
Many years ago I was in New Zealand, in a small camper van with my parents. One night I cooked up a lovely lamb dinner with all the trimmings, just the way I knew my parents liked theirs. When I served the plates, which were beautifully presented, my father took one look and shoved his across the table. Bits of bright green salad, lovingly tossed, fell onto the formica.
“I can’t eat this,” he whined, petulantly. He sounded like a two-year-old-brat. He WAS a two-year-old brat. He’d had way too many vodkas by that point.
My mother looked at him with disgust as he sat there with his lower lip pushed out. He was angry at me.
For what, dear God? Spending two hours in that tiny camper kitchen, making a gorgeous meal, a favorite food, for my parents?
He refused to eat. Pouted for hours. Over absolutely nothing.
I of course felt guilty. I’d done absolutely nothing wrong. Not a damned thing. Yet I wore the guilt for my father’s puerile, bratty behavior.
This was how my father manipulated those around him, through his temper tantrums, his drunken diatribes, his angry pouting.
If you called him on it he’d deny it vehemently and throw yet another tantrum. How DARE I question my all-powerful (drunk) father?
My friend was doing precisely the same thing.
Life Lessons. We attract the same men (and women) into our lives like moths to a flame. Over and over. Until we see the pattern. Until we build the courage. Until we..
learn to set boundaries. My god, it’s hard.
This morning as I was getting a Thai massage from my buddy Melissa, she regaled me with a similar story.
She was working for a moving company many years back. One day her boss, a man with a Napoleon complex who sexually abused the office women, marched into her office. He slammed his fist on her desk and began shouting at her. Spittle landed on her face as he leaned threateningly until he was inches away.
She stopped him mid-sentence.
“You will NOT treat me like that. You will NOT speak to me like that. Or else I will leave RIGHT NOW.”
She meant it. He backed off. Bullies are like that.
She told me that she felt sorry for him because he was the company’s whipping boy.
That doesn’t justify his cascading his crap onto everyone else, especially women.
My friend has some lovely qualities, as do most of us. None of us is wholly defined by a set of unattractive behaviors. They’re mixed in like licorice in the midst of all the other Jelly Bellies. I hate licorice. But every so often in the theater I’ll bite into one (well shit) and then spit it out.
You can’t see it coming, then your mouth is full of unpleasantness.
Like living with a guy or gal with an anger problem. You’re forever walking on eggshells.
Like it’s your fault they’re angry. Well, it’s not.
Something rose up in me that morning. I’ve no clue its origin, only that I suddenly saw my friend’s anger as a thing separate from me. Like a coiled cobra, always ready to strike.
What was different was that I saw its separateness- how it wasn’t my cobra. Wasn’t my problem. It was his.
My friend’s angry, abusive father cascaded unpredictable wrath onto my friend.
While his history and life experiences might have justifiably led to his personal issues, that didn’t give him the right to be verbally abusive to those who cared for him.
Nor, by the same token, did I need to carry his burden. I didn’t sign up to be a punching bag. My angry, alcoholic father left me with behaviors that I needed to heal in order to have a healthy life.
That history doesn’t justify my behaving like a victim, owning others’ issues and carrying their anger. That’s not his problem. It’s mine.
We draw precisely the right people to us to give us what we need to heal ourselves.
The person who sees the pattern first-to my mind, at least- is responsible for taking the first step.
Here’s what I began to put into practice.
While I would never imply that this was easy or overnight, I began exercising a badly-atrophied muscle. The muscle that sets clear, powerful, healthy boundaries. The boundary that acknowledges others’ rights to their feelings, but protects me from wearing them as though I were the cause.
Angry? Kindly, that’s your issue, not mine. Take it outside. Take it downstairs. But you don’t get take it out on me. I did nothing to deserve this. Figure it out on your own if you won’t talk it out. But I will not wear your anger.
You do not have the right to speak to me this way. You need an outlet? Take a walk. Go to the gym. Go break a rock somewhere. You don’t have permission to break my heart.
None of these words has to be shouted or said in anger. To do so gives our power away. Rather, what is said in grace, in understanding, heals us both. Allows permission for both of us, of you, to be who we are, be in our pain, and offered another avenue.
Becoming a victim perpetuates the cycle handed to us by our parents. Our guardians. You can be righteous in your pain, and your desire for revenge.
Or you can rise in your willingness to understand, forgive, and set fair boundaries with love and respect for both parties.
It’s hard damned work. And worth it.
You and I come to our emotions rightfully. We develop our fears about our worth and our damage from early childhood. But it’s also our responsibility to have the damage lift us rather than let it define us.
It’s just as dysfunctional that I find it immensely challenging to deal with others’ misdirected anger as that person’s anger. They are twins of the same coin. We are drawn together to learn. Nobody’s fault.
But it is our journey, should we wish to embark on it, to heal ourselves.
There is no secret sauce, no magic moment when it’s all better and my friend turned into a Prince and I suddenly turned into Wonder Woman. Not at all.
What did evolve was a certain amount of grace. A willingness to see our humanity in his anger, and my compulsion to wear it. And with that forgiveness, a beginning.
I saw his anger as a gift.
Because contained in his anger are the seeds to my freedom. Just as contained in my ability to set fair boundaries, lies his.
Every time I can say no to his anger with courtesy and grace, I rise.
Every time he can see what he is doing and choose to take responsibility for it, he will rise.
Some days this may work. Others, it may not.
This is the purpose of relationship.
We can heal each other.
Or we can be victims, forever tethered to the tortured history of our progenitors.
This is the work we came here to do. To rise. And as we rise, we take others with us. Not in spite of them, but because of them.
And that is, indeed, a gift.