I’ve made no secret of the fact that I grew up in an abusive home dominated by a violent alcoholic. Certain friends and family members have expressed concern (and in some cases, extreme displeasure), that I am “airing dirty laundry” here on my blog, and I get it. I understand their concern, and I respect their view. I share neither their concern nor their view, however. I believe that the only way to effectively address our darkest impulses and behaviors is to shine a light on them and examine them objectively.
I vividly recall a certain argument I once had with my (then) fiancé way back in 1995. I was just 25 years old at the time, and I’d very recently moved to Seward, Alaska to be with the man I planned to marry. The image of that argument is so clearly etched in my mind that I can literally close my eyes and watch the replay like a movie. Occasionally I’ll experience something in my present life that will bring that memory flooding back to the forefront of my mind. I had one of those experiences yesterday, and that memory is now keeping me awake—compelling me to write about it at 3:48 AM.
We’d only been ‘home’ in Seward for three days after spending the three days prior driving from Fort Collins, CO to Alaska. The trip was extremely stressful, and I found myself continually on edge from the moment “Sam” (not his real name) arrived at Denver International Airport. We fought a lot on the drive to Alaska. We were completely out of synch with one another, and it seemed that the more we tried to get back in synch, the further out of phase we ended up. I finally resorted to sleep as a means of escape. The 3-day drive (which should really have taken more like 5-6 days) was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. So much so that I was basically reduced to a petulant toddler ready to throw a raging tantrum at the slightest provocation.
My third day as a resident of Seward, AK was gloriously sunny and clear—a rarity in that tiny coastal town. I woke up that morning determined to get back on the same page with Sam, and we got off to a really good start. I made breakfast and promised to help him do some work in the yard as soon as I tidied up the kitchen. Meanwhile, he went out and washed my Bronco, which was still caked with mud and road grime from the long drive to Alaska. We were both clearly trying, and the bright sunny day seemed like a positive sign that things were going to be okay. Almost immediately after I joined Sam outside, however, the energy between us shifted back out of phase. We were stacking some wood together when my approach to the job prompted Sam to mildly criticize my technique. He wasn’t particularly tactful with his criticism, but he wasn’t malicious about it either. Yet, the fact that he had (what I assumed was) the audacity to criticize me at all ignited the hair-triggered temper I had back then, and I flew into a rage.
We both started shouting over one other, and then he suddenly lowered his voice and asked me, “Why are you so angry?” I was stunned silent because I didn’t have an answer to his question. I racked my brain to come up with a particular slight he’d made that was at the root of my rage, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything specific. So, with all the maturity and grace of a petulant toddler, I stormed off into the house and refused to speak to him for the rest of the day.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment marked a major turning point in my life. It was in that moment that my quest to truly understand myself, my past, and the ways in which my upbringing influenced my behavior began. Until Sam stumped me with that very pointed question, I’d never seriously questioned my past or how it shaped me. Once the urgency to break away from my father’s tyranny had passed when I first moved 250 miles away from home, I naively assumed that I was free of my past. I later realized, of course, that I had a lot of work to do in order to shake the influence of my volatile father.
Things didn’t work out with Sam. We struggled to hold it together for about three months before we finally gave up and went our separate ways. When I reflect back on that experience, however, I’m incredibly grateful to him for asking me that crucially important question at a critical juncture in my life:
Why are you so angry?
Those words became sort of a mantra for me from that day forward. I began to monitor my moods and my behavior, and whenever I became aware that I might be overreacting to something trivial, I’d ask myself that question. Gradually I realize that the perceived slights that ignited my temper—someone cutting me off in traffic, a snarky remark from a coworker, bad service at a restaurant, etc.—were not worth the energy I gave them. Yet I still struggled to come up with an answer to that question. Why was I so angry, anyway?
To this day I can’t put my finger on it. The rage that I’d unconsciously internalized at some point in my life, and that I’d been blind to until Sam called it to my attention, couldn’t be tied to a specific person, place, or thing. The closest I ever came to identifying the root of my internal rage was acknowledging that I’d experienced more betrayals of trust than the average individual. I was betrayed by several family members in early childhood and later by friends, classmates and peers. My first boyfriend cruelly executed a malicious act of revenge against me that I think stunned even him once he realized how badly he’d wounded me. My discomfort with vulnerability can be clearly traced to that very specific event, but not my anger. So, where does the anger come from?
I don’t know. I spent years seeking a definitive answer to that question, but somewhere along the way I realized that it ultimately doesn’t matter. All that really does matter is that I’m willing and self-aware enough to ask myself that pointed question (which, to this day, I still hear in in Sam’s voice in my mind) in the heat of a moment so I can re-balance my perspective and behave accordingly.
Why are you so angry?
I’m able to recognize that the things that make me angry today aren’t big enough to allow my impetuous, impulsive id to throw a temper tantrum. And now that I’m a parent and a role model for a very perceptive preteen who grows more independent every day, I’m acutely aware that I may be influencing her through my own reactions to the perceived slights we all encounter daily on the road, at work, and in our daily interactions with random strangers.
The next time you find yourself seething with rage because someone cut in front of you in the checkout line or because they weren’t driving fast enough for you to make it through an intersection before the light turned yellow, ask yourself:
Why are you so angry?
I’ll bet you’ll learn that the answer to that question has nothing to do with the woman who cut in line or the driver who was more engaged in conversation with his passenger than he was with the act of driving at the moment you happened to be behind him. Like me, you may never be able to pinpoint a specific answer to that question, but in this instance, just asking the question is far more important than answering it.
Internalized anger is like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at the slightest provocation. Take it from someone who survived the volatile temper of a raging alcoholic as a child and then spent a lifetime working to master her own impetuous, impulsive id as a result: get a grip on your internalized anger before it turns destructive.
Don’t allow it to hurt someone you love or to destroy your relationships. It’s just not worth it.