I had only been married to my first husband for less than a year when I taught him it wasn’t safe to be angry.
Then, for the next 29 years until we divorced, I wanted him to show me some emotion and he just couldn’t.
Was it my fault?
I’m not sure.
All I know is that I wanted more and he couldn’t give it to me.
And then I learned something important about me. I wasn’t very good at emotions either.
Anger is one of those emotions that’s generally considered “negative,” undesirable or dark. Most of us don’t want it in our lives—either being with an angry person or expressing it.
It’s not comfortable. It’s messy. It can be scary.
But what if anger can be a gift and we don’t know it?
What if hiding it, covering it over or not even recognizing it when it’s inside
isn’t the superior way it’s cracked up to be?
What if expressing anger fully won’t get us what we think we want either?
Growing up in a family that didn’t express anger (or any “negative” emotion) taught me how to ignore any feelings that even remotely bordered on not being pleasant, compliant or in control.
Anger, sadness, or fear wasn’t in our family lexicon. It seemed like it was okay or even encouraged to worry about those you love but that was all the further wandering into “unpleasant” emotions went.
I saw my mother manipulate and sometimes use sarcasm with my father to get her way but all I saw from him was withdrawing from the situation. When I was very young, I remember he was angry with me once and I was afraid and unsure about what he’d do to me. But I hid under my bed and didn’t come out until he left.
He never did that again. He left discipline as it was to my mother.
In some sense, I learned anger was something to be feared and never to be expressed or felt.
Early in my marriage to my first husband, he exploded in a way that scared me. I remember him kicking the playpen when our 9 month old daughter was in it. She wasn’t hurt but he scared me and I grabbed her up, leaving the apartment not knowing where to go or what to do.
I eventually went back into the apartment when my husband cooled down but he learned his lesson and never expressed his anger again in that way.
In fact, as I look back, it appeared that he shut down not only his anger that day but also sadness and any other emotion that he thought wasn’t acceptable.
Years later, I accused him of being emotionally unavailable when we were driving back from my grandfather’s funeral. I remember verbally clawing at him–wanting him to show some emotion–asking him in a not-so-kind voice, “Didn’t you love him?”
I knew my husband had loved my grandfather but I was trying to get him to show me anything he was feeling—but he didn’t.
It wasn’t until years later after our divorce and with my beloved Otto’s help that I learned it was me who wasn’t expressing MY emotions.
It was me who wasn’t willing to ask for what I wanted in that moment after my grandfather’s funeral.
It was me trying to control someone else instead of facing what I was feeling inside.
It was me who was emotionally unavailable.
That “aha” moment led me to see how my habit was to skip over emotions I thought were undesirable, especially being angry, and move directly to trying to control the situation—fixing it or the other person.
Otto helped me realize this because when we got together, he had no problem expressing any emotion, including anger.
I wasn’t used to what I labeled an “angry tone of voice.” I wasn’t used to seeing someone get angry and then seeing it dissipate. When this happened, I’d sometimes withdraw and many times, try to “fix” whatever was wrong with him.
Always looking outward and never inward.
Never once did I see my pattern of what I call skipping over my emotions or even recognizing what I was feeling—until I did.
When I stopped to feel instead of withdrawing or rushing to fix whatever I thought was wrong, I saw that there was fear, anger and shame of not being good enough or smart enough.
There was a whole murky pool of dark emotions inside me I never wanted to see or admit to having.
Then I discovered where our feelings actually come from and that changed everything.
Here are a few things I learned, especially about being angry that changed my life and the lives of my coaching clients as well…
- Our emotions are generated by the thoughts we believe to be true.
To hide or not acknowledge them also hides the thoughts that are swirling somewhere inside.
Although picking apart the thoughts you’re thinking or dwelling on what you’re feeling isn’t helpful and can keep you stuck…
Your emotions and the thoughts behind them can be indicators of what’s holding back from the life you want.
When I really stopped to look inside from a neutral place when Otto’s tone of voice sounded harsh to me…
I saw that my withdrawal or defense came from the thought that I wasn’t smart enough.
I saw that that believing that thought held me back from the connection I said I wanted.
- You don’t have to believe everything you think.
Your emotions, as well as those of others, come and go and although you don’t always know where certain thoughts come from…
Sometimes you do.
While constantly analyzing your thoughts and their origins is a waste of your precious life, it’s helpful to realize you don’t have to believe everything you think.
I realized that making Otto’s anger about me—that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough—was ridiculous.
When I looked beyond my story I was believing, I realized he had his own story going on during those times that may or may not have anything to do with me.
- How you experience your life, the way you communicate and the actions you take are reflections of the thoughts you believe.
When I believed the thought I wasn’t good or smart enough, I shut down, shrank from Otto and didn’t communicate.
When I let go of that belief and my story, I could be present in that moment and realize there was nothing to fix—in him or in myself.
I realized I could take offense and take Otto’s anger or anyone’s anger personally or I could just be present to what was in that present moment.
There’s no way two people can communicate when they believe their limiting stories about themselves and each other.
When one or both of you drop the stories, there is room for you to find common ground and uncover possibilities.
- To connect with others from a heart space, recognize your feelings and your stories with honesty and see them for what they are.
Your emotions, especially the ones you try to hide from yourself and from others, are simply letting you know what you believe in the moment.
When you allow them to settle, then you can come together with others with a clear mind and heart. You’ll be able to know what you’d like to communicate without the muddied thought clouding your relationships.
Anger was just one of the pathways to helping me learn more about myself and it can be a gift for you too.
If you’d like to have a conversation with either one of us about anger or any other emotion that you’re struggling with, contact us here.
I’ve discovered there are always more possibilities for your life than you can see for yourself given your current level of thinking…
And how you can move past your anxiety in the moment into more love.