Do you ever find yourself lashing out at someone you love in a fit of anger at some perceived injustice? But then you realize that it is really your own thinking that is causing the drama, not that other person. In fact, that other person is helpful and loving, and really your anger is misdirected.
Oh, how I wish I did not have to confess to this kind of “emotional childhood” in my own life. I do a lot of work on myself, in meditating daily, doing yoga, journaling and doing “thought downloads” to figure on what’s really going on in that head of mine. And still, there are emotions like anger that feel so powerful sometimes, that it is hard to step back and get some perspective while we are “hooked” by them.
It can feel powerful sometimes, when we are angry. It can feel useful and justified too, especially when we perceive some injustice that has been done to us, or someone we care about. But does being caught in anger actually help us? Or does it do more harm than good?
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön refers to this tendency as “shenpa“, the hook that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. It is usually involuntary and gets to the root of why we suffer as human beings. It is that urge that attaches us and causes us to withdraw and perhaps retreat into blame, anger, jealousy, etc, instead of remaining present and calm in the moment.
Some of us have struggled with early programming in which we reached for food or a drink to calm those uncomfortable emotions as they came up. We were taught not to show anger (very common for women) or to stop being upset over something. So this habit takes some unlearning. It takes deep compassion and awareness to sit with those uncomfortable feelings, to allow them to come up, and to recognize the thoughts and stories we are telling about the situation.
When I recognize I am caught in anger, and I can observe it and breathe into it before I lash out, usually I realize it is not the circumstance “causing” the anger, but rather my thoughts about it. For example, if I feel that I am telling my husband and important thing, and he is looking at his phone, I could choose several reactions. I could get angry because I think he is not paying attention I could tell myself a story that he doesn’t care about me. I could yell at him and tell him he is not listening.
Or: I could calmly tell him that I want to talk with him about something important, and ask if we can talk without distractions. Usually he is very willing, and he realizes when something is important to me. Sometimes he is tired, and he does not really feel like working out my latest angst when it comes to my big career change, or the latest drama at work. I get it. I know I obsess and talk a lot about my work these days. Big decisions ahead. And I tend to analyze things to death, in case you had not already gathered that from reading my blog.
One thing he said from a discussion which really stays with me: “I don’t know how to help you.” I realized what I wanted was not help, it was empathy and understanding. When he came over to put his arms around me to tell me he could understand I was suffering, and wishes he could do something about it, I finally melted. I immediately felt bad about my behavior. Here is a man who loves me very deeply, and I was not angry with him at all.
If anything I was angry with myself. I wanted to find the courage to express certain things at work, but not be affected by the “political” ramifications of those truths. I had invented a story in my head about being trapped in a situation that “is not fair” and where I was the victim. But a day and a half later, after some yoga and reflection and a better night’s sleep last night than right after my anger storm, I have more clarity.
I am not trapped in a situation. I choose to stay in a job which provides me many benefits and much flexibility to develop new skills and challenge myself in new ways. I know that the current position is less of a fit for me now that I have begun exploring what my heart and soul are asking. But it is still my choice, whether I stay or leave. At least as the moment, though it’s not a good sign that I keep yearning for an “exit package.”
What I realize today is that I have enormous gratitude for my kind husband and all of his patience and support for me. He is on my side, and he cares deeply for me. My storm of anger was misdirected, probably because he is a person I trust to reveal the more “raw” side of myself. Isn’t there a country song with a line about “we only hurt the ones we love?” I am extending myself compassion right now, as he has so often done for me, when I do something I regret.
It does help to beat myself up over this behavior, yet I feel myself doing that as well. Compassion is hard, but I typically feel it for other people easily. It is SO much harder to extend it toward myself. Yet I will practice that now. We all deserve compassion, and I am no exception. I am human. Flawed. Imperfect. But still worthy of forgiveness.