Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Nov 6, 2007
My father was full of rage and insult, and I sat mute through his tirades. Now I’m exploding at people too.
So I grew up in an abusive household. Not the “my dad gets drunk and smashes a lamp over my mother’s head” kind of abusive, but the “Dad thinks Mom, siblings and I are imbeciles and repeatedly tells us so in thought and deed” kind of abusive. Emotionally abusive, in other words, though the other kind happened on occasion too. My mother taught us how to deal with these insults: Stare straight ahead, keep your mouth shut, let Daddy say whatever he wanted to say to get it out of his system, do whatever he wants you to do, and then avoid him for a while. Basically, we learned to be doormats at our mother’s knee. If we didn’t do this … well, that’s when the other kind of abuse would occur.
Anyway, I never saw the difference between being treated badly by my father and being treated badly by other people. As I got older, through high school,college and the workforce, I quickly gained the reputation for being the “nice” person that everyone dumped on. Somehow, standing up for myself wasn’t the “nice” thing to do, so I never did it. It didn’t even occur to me. And I became everyone else’s doormat. Boyfriends, colleagues, friends, customer-service people — you name it. They mostly treated me well, but when they treated me badly it would haunt me for years: either that I had done something wrong to warrant their slights or that I didn’t say anything when I was clearly being insulted.
Recently, however, that tide has begun to turn. I began to see that the way people were treating me was wrong. I learned that I wouldn’t get popped in the mouth for speaking up. I began to recall situations where people had been rude or mean, and saw them as being rude or mean rather than just my being sensitive. And too, I began to stand up for myself. This is where my problem now lies. As I stand up for myself in situations where it is clearly warranted, it is somehow not enough to simply state my case and let reason carry the day. I end up getting aggressive, insistent, loud, bossy, angry and just plain rude when something doesn’t go my way. I flare my nostrils and hiss when I speak to the manager. I shout insults and then hang up the phone before the person on the other end can respond. In other words, I’ve become someone I hate, as if I’m trying to make up for years of swallowed pride with a few instances of over-the-top aggression. To top it off, as a woman, I’m afraid that I’m coming across as an angry feminist and it’s making things worse for my gender!
Earlier today, while I was at the supermarket, there was an argument that nearly came to blows at the self-checkout line. One man was clearly in the wrong — he had jumped in line, had too many items in the 15-items-or-less lane, and said the other guy was being a bad father in front of his small son. The clerk looked on and did nothing. The man got his way, checking out his too-many items and taking a parting shot at the father with his small son as he finished. I wound up screaming at the guy as he left — and it wasn’t even my fight! The whole situation made me realize that something is going on in my head. But I feel like I can’t just sit back and accept injustice anymore, even when it’s happening to other people who can take care of themselves. What am I supposed to do?
Going Overboard With the Assertiveness
Dear Going Overboard,
Sometimes a necessary insight that is to serve us well for the rest of our life comes in first as anger. Something true is breaking through.
True, this insight has not arrived as a blazing flash of light and a sensation of rising out of the body and seeing all of eternity and all of space in one blinding, ecstatic vision, tingling and orgasmic and yet strangely calm and everyday at the same time. True, it’s not that. Instead, it is coming in the form of something unmanageable and troubling.
My experience with such things is that insight often comes in rough. It barges in and slams doors. It shakes us up. And it comes when we least expect it. It comes uninvited. That’s why we often don’t want insight.
Insight is trouble. That is why the early stages of recovery and change can be rocky. Reality floods in. It is overwhelming.
At first, we just react. We have no repertoire of assertive techniques; we have no proven methods for expressing our disapproval, our difference of opinion, while preserving the basic bond between us and others. So we start out by screaming and throwing things. And what does this remind us of? When is it that we start out screaming and throwing things? In childhood of course. So we are picking up where we left off, 10, 20, 30 years later: We start by screaming and throwing things.
This changes as we gain the benefit of experience. We blow up in the checkout line at the supermarket. Or we get in touch with our anger at work; we scream and throw things and get fired. Then we mull it over. Hmm. Precisely where did I go wrong in that negotiation? Was it the potted azalea hurled out the window, or the feinted blows at my co-worker? Just feeling the power of anger, to make someone retreat! How glorious! How glorious the glass shattering as the potted azalea flies out the window! But how humiliating the arrival of the police, the disrespectful escort to the exit. Yes, it was glorious to get in touch with the anger. But no, it did not really go that well. The firing and the presence of police put a damper on things.
In looking over our behavior, we might conclude that this anger is not our friend. Look at the wreckage!
Time to stuff it back into its bottle? But wait! Even amid the wreckage, how do you feel? Frightened, perhaps. Shaken. But also: Real, no? Do you not feel a certain awakeness you did not previously feel? Do you not feel a certain strength, something flowing into you, something raw and strong? Do you not feel perhaps a little more “grounded”? This is you returning to yourself. It’s a good thing!
Thusly we gain the benefit of experience. We don’t just stuff it. We look at where things went well and where they went poorly. We see that throwing the azalea and threatening our co-worker were not productive. But being there, standing our ground, feeling that anger: That was priceless! So, unemployed, humbled, but inwardly pleased at our progress, we try it again. We get angry next time and we try saying, “I am very angry right now. I’m going to take a walk and come back and then we’re going to talk about this.”
We try sitting in a therapist’s office and narrating the day we broke down, getting up to the anger, seeing what is there, seeing what pain comes up, seeing how deeply we can feel it in a safe place, seeing what it feels like to finally feel it — the indignation, the fear, the anger, the hurt. We keep working at it. We are surprised at how deeply this goes! Maybe we end up feeling like that kid again, powerless, terrified and, moreover, insulted and betrayed! — that her mother would instruct her to submit, to live in fear! That poor kid. Maybe we end up feeling great compassion for that kid we were, too, great compassion and love and warmth for the innocent person we were, the innocent person who was not protected from the father’s rage.
How do you get from screaming and throwing things to the serene, assertive confidence of a person not necessarily in complete control of her anger but at least on good reciprocal terms with it? Like this, with practice, long study, hard work, therapy, practice, experience, making mistakes.
This is new to you. You were taught to be paralyzed. That image is so chilling: you sitting there mute while your father’s hateful, spiteful, soul-murdering bile spills on your head. You were taught to be mute. You were taught to freeze like an animal avoiding the predator, playing dead, trying to be invisible lest the predator pick you out. You were basically taught to be dead. But you are not dead. You are just afraid.
Yes, I recognize this.
Like I say, insight comes in rough.
But it’s a good thing, this anger that’s coming to you. Find someone who will help you work with it. Honor it. Do not be afraid.