Mad about him

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man

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Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.

I’m losing it in public

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Airport foul-ups, traffic tie-ups, rude taxi drivers … I’ve had it!

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2009

Dear Cary,

I am married with three children, and have a responsible and professional job as a writer that puts me in the public eye a bit. The other day I took two of my kids on a weekend flight (to meet my wife and the other kid) and we flew through the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia. I chose to drive in part because that terminal has a really cool short-term parking lot, close to the terminal. We could get out, and stroll right onto the plane.

But the parking lot was closed for repairs and it threw me. We had to go to a farther-away parking lot and take a shuttle bus and I couldn’t stop complaining. When we flew back, I couldn’t find the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. I dragged my kids from one part of the terminal to another, complaining to everyone I could find, asking why they had to close the parking lot, how inconvenient it was for me. The signage was unclear, and I sort of knew where the bus stopped, but I insisted on walking over to the taxi dispatcher to find out where the bus stopped, instead of waiting for it, and sure enough while I was complaining to him the bus came and we missed it.

So we took a cab and the cab dropped us off across a busy street and I dragged my kids across and another attendant asked me why the cab had done that. I started ranting, of course, about why they closed the parking lot. He said, “Don’t do this to your kids, man. Don’t do this in front of them. I am 60 and I have grandchildren.”

I tried to argue with him that I was right. That they shouldn’t have closed the parking lot because this was the one time I would be using it.

He said, “Everybody gets inconvenienced. Get over it. Don’t do this to your kids.”

I exploded. “I will NOT get over it!” He gave up listening to me.

And only then — did I feel happy.

Walking the final steps to the car, my oldest child started complaining on my behalf. “They should never have closed the parking lot.”

And only then I was able to say, “No, that guy was right. I was wrong.”

But I know this pattern will happen again. It happens just about every day. Some little thing is wrong with the world and I cannot stop ranting about it. A computer breakdown, a car breakdown, a problem with a call center, a credit card slip-up, a piece of lousy signage. Something. If it doesn’t work smoothly and easily, frictionlessly, I can’t bear it. I only feel better, it seems, when I have made someone else as uncomfortable as I feel.

And then I feel better.

I don’t know how long people will tolerate this or if I’m doing damage to my kids. I know I damaged my relationship with my wife this way. But I don’t want to stop. This seems like a much better way to deal with the problems of life that I can’t control. The only other alternative is to give in, accept it. And I won’t do that. It feels like losing.

What do you recommend?

Ranter

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Dear Ranter,

Well, I’m going to say this to you even though it sounds like a dumb cliché. It’s something those of us in recovery say to each other. We say, “To surrender means to go over to the winning side.”

We willingly abandon “our side” because “our side,” for all our loyalty to it, is given to behaviors that are, at their core, selfish, juvenile and kind of crazy. We are initially afraid to go over to the other side. We don’t know what it’s like over there. Our side at least is familiar. But we surrender. When we find ourselves in intolerable, hellish conflict, we surrender; we admit that the airlines are bigger than us, that the manufacturers of ceiling light fixtures and track lighting are bigger than us, that the designers of mass transit hub signage are bigger than us. We admit that no matter how crazy it seems, maybe there is something to be learned here. Maybe there is something about patience and acceptance.

All the same, I celebrate your spirit of outrage! I do not see how anyone with a critical intelligence could go through one day on this planet without being appalled and outraged at the world’s failures to live up to our expectations — and to its own potential! But the world ignores our memos pointing out its manifest sluggishness to correct deficiencies, its shortsightedness in planning freeway exits, its seeming indifference to quality control and continuous improvement, and the lack of proper signage in public transit stations. The world stares back at us like a sullen teen, reveling in its own incompetence.

I’m getting steamed just thinking about it. Take track-lighting components. It’s a long story, but I’m finally installing some track lighting in the kitchen that I bought three years ago and had installed elsewhere in the house before the remodel. Sunday I was sitting on the ladder looking at two T-connectors I bought three years ago, and I was remarking on how well-made they were — how, in my admiring opinion, they were better than they had to be. I was quietly rhapsodizing about the brilliance of America’s manufacturing tradition, picturing some worker  constantly improving the product, constantly thinking how to keep the production consistent. The T-connector I was looking at was a thing of beauty and utility.

So I go to the store to pick up a couple of straight connectors and the first one breaks. I get it replaced and the new one is completely defective. I attempt to modify it so it will work and the copper tab breaks off. I’m going to have to go to the lighting store on Saturday for the third time. So I look up what I can on the Internet about the company, trying to figure out what went wrong.

I have no idea if the quality of its track lighting components has anything to do with its acquisition by another, larger company, and the departure of its CEO and his replacement by a longtime executive of the acquiring company.  Maybe I just got a bad batch.

But in my head a story forms. Primitive people such as myself are known to make up stories to explain our experiences. In the story I make up, after being acquired, the company had to meet shareholder expectations and consequently the expensive longtime workers were laid off and younger, cheaper workers were hired, and they figured, hey, how hard could this be? They found cheaper, faster ways to make these little straight connectors, which is fine for them and their bottom line except making them that way means they break easily and so people like me buy stuff that breaks and we have to go back to the store three times. And we get angry and who do we get angry at? The store employee? The store employee can’t do anything about it. Maybe we should be mad at the person who is making half a million dollars a year running the company. And maybe we should say a prayer for all the longtime skilled workers who lost their jobs and lost their houses and packed their cars and left the industrial Midwest for California — Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward. And maybe we should mourn the priceless knowledge and expertise that has been lost in the bullshit diaspora of the skilled American worker, now seeking work in Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward, because rumor has it they make things there too, and the skilled worker who used to make real things that work well and don’t break is trying to explain why that knowledge is so valuable, and the financial wizard running the company is looking puzzled.

“What did you do in your last job?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them,” says the worker.

“What was your growth model? How did you maximize shareholder value?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them. What else do you need to know?” says the skilled worker.

But here is the thing, my friend. I share your outrage about shoddy manufacturing, poor transportation services and inadequate signage in public transit hubs. But you and I need to shake it off and move on.

Another example from my recent experience: Over the holidays I was delayed in my  flight a full day each way. Flying from San Francisco to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., the takeoff of the final leg was delayed eight hours, and then, late at night after a long day, after flying an hour out of Houston toward Fort Walton, we turned around and headed back to Houston. Around midnight, we hapless travelers lined up at the customer service desk in Houston. Because it was a weather delay, and out of the company’s control, the person behind the counter handed me a toothbrush and said, Good luck finding a hotel.

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I felt powerless, insulted, deeply abandoned. I was still recovering from surgery and was in pain. It sucked in so many ways I don’t even want to go into it.

But what was my role? My role was to recover and move on. My role was to surrender — that is, to go over to the winning side. And what was the winning side doing? The folks on the winning side were going about their business, treating these delays and mix-ups as the natural friction of the world. That’s what most of this stuff is, I think. It’s entropy. It’s the world’s natural resistance to our will. We push and it pushes back. We work toward order while entropy works toward chaos. Your will works against the grain of the world and the world resists and out of that resistance comes friction, heat and dust.

That’s not to say you have much choice. How can you avoid creating friction unless you are a monk who never leaves the house and never has a better idea for how to do things? The question is: Is your will the harmonious will of a wise self guided by its sense of its proper place in the world? Or is it the distorted will of the ego and its need for symbolic satisfaction? How can you tell? Sometimes through prayer and meditation and the occasional stroke of good luck one can know whether one is just exerting the idiotic, self-important, power-hungry will of the ego, or is doing the right but difficult thing and just encountering the natural resistance of the world. Sometimes.

But sometimes stuff just has to get done, and you will be in chaotic, insane friction with the world, and you have to put on your dust mask and your safety goggles and get the job done. You may be moving a tree stump. You may be creating a new company. You may be trying to get your kids on the plane. There will be traffic changes and holes in the ground. There will be friction as you rub up against the world, as you abrade the world and the world abrades you back. Such is the state of air travel today. Such is the state of home repair. Such is life. You encounter resistance and setbacks and howlingly insane incompetence and covert resentment from service personnel and all manner of cultural revenge and subterfuge and psychological sabotage and you have to take the hits and pick yourself up and keep moving toward that hill. You have to recover and keep going, with a smile. It’s never going to stop. It’s not going to get any easier. We have to surrender, shake it off, remember what we’re here for, and get the job done.

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Grrrr! I’m one angry mofo! How to process my rage?

Dear Cary,

 Please help me process my murderous rage – a rage i suspect others share as well.

I’m sorry you don’t seem to be on Salon anymore. You were pretty much the only reason I bothered with that site so I haven’t been in ages. I’m not 100% sure whether you’re still doing this advice thing or what the new protocol is, your site seems to indicate you’re still accepting submissions, so here goes –

I am a person who possesses moderate to remarkable talents & abilities, a good work ethic, a mostly pleasant disposition, and all else that would be required of a person making their way in life. As well, just like every other of the 7 billion or so of us out there, I need to make a living. I can spend 48 hours straight creating something or reading something or learning something. Even boring routine work I am fairly OK at. But you can’t do anything in this world without having to hustle out the ass – this is where the whole thing breaks down for me.

I am very terrible at selling/promoting anything – even/especially myself. Not only do I find it uninteresting, incomprehensible, and a waste of my time, but having to be engaged in promoting or selling anything makes me very angry, like violently angry – like if I could pinpoint exactly one person who was responsible for my having the sort of life where I needed to go out there & pound the pavement & promote the same thing a million other yahoos was promoting, fighting for the same miserly few crumbs post capitalism has left for us, so that i may buy food or pay down debt or any of the necessary things – why… I would kill them. Violently. Medievally – with lots of screaming, blood, and terror involved.

I can’t pinpoint exactly the source of my loathing because it is so all- encompassing and elemental – but my  best attempt at defining it would be that it is vulgar, a waste of my time & resources that would be better placed doing what I do best – creating. Or other stuff that’s necessary – like cleaning the toilet. Anger that I don’t ask for much – just to sell $100 a week in my art, let’s say – and then progressively have that increase in proportion to people valuing what I do. And maybe that’s a source of anger – the violation of such a simple expectation. I expect that if I do a campaign, for it to work right away – not even in a spectacular way – but in a constant way – I don’t expect people to wanna give me 50 grand or nothing – just to once in a while buy some goddamned thing from me as opposed to that other asshole who doesn’t sell anything much better. It just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. But even for that small thing you have to practically give blood. 

I am just not that sociable a person. I don’t understand why in this piece of shit world every goddamned thing – even selling something basic like apples – requires some motherfucking Barnum & Bailey goddamned circus act – I really don’t. Is it because there’s just too many goddamned people trying to sell shit? Should we just invite Ebola to America with open arms so we can go back to being able to make a simple living? Should we have our own Bastille Day and kill all the fucks who have parasitically sucked up all resources, leaving us plebes to scrabble for the few crumbs left? Maybe I should just find a way (in spite of zero experience, general cowardliness, lack of a certain sort of intelligence, and ethical makeup) just resort to thieving and assaulting in order to get my daily bread?

I don’t give a goddamned fuck about money. I don’t give a piss about it in any way shape or form. I suspect 80% of the people out there really don’t either. All anyone really cares about is getting laid, having health, enough not-disgusting food to eat, a roof, and as many friends as can be tolerated. News fucking flash – there’s plenty of all that goddamned crap out there. But they’ve set up this piece of shit system where you can’t even get $100 of sales on some crappy craft site without prostituting yourself to hell. If I could live in peace creating my shit, sharing it with whoever wanted it, contributing to my social circle or even the world at large thru art or thru volunteering or fuck knows what, I would be so happy and I wouldn’t need to be angry. I wouldn’t have to feel cancer coming on at just the notion of having to flog the same goddamned garbage nobody cares about — IE my creative work I should care about which i begin to feel acute contempt for due to its invisibility and its inability to get me what i want/need — in the same tired old shit channels nobody looks at.

So there it is, dear Cary – I very seriously hate and feel angry at the whole prospect of selling or promoting myself, as can be seen. And saying ‘get a job’ is really the same, isn’t it? Sell sell sell.

I started out asking, in terms of advice, how can I get past this intense & insane rage & loathing that is clearly holding me back from whatever sort of life is still possible to have… but by now I feel like anything anyone said on the subject would be interesting and worthwhile. I don’t feel justified or entitled to my rage, but I can’t get past it – I suspect I do not possess a healthy or proportionate reaction to this aspect of adulthood.

have an awesome day!!!!

Grrrr

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Dear Grrrr,

Well done. You have spoken. You have expressed what many feel. That was bracing. That was a bracing rant. I feel better already. I hope you do, too.

I feel the same way too, some of the time. And yet I promote myself. I sell. Did you hear me on the radio? I tell the world what I am doing.

I don’t sell that well. Like, if I did, maybe I’d still be at Salon. I forgot that when you have a job, most of what you are doing is selling yourself to your boss. I forgot I had a boss I had to sell to. That’s a lesson if you have a job. You’re always selling yourself to your boss. This guy, he was a new boss I’d never even met. I sort of forgot he was there. My mistake.

Anyway, it was good, because I needed to get kicked out of there. I needed to get kicked on my ass and figure out what’s next.

The truth is, you’re always selling. If you’re in a job you’re selling yourself to your boss. If you’re on your own, you’re selling to others. If you’re a kid, you’re selling yourself to your parents. You’re selling yourself to your teachers. Out on the street and in the bars, we’re selling ourselves to each other. We’re saying the things we think will close the deal.

We’re always selling. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.

All over the world, we’re selling. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, done with drone strikes. Sometimes it’s a soft sell, done with Angelina Jolie. But we’re selling every minute of the day.

Do we hate ourselves for it? Yeah. Maybe. But it’s our nature.

But there’s selling and then there’s selling. If by selling you mean that false, bullshit thing of pretending you’re somebody else and talking somebody into giving you money for something they really don’t want; if by selling you mean feeling guilty because what you have is not worth what you’re asking for it; if by selling you mean cheating people, lying and pretending in order to get them to something; then yeah, if that’s what you mean by selling, then I totally agree. You should feel like shit if you’re doing that. I would, too. I would want to slit my own throat and stomp on my victim, too, for being so stupid and gullible and spineless.

But that’s not really selling. That’s being a con. That’s being a criminal, basically. That’s stealing.

You’re not a thief. You’re a creative soul. You’re an artist. Maybe you’re an artist of anger. I don’t know. But you’re an artist and you’re confused about the terms under which you are asked to do this art. That makes sense. Nobody spells out the terms for you. We’re on our own. Part of learning where we fit in is stumbling around, spouting off. Ranting. Telling the truth about how we feel and watching what happens as a result.

Right now, what you’re doing in this letter is just being yourself. And it’s pretty cool. You’re not conning anybody. You’re just surrendering to your own rage. Some people will be offended or frightened by your reference to violent murder but this is expressive speech. It’s not a threat. It’s expressive speech. It needs a venue.

Here’s the deal about selling: We all have stuff other people want. We all use money as an exchange medium. If you’ve got what I want I’m going to offer you some money for it.

For instance, let’s assume I want to watch you stomp around on stage and act out all this rage. I don’t know what I’d pay. Maybe $5. (Is that insulting? I didn’t mean it to be. I’m cheap. I used to pay $5 to go into a punk club and that was fine. Maybe now it’s more like $20. I don’t really go anywhere so I wouldn’t know.) But it wouldn’t just be me. It would be like 200 people paying $5. That’s a thousand bucks. Give some to the house, but that seems like a workable deal.

Would I buy one of your creations? I don’t know. My house is kinda full of stuff. Would I look at it in a magazine though? Probably. Would I look at it on the Internet and then pay to go see you stomp around on stage and talk about your murderous rage? Quite possible. Because hearing you talk about your murderous rage makes me happy somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that makes me a bad person.

OK, let’s take this bullshit word selling out of the equation. Let’s talk about being in the world, and playing a role in the culture.

Take me, for instance, and this column. After I lost the job at Salon I kept doing the column for a while but I resented not being paid directly for it. I had a donation button up there for a while but that  felt like panhandling. I’ve done some panhandling. When I was a hippie kid. It’s unpredictable and kind of demeaning.

So I went through all this anguish about it and finally realized, well, I thought about Herb Caen and how much pleasure I got out of his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. I realized I thought of him as a member of my culture, as a voice I depended on to be there. If he had suddenly quit doing that, it would have seemed like a cop out.

I realized I had a cultural role to play, too. It’s that simple. People like reading this column. They’re used to reading it. It’s part of American culture. This column isn’t a job. It’s a cultural role.

I can afford to write it once a week, as long as I do other things too, for money. So I just keep doing it. I like it, actually, if I don’t have to do it five days a week.

That’s really all you have to do. You’re playing a role right now. You might get mad at me for saying that, but you are selling yourself right now, in the sense that you are showing yourself to the world. That’s all it is. Don’t worry. You can’t make us buy your stuff. All you can do is be visible to us. We’ll decide if we like what you’ve got and if we want to engage.

Me, I’d maybe go see you on stage. It’d be satisfying. I might watch. It might make me want to get up on stage too and unburden myself of certain unresolved feelings about certain media personalities the sight of whom incites certain rather acute feelings that could be termed murderous rage. Yes. Could be. I might join up up there on stage.

Also, part of this thing, frankly, part of living with your own rage, involves faith. Not pious, quasi-religious faith. But fuck-it-all, I’m-doing-this-anyway faith. The faith to be who you are, do what you do, and see what happens. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke faith.

Be who you are, do what you do, see what happens.  Don’t kill anybody. Just get honest and have some faith that things will turn out. Maybe somebody will buy something.

So stop selling. Do more ranting. Get up on stage and express your anger at the system. Maybe bring your artwork up on stage with you. That might be too much like selling. I don’t know. That’s up to you.

I just have a feeling, if you continue to genuinely express yourself, that people who get what you are saying will be attracted to you, and they’ll want the stuff you make, and it will work out.

Some people might tell you to calm down. Some people might want to punch you in the head to make you shut up. But fuck that.

Don’t calm down. Fuck that. Keep ranting.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

After years of being meek, I’m suddenly screaming at people!

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Cary’s classic column from

My father was full of rage and insult, and I sat mute through his tirades. Now I’m exploding at people too.


Dear Cary,

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

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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.

Cary Tennis Connecticut Writing Retreat

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