From little miseries to unthinkable cookie slights, there are a whole lot of reasons to get angry.
My nearly 8-year-old son is a sweet, charming young man who can really hold onto a grudge.
Last year, a fellow first grader who shall remain nameless was goofing around during the brief respite of lunch. My son doesn’t make friends very easily and this other child had become a favorite.
That is until he made the grave mistake of impulsively licking my son’s double chocolate cookie.
See, my son is a chocoholic like his mother. Add to this a severe germ phobia and the licking of his coveted cookie was a nuclear missile.
Needless to say, this friend has been permanently blacklisted.
Anger is a tricky emotion with a lot of baggage.
From our regrettable reactions in a moment of rage to the deep protective grievances that color every relationship with the pain of decades-old wounds, anger often translates to misery.
The only real training I got in anger management as a youth that I recall is this emphasis of anger as a secondary emotion and that I was somehow supposed to magically recognize the underlying pain and feel really good about expressing that very vulnerable feeling instead, ideally to the person who has just caused said pain. All heat diffused.
The fact that we tend to suck at expressing anger effectively, so as to move on without tattooing a self-sabotaging victim story onto our souls, isn’t terribly surprising.
None of us want to do anger poorly.
I want to embody Mother Theresa, but evolutionary hardwiring to react and protect when confronted with a threat is a powerful force to overcome, especially when we are surrounded with opportunities to escape any and all discomfort.
In avoiding difficult emotions, we nurture an intolerance for distress and simple everyday irritations can ruin an entire day. Genuine emotional bombs tend to wreak havoc for years, or even lifetimes.
Anger gives us a very compelling, albeit fleeting, illusion of control in the midst of situations where we feel out of control.
Holding onto a grudge feels protective, ensuring that we don’t expose our vulnerable desserts to that proven cookie-licker ever again, which is why we hold grudges toward close friends and loved ones.
Strangers don’t pose a long-term threat, but those we care deeply for? Well, they can easily trick us into vulnerability again and again. Plus, they probably caught sight of a side of us we really don’t want to admit to in the process, and so remaining angry prevents us from confronting our own responsibility.
Those of us who, as children, felt wronged repeatedly by a caregiver are particularly susceptible to taking grievances to the grave and building great walls around our hearts (and chocolate baked goods).
We’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to anticipate pain when we feel that ultimate vulnerability of love.
So how to let go of the heavy burden of anger?
After an ongoing cycle of chaos and pain from a loved one, I finally hit a limit and cut them out of my life. We were estranged for more than 3 years.
I believed that this was the healthiest way forward, and perhaps with the coping skills I had (or lack thereof) at that time in my life, it was. I told myself I had let go of the anger; that I had made a decision that would allow peace in my life.
And it was easy to believe this story because the conflict that characterized this relationship was no longer present, and that was indeed a sweet relief. My life was legitimately better.
And then I was pulled out of my reverie and forced to confront this relationship, and all the bitterness that had boiled in the meantime.
In a matter of minutes, they seized an opportunity for justice – reflecting back the suffering associated with my absence in an act of betrayal.
I was never more convinced of the need to run, to get as far away from anyone that had the power to cause such pain.
Fortunately, in the process of getting revenge, we were both saddled with a mess of consequences that gave them a great deal of temporary power over my life. I was forced to remain present.
It was (almost) intolerable.
During every polite interaction, my rage seethed and I wanted to calmly pluck their eyeballs out with a spoon and leave them in the dog dish to be eaten up while I walked away into the sunset.
And yet, I survived.
In the process of simply being still with the rage, I learned that I could. That I could be calm and in control despite the pain.
Once I became comfortable with my discomfort, confident that I could and would be okay after facing the worst they could dole out, I was no longer threatened and moved out of the react and protect mode.
I could see them clearly. I could see their pain. Pain that had nothing to do with me.
This of course is no excuse, but I could see that they too knew this, even if they couldn’t admit it. I recognized the burden of guilt. I was old enough to have experienced that self-inflicted knife of regret. And that was enough to let us slowly start over (with firm boundaries).
“When you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity for accepting and having compassion for them is there.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Letting go of decades of denied anger was a surprising relief. I had no awareness of how heavy that unresolved anger was until it started to lift. And it didn’t have anything to do with whether I continued to engage in the relationship.
The genuine peace I feel now was built on that very difficult lesson that I was strong enough to endure and not lose myself.
Resiliency becomes the ability to forgive. Deep down, the anger is covering up vulnerability.
It’s the hardest relationships, the greatest treacheries, that teach us the most.
These lovely broken people give us the opportunity to discover our ability to tolerate distress without running, attacking, or distracting. To perhaps grow strong enough in our resiliency and boundaries to openly love someone who has hurt us so deeply.
The more we sit with pain without self-medicating, we learn that we can, and that feels like an extraordinary super power because we can then approach others without fear.
The impossibility of justice or revenge or protection becomes obvious. Perhaps we can let go of the grudges that provided the illusion of safety and be vulnerable again.
People are gonna lick our cookies when we least expect it.
And we can and will go on – perhaps realizing that the evil cookie licker has a (horrible) mother who never lets him eat cookies, so we bring an extra one just for him.