Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Cat Scratches

A teacher friend of mine once told me a story about his cats, two precious felines named Jake and Missy. They had an unfortunate habit of climbing inside dresser drawers and wreaking a bit of havoc. Their intent was not malicious. They merely like to curl up and cuddle into a ball in that cozy space. In some drawers it was no big deal, other than shedding hair all over clean folded clothes. But if they got into his wife's drawer it was not so good, because that's where she had all her elegant silk nighties and such. Cat claws and lacy penoir sets and lingerie are not a good combination.

The wife got hopping mad at those cats.

The reason my friend was telling me this story is because we were having a discussion about how anger gets such a bad rap. It is not "nice" to be angry, or so our culture seems to say. It is not kind or polite or ladylike to let fly with that emotion - even when it is utterly justified. For me, it's even more complicated than that. As a kid I learned to believe that it was not safe to express outrage. It was not entirely acceptable to show any discontent. From disappointment to annoyance to hurt feelings to seething resentment...none of those were welcome fare. I was expected to put a smile on my face and act like all was copacetic even when it was very clearly not.

So, not having any opportunity to practice with a bit of trial and error, I did not learn to modulate anger well. I did not learn to paint it in gentle pastels of being miffed. Instead of establishing a tool box of a whole range of feelings in various octaves to go with each situation, all too often I went from zero to sixty in 30 seconds flat, rushing from smile to tantrum with no thought in between.

As an adult I no longer throw tantrums. But I still stuff my anger as "not necessary", "out of line" or "inappropriate" to often and too long. Then, when it blows (usually over something relatively minor) I feel horrified, chagrined, humiliated, ashamed to have let fly at someone I care about with such a nasty outburst.

I honestly haven't a clue about how to appropriately experience, let alone express, my anger.

It's just fine to be torrid with rage over social issues or incidents of injustice. But when I get mad at someone I care about, I am very ill equipped with how to proceed.

There is no "Anger for Dummies" book like there is for so much else.

How do people learn this skill? I think about it, I discuss it, I watch how others act and react. I've not yet found any models who I truly want to emulate.

When is it ok to be really mad? When is it not? How do I seek forgiveness for my BEHAVIOR if I have spoken or acted harshly out of anger without capitulating on my displeasure about what made me so mad?

I think about that red headed lady who was furious at her kitties. She was not mean or ugly or evil or bad. She did not want to destroy them. She was just mad. She did not stay angry for long. But for that little while, she was very, very upset. Yet, according to my friend, apparently it IS possible to be angry and be a nice person at the very same time.

Go figure. Who would have thought?

I'm not suggesting I change all the rules to start going out lambasting everyone right and left indiscriminately because suddenly anger has been declared as permisable. . But maybe it would be more helpful, more healthy, to practice addressing my anger when it first appears rather than bottling it up till I can no longer stand it.

Easy to say, hard to do.