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.


Jen said...

I had to face up to my anger last fall, and it surprised me how much was there. I feel like I'm on the way to learning to deal with it appropriately, but it's not easy.

pranayamamama said...

have you ever heard of a woman named byron katie. she does something called "the work". best i can describe it, when you experience "anger" immediately welcome it. it points directly to a need that is going un-met. now not all needs are justified. you must determine first if your line of thinking is unequivocally true/legit. it is for us personally to determine what needs are legit or not. but if you can thread your anger back to the need--ie. for acceptance or validation from your partner, then you have immediately regained control. and then, you can determine the best path to take to having that need met. once the need is identified, typically, the anger is practically neutralized. if nothing else, you'll be strengthening your mind-heart connection while grounding it in your current life's reality by acting in the healthiest and most efficacious way possible for all concerned. couldn't hurt. it has truly helped me find more apprproate ways to get what i "need" from others and life itSelf.
good luck.

Belladonna said...

what can I say but THANK YOU for all the ways you have shared with me in our off blog conversations as we both process through our various life issues, anger and otherwise!

REALLY appreciated your comments. I've been told, and do believe, that anger is ALWAYS a secondary emotion. We FIRST feel hurt or fear or loss or threat or some other thing. We then allow that to turn inside our heads to become one of the many forms of anger (annoyance, resentment, outrage, etc). But even though that flip from one to the other happens so quickly it feels like reflex, and is generally not done at a conscious level, it is still a CHOICE. There are alternate ways to choose to respond that can be learned and practiced more or less consistently.

Based on believing that I've placed a value judgement on getting mad in the first place, putting a great big "should" or "should not" on how I feel. But I think what you describe is far more realistic for me, for now. Rather than expect myself to NOT get angry in the first place - to STAY connected to the original need, I can train myself in how to defuse the anger more quickly and unravel back to the original spark. Then I can learn how to better recognize and address my true needs.

I had not ever heard of Byron Katie before, but now that I have I'll definitely explore further. Thanks for sharing the resource!