Reflections on Anger
In the past two months I've had two random incidents where I was exposed to angry women, women who have lost control of their emotions, screaming, snarling and threatening people around them. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with anger, past and present. I've noticed two things: that I am more sensitive to anger, as I don't experience it very often any more and I deliberately avoid people who are prone to anger; and I've noticed that my response to anger has changed.
For people who have read Borderline Shine, it is obvious that I spent much of my life feeling angry (I used to say, "I have rage enough to devour the world"), and my pattern was to meet real or perceived danger with sudden and absolute ferocity. Which would often be followed by withering shame for my over-reaction and then crushing depression for being such an asshole in such a hostile world.
That cycle sucked, and I worked hard on the shame and depression, but the evolution of my anger response was less deliberate. As I approach the ripe old age of 50, I discover I have no urge whatsoever to engage in a dance of anger. Yet, like every human being, I am affected by it.
These days, when I see anger right up in my face, directed at me or mine, I am able to remain calm and rational. I did not practice DBT skills to learn that, I think it is a natural consequence of learning what is effective, and maybe because I finally have learned to trust myself, others and the world - the shift in my core beliefs.
However, I am still learning how to manage the secondary response to anger - the PTSD reaction that sets in after. This automatic trauma reaction is often referred to as "being triggered." For me, I appear calm and in control on the outside, but inside I am sick, and my brain begins to whirl with "what ifs." I catastrophize about the worst that may happen, and I mentally prepare my counterattack. It is very, very hard to shake this fear reaction. Sometimes I can do it in hours or days, sometimes it takes weeks. It depends on my perception and the proximity of threat. My Reasonable Mind (often joined by the voices of my friends) takes a long time to reassure my Emotion Mind - the part of my mind that was exposed to extreme violence and pain.
It is hard to change the reaction, and maybe a trauma brain will always be vulnerable to that reaction. But I believe that we can learn to change the intensity and length of the response. I give myself time to settle, I calm my nervous system and acknowledge my emotions. I check the facts - what's real and what's not real? What are echoes of danger and what are real problems? Is the emotion and intensity of the emotion justified based on what is happening? What do I have control over? Am I safe?
Am I safe? The answer is always no and yes. There is ALWAYS the possibility of pain in this human existence, AND yet here in this moment, with this breathe, I am safe. Learning to tolerate the no and trust the yes is an ongoing practice. I have experienced excruciating loss and I am still able to experience breathtaking joy. Remembering that enables me to witness anger, re-establish a sense of safety, and I'm even learning to use a Loving Kindness practice and radical compassion.
At the other end of fear, lies love. Sending love to all the people living in anger.
Which is not to say anger can not be justified...but that's a whole other blog. Until then, I welcome your thoughts, my readers. Gracias.