“Let the wild rumpus start!”-Maurice Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” (1964).
Buckle up! This is a long one. I am talking about the wild things today. I do not mean the book. I mean about the wild things that exist within us. Emotions. Feeeeeeeeeeeeeeelings. The icky stuff.
As far back as I can remember, I have been angry. I am an angry person. I am the first to admit this. Usually when I say this, I get the same reaction each time: “What!? No way! You always seem so bubbly!”. Eye roll. I can recall times when I would be talking to my mom, and she would gently say “Gina, you are so angry”. It usually was met with some annoyed teenage response, only further proving her point. I don’t ever recall a time when I was not carrying around some big old bag full of anger . I would imagine by now that this bag is old, and worn and probably the straps are hardly hanging on.
I have gotten better about recognizing when my shoulders need a break from my anger bags. I have developed an understanding by now, that when I feel angry, I am in full control of how I express it. My anger and I have a mutual understanding now. Now, when I am angry I ask my anger a question. It’s simple, and effective: “What are you trying to tell me?”. We do not feel emotions unless our bodies and brains are trying to communicate with us. Anger is usually the result of some type of hurt, or fear or sadness.
When I was 7, my dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I very specifically remember a night when I heard him coughing so much that it woke me up. I don’t know what happened next. I know he went to the hospital. The next thing I remember is finding out he was sick. My seven year old brain could not understand what cancer was, but I knew it was bad based on the feeling I got. Based on the fear I could recognize in everyone around me. I think this was my first real experience with anger. I was terrified. My dad. My hero. The guy who would sit in front of a screen saver with me just so I could watch tropical animals play on a loop. The guy who would lie on the floor in my room and read me bed time stories and fall asleep before me. The guy who couldn’t swim but still got in the pool with me to ensure I had a good time. I had only known him for seven short years, probably four of which that I actually would remember. I was furious. The idea that I could lose him terrified me. Of course, back then, I did not have words in the way that I do now. Which made me angrier.
If you are curious, my dad survived the cancer. Twice. He is a bad ass. But my dad never verbally questioned the way things are in my presence. My father handled cancer with grace. He had my mother to rely on. They are a beautiful team. My father had never shown fear that was outwardly visible to me through any of this. He just did what he had to do, because as far as he was concerned, he had two little munchkins waiting for him at home. My father, if he was angry about his cancer, never showed it. I think this is where he and I differ immensely. My father has always worked hard. He loves to plant things, and he enjoys the simple things in life. He spends his Saturdays making bread and cheese. In the summer he enjoys tending to his plants and in the winter he cures meat. He is the only person I have ever met that has a certainty about him. I have always thought of him as “Mr. Fix-It”. He can fix anything, from the many computers I have destroyed to my first broken heart. It has always seemed like my dad has life figured out. He has always instilled in me the notion that life is a series of decisions, and that all we can really do is our best. We will change whatever we can, but there are things we will simply need to accept. He never has expectations. He lets emotions and anger and difficulty roll off his back. I think my father realized a long time ago that there is very little in life that is in the control of life’s subjects.
I think what often times we don’t realize is that anger is so often a result of feeling fragile, and sad and hurt. There is a small child inside that cringes as one might after a scolding, each time we become angry. It is so instinctual. It is our mind and our body telling us that we feel hurt, or sad, or fragile and we have to do something fast to protect that hurt. True, real, rage and anger comes from a very deep place within us that has been made to feel fragile more than once, and is growing weary of it. Anger is a defense for the parts of us that we don’t feel we have protected sufficiently enough. Anger is the response our body wants to give each time it is asked to sacrifice some part of the original plan, or some part of itself for the sake of someone else. Anger is the result of a fast judgement. It also helps us survive. Anger is not in existence to make our lives difficult. It still does, but the intentions are good. I often think of anger as a small child who has spilled milk all over the kitchen floor because they did not want to ask for help in an attempt to develop independence. That child feels helpless right in that moment. It is a moment of true fragility. It is in this moment, that the child realized they were not ready to pour milk on their own yet. Anger comes to us when we make the realization that we were not ready to hear, do or be something just yet. It comes to us when we have not met expectations, specifically our own. Anger is not designed to be hurtful, but it can present that way. Anger is not designed to show you weaknesses, it is there to help us build on our strengths. We become angry when we feel we are lacking, or when we feel something has been taken from us.
I have spent a long time getting to know my anger, my hurt and my fragility. And you know what? I still don’t know them very well. They’re unpredictable. They’re sharp and mean and reactive. I think of them as the first responders for my emotional crises.
But what does it mean to actually experience these things? I’ll break it down. I’m sure it is different for you, but I will explore them each.
To feel anger is to feel betrayed. It manifests as sweaty palms, increased heart rates, flushed face, tunnel vision. I have described my anger as a caged animal. I have described it as a snake waiting to strike venom into whomever is willing “to go there”. It’s lashing out, cutting people off, thinking and acting impulsively. That is what it feels and manifests like. That is not what it is. What I really think is that anger is the result of feeling fragile, fearful, sad.
To feel fragile is to feel incapable at times, but mostly it is to feel isolated. It is to feel that every bodily movement is weighted down with cinder blocks. It is to feel as though you could break at any moment. It’s the thought that you are not enough. It’s filling your head with thoughts that do not serve you. It’s knowing that none of those statements are factual, but all of them feel real and hurt so much more than anything anger could do to you. Fragility is lack of trust in oneself.
To feel fear is to feel uncertain. It’s an acute anxiety that rings hot in your ears when things change quickly. It’s not knowing the outcome in a life or death situation. It’s not knowing the outcome in any situation. It’s both never seeing an end in sight but also seeing all the endings at once. It’s having something removed or placed in your life without your say. It’s loss of control and power. It’s the notion that everyone else has it “more together than you do”.
To feel hurt is to feel as though you have been wronged. Someone has, deliberately or not so, done something that has created pain in your life. Perhaps it was you who created your own pain. Perhaps it was the sidewalk after your tripped on your shoelace. Perhaps it was the alarm clock when you hit snooze too many times and wound up late. To feel hurt makes us vengeful. It makes us want revenge, and it makes us want others to know that same pain because it simply “isn’t fair”. To feel hurt is to feel that someone or yourself has done something so inherently the opposite of your own values and principles that it causes a bodily response.
The idea is not necessarily to educate you, but to help you understand what I mean when I say that anger is really just a reaction to a wound. Whether it be out of fear, hurt, or fragility, it is the result of something that has put us in a position to feel ill-equipped with what is on our plates. It’s confusing. It is important.
Of all the feelings, these are the most personal. These are the ones with the most to say. They stick around with us the longest. I have learned, only recently, the importance of taking them off once in a while, like the back pack i mentioned earlier. These are emotions that we, as humans, must develop relationships with. I am not saying it is time to become best buddies, but it might be a good idea to reach out to them the next time they knock on your door.
We’re going to get a little visual. The last time these three knocked on my door, I decided to try something different. I greeted them all by their names: Ghee, Franklin, and Teddy. I have let them come and go as they pleased. I did’t invite them in but when they knocked on the door to visit, I was ready with biscuits in the cupboard for them. They took their tea with cream and a little over done. They enjoyed butter on the biscuits. They never considered taking their shoes off. They all smelled funny, but it was hard to place what the smell was. They had sharp teeth and claws and they chewed with their mouths open. They stayed about thirty minutes to an hour and when they left they didn’t bother to pick up after themselves. They just needed a place to rest and banter on. I listened. I asked questions. When they left, I cleaned up their mess and forgot about them. It does me no good to wait around for the next time they will come. I took a deep breath. I put the stale biscuits away. I put the tea away. I cleaned up the table in the cottage kitchen in my mind. I opened the blinds, the sun spilled in. Over time, I have realized their stays have grown shorter and shorter. They are merely messengers. I tolerate them. They tolerate me. It is a working relationship. I hold the control.
These guests are only fleeting, not dissimilar to a breeze, if I let them be. It does not mean they won’t leave a mess. We will likely have to tidy up after. But there is nothing like having the opportunity to re-arrange your space, anyway. Emotions and feelings are not facts. They only exist to help us understand ourselves and our circumstances. In the case with my father, I was feeling fragile, fearful and hurt. It manifested as anger for a lot of years. I had to understand that to learn to be able to accept anger, and its role in my life. I had to understand that it never existed to hurt me, it was only ever trying to help.
These feelings are natural. We do not have to hide them. We just have to do our part in trying to understand them. Ask questions. Explore. Understand. Clarify. It won’t always make sense all the time. But these feelings won’t go away until you acknowledge them. The longer they stay, the messier their tea time gets. In turn, the angrier you get, because that is YOUR kitchen.
As long as we continue to see these things negative emotions and feelings, we will never be able to understand them. Our instincts tell us to get rid of the pain and the hurt and “negative emotions”. We don’t want to feel them so we do everything we can to stop. Trying all different approaches and techniques. We never think to sit in it. Society places more value on feeling good, and positive psychology which all has a place in the world, but so does the “negative”. The real issue lies in calling them anything other than natural.
The next time you feel anger, hurt, fear, fragility ask them to tea. Let them be for a while.
What are they trying to teach you? What is the take away? What are you going to do about it? When and how? What needs to be different next time? What will you name your guests? What will you serve them? How can you have an open conversation with them? What do you notice about how long they stay? What are the patterns? What can you do to ease their worry? What do you want to say to them? How can you develop a relationship with them?
When they leave, tidy up. Pull the blinds up. Let the sun in. You do not need to live life waiting for them to come back around.