Archive for the ‘anger’ Tag

You Can’t See Your Own Nose Without a Mirror   Leave a comment

Isn’t it odd how we are often the last ones to realize the obvious about ourselves?  You may have spotted a theme that has been bubbling up through my posts recently, but I didn’t notice it until a few days ago: anger.   It is one of my defense mechanisms, so reflexive and short-lived that I often don’t notice it or I pass it off as a normal response.  In fact, it was a major piece of armor for my whole family, our shield against a sudden sense of danger, so quickly deployed that it even parried our sense of vulnerability.  Like so many family traits, it was carefully disguised–no shouting, name-calling, or slamming doors, but an intense burning that everyone felt without being able to name.  When I stumbled on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, it turned on the lights for me, so much so that I bought every sibling a copy for Christmas.

Many years ago I realized that an unexpected burst of anger is a telltale sign that I feel under attack, not from the incident itself, which is just a release valve, but from the pressure of turmoil building inside my heart, a festering wound that needs attention.  I don’t need a scolding, but a warm compress of grace–I need to locate the wound and apply self-compassion.

I have known for some months that my emotions were foundering, but it was a gradual, insidious tide that crept up past the gunwales without any alarms sounding.  Who doesn’t get mad at selfish drivers?  Who doesn’t get pissed at overbearing customers or lazy co-workers?  It seemed normal… except that it wasn’t.

The slowly building tension came from a big drop in income, a stressful job, and even an unsafe home (our cars have been rifled more than once, and I caught a burglar trying to get into our house).   The major soul cost has been a loss of even a minimal support structure–my low-wage job works me till 11 p.m. and on weekends, blocking me from making social connections here.  And when the scales are already heavily offset, even small weights added seem unbearable.  It becomes hard to do simple daily tasks, not to speak of the huge effort to overcome our current set of circumstances.

None of that is going to change soon.  It needs to change for life to be sustainable, but in the meantime I need to lean into self-support, be conscious of my pain in specific ways and direct compassion to myself as I would to any dear, suffering friend whom I love.

 

Posted July 13, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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My Angry Legalism   2 comments

I am not a gracious person by nature.  Among other flaws, I have a strong undertow of anger that side-eyes anyone who steps outside the bounds.  Just yesterday I accelerated from a stop light and then slowed into the left turn lane when a car darted out from a gas station to my left, forcing me to swerve.  He was trying to beat the traffic coming the opposite way, no doubt expecting me to keep accelerating so that he could swing in behind me.  He stopped, straddling lanes in both directions, and as I passed, I raised my hand at him and mouthed “WHAT?!”

As much as I treasure grace, it is not my default.  My go-to is still legalism and anger and judgment.  They are reflexive both in me and at others, and I have to talk myself out of it, like explaining for the hundredth time to a child why he shouldn’t chase the ball into the street.  It takes hundreds of explanations not because he misunderstands or disagrees, but because in that moment he’s fixated on the ball.  Unfortunately, some undercurrents in us are more complex or more rooted or more hidden.  Anger and blame were a moral right in our family when I was growing up so I don’t even have that self-conscious check in my spirit–it doesn’t feel wrong.  It wasn’t baked into my conscience as guilt inducing… or rather it was baked into my conscience as legitimate and righteous, unless it is excessive.

But if I conclude that my problem is simply an excess–that irritation is okay, but not spitting–then legalism wins.  I reduce everything to behavior and never bother to ask the vital question, “Why do I feel so angry?”  My anger or my expression of it is not the real problem, but the symptom, like a check engine light.

In this case, the diagnosis is complex.  I have bought into a legalistic system in which we all live within certain parameters, and we keep one another in line by penalizing line-breakers: shirkers, cheaters, moochers, and bad drivers.  I work hard to stay within the lines, knowing the whole system will collapse if we don’t all conform, so I am heavily invested in everyone following the rules.

I’m not curious about why they cross the line.  Perhaps they lay down the lines differently or they are dodging the opposite line or they don’t prioritize this line.  Maybe they are struggling too much to care about lines.  All of that looks like so many bad excuses to me–get back in line and then we’ll talk about your issues.  This overriding sense of legalistic suppression comes out against myself also in self-condemnation for crossing lines, especially if it hurts or inconveniences others.

I absorbed my dad’s view that it was personally insulting for someone to cross the line in a way that blocked our goals or intentions.  It showed that they disrespected us, not caring how their behavior impacted us, which poked at our insecurity in our behavior-based worth.  Since we were unaware of our anger except under occasional provocations, we blamed the other for “making us angry” as though anger came from outside and not from within as self-defense against a perceived slight.  Seen empathetically, my anger is a cry of fear that my very worth is being threatened by every assumed mistreatment–I must judge you to deflect my own sense of inadequacy.

Sadly, it is this very judging that maintains the legalistic system that keeps me running from my shame and away from grace.  Not only when I am mean, but every time I do something stupid or careless or off-kilter, I shame myself into better efforts because I am sure that doing it right is the measure of my worth.  And with that system, I judge the worth of others by what they do.  We are all trapped, and keep each other trapped, like crabs in a bucket that keep pulling down the ones trying to escape.  Grace is all of a piece–we all get it or none of us do.  When we start measuring out who is “worthy” of grace, we have slipped back into legalism again.  So giving grace to other drivers (or neighbors or colleagues), real grace, not forced and grudging but free and affirming,  is my best path to accepting grace for myself as well.  Let grace reign.

Posted June 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Apologies That Fail   Leave a comment

He phoned in hot about getting the wrong color paint, kept interrupting, and demanded that I make him more paint–the right paint–NOW so he could pick it up the same night or the morning after.  It was the kind of treatment that sears the soul, and it ruined the rest of my night.  He came in the next morning and apologized.  The gray-scale photocopy he used to select his paint was inaccurate.  He felt bad for getting angry and blaming me when it was his own mistake.

I have been in that situation many times–angry and blaming someone else for my own faults.  Sometimes I discovered my error too late to apologize, and I think back on those occasions with deep shame and sorrow for the wounding I caused.  But humble apologies can’t fix everything–the wounding for which I apologize can keep festering, hurt the relationship, and spread out to harm others.  I feel just as wary of my apologetic customer today as yesterday, and that wariness spreads over onto other customers who might also lose their temper.  I now feel an unhealthy degree of anxiety about making mistakes, and that makes me more likely to judge the mistakes of my colleagues.  It is a subtle change, often subconscious, but it taints the air.

On their face, apologies seem to be expressions of grace, but they can just as easily come from legalism and will then often spawn further ungracious ripples.  My customer was primarily chagrined about his wrong evaluation, not his anger.  If I really had mixed the wrong paint, he would have felt justified in being angry–I wasted his time and money with my carelessness.  In other words, he was following a strict legal code–fault deserves anger, the greater the fault the greater the righteous anger.  He saw his failure as misapplying the legal code, in this case his anger was unjustified.  In contrast, grace says we all fail so let’s be patient with each other’s mistakes.  Just say no to anger, even when the other person really is at fault.

So many times I have been chagrined in this same legalistic way.  Instead of learning to be more gracious and less angry with other’s mistakes, I take home the lesson that I need to be more accurate in assigning blame.  In other words, faced with a challenge to my legalistic ways, I become more entrenched in them.

A few days ago I was passing a long line of cars backed up in the exit lane.  Just ahead two cars in my lane had slowed to a crawl, trying to merge into the stopped lane.  The traffic to my left was going too fast for me to shift over.  It seemed clear to me that the two blocking my lane had decided they didn’t want to wait in the long exit lane and had sped ahead to cut in line farther up.  Because of the unexpected jam, I was running late for work, and getting irritated at the lane cheaters, I lay on my horn.

There are two possibilities: they were innocent or guilty.  If they were being selfish, my anger was justified, but if innocent, then I was at fault.  Simple math: the guilty are punished and the innocent are not… until we add in forgiveness which ruins the equation. We all need forgiveness, repeatedly.  It is the oil that smooths our many faults in relating to each other.  Grace is not only sweeter than law, but far more powerful to transform us, both those who give it and those who receive it, because it works to change the heart, not the behavior.  Since grace defines our motivations, not our actions, it can reveal itself in tough as well as gentle ways, but it is always an act of blessing… and anger is usually not.

 

Posted March 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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I’m Mad   1 comment

Irritation has been bubbling over for the last few days, quick sparks of anger at things and people that don’t work right.  This morning I wanted to heave the piece of 2×4 in my hand through the TV screen.  I pictured Kimberly seeing the broken set and asking what happened and my anger then turning on her.  I have too much sense to actually break anything valuable or start unnecessary quarrels, but my imagination runs wild with clubs and bricks, torches and car crashes.  And my anger, bridled and checked though it is, still leaks out in an unresponsive, tight face.

Ongoing irritation is always a tell that I’ve got a burr in my soul.  Sometimes I can find it and pluck it out, but other times it is hidden down in some forgotten niche.  A sharp emotional memory was poked, some reminder of past failures or insults, and it threw me into defensive mode to parry the assault on my sense of worth… but the picture faded before I recognized it and only the feeling remains.

Lord knows I have enough failings in my past to keep me trapped in shame for the rest of my days: memories that sting every time they rise up to my consciousness–people I have hurt or ignored, good advice I scorned, blindness to obvious faults, arrogance and criticism and foolishness of a hundred kinds.  I have discovered that I can only apply grace and forgiveness specifically, a balm for a particular wound.  For best results, I need to identify the thing that is niggling my heart and bring that to be bathed in God’s love.

A parent or spouse may say, “I don’t care what you have done, I love you anyway,” but we fear that if she knew THIS evil of ours, it would create a barrier to her heart.  Something whispers inside us, “She only loves me because she doesn’t know how bad I have been.”  We need to hear the words of God’s grace applied to each individual failing, for as many times as it rears its accusing head in condemning us.  It is so reassuring to show Him that fault with our doubts, and hear his resounding, “Yes, I love you still!”  Blanket forgiveness is a weak alternative to working through the details of our wrongs both internally and inter-personally.

But sometimes like today I don’t know the cause.  Perhaps it was a slowly accumulating list of smaller incidents or a subconscious sting, a dart that zipped through my heart leaving behind only the pain.  It is hard even to love myself if I don’t know what is blocking that self-compassion, to look that specific failing in the face and say to my heart, “Yes, you are still loveable in spite of your brokenness.”  Unlike shame, grace calls us to grow better from a place of full acceptance rather than out of a striving for acceptance.

I think part of my problem is failing to deal fully with each remorse as it occurs, but instead feeling bad about it and then letting it fade into the random fog of my emotional context.  I should rather recognize the full weight of it on my soul and take the effort to deconstruct and sort out the turmoil stirring beneath.  I will take some time to do that now with the last few days cache of self-blaming, a very bad habit of mine.

Posted July 26, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Christmas Redemption   9 comments

The day before Christmas, having slept 4 hours because of pushy dogs, I stood on a cement floor all day at work, feeling upset by a conflict with a fellow employee. When I got home I was greeted by a mess of chicken grease that had overflowed the crockpot, pooled on the counter, and spilled down the cabinets, the footstool, and across the floor.  I cleaned it up and flopped down exhausted, ready to veg out in front of the TV for a while before dragging myself to our Christmas eve communion service.  Kimberly had a different plan.

She wanted to have family prayer with singing, reading, and sharing before we went to church.  I was okay with religion at our house or God’s house, but was too tired for both.  I needed some down time, but she needed to prepare her soul for the service.  What kind of man would block his wife’s spiritual needs?  So I yielded.  After supper, she lit the candles, turned off the lights, and cued up the music, and like a good husband, I sat and pouted.  After the music and reading, Kimberly shared personally while I tried to stay awake in the dark, which was the least I could do… I mean, it was literally the least I could do (huffing would have taken extra effort).

I was very generous with my silence during prayer and on the way to church, rounding off the corners of quiet with a few words to keep her at bay so I could stew in peace.  Nothing messes up a good case of resentment so much as having to explain it to someone else, especially someone reasonable.  In the pew I quietly complained my way through the boring homily, the artless choruses, and the tiresome liturgy.  Then communion.  Go meet God, ready or not.  Suddenly the sermon and songs seemed to complain about me–the question after all is not about a sophisticated form, but a sincere heart–and by that measure, the artless always win.

God does not force Himself on us–He comes as a suckling baby and ends up nailed to a cross, living his life as a penniless wanderer.  He does not wow us with splendor or scare us into submission, but opens His heart to us with gentleness and vulnerability.  Instead of overriding our weakness, He comes to share our weakness, to be one of us, to understand and empathize and breath grace into our brokenness.

Most of my life I used the Lord’s Supper to torment my soul into compliance, using the death of Jesus as a bludgeon rather than a salve, as though communion were a celebration of the giving of the law rather than the giving of His life.  But tonight, instead of telling me, “Your resentment is bad, stop it!”  God says, “your resentment is a sign of pain, let’s try to love and listen to that hurting heart of yours.”

Together we rewind the evening’s tape.  I am tired. I need rest. Kimberly needs prayer.
“Stop right there,” He says. “What happens next?”
“My needs are less important, so I have to deny my own needs,” I answer.  I think about it for a minute. “Actually, that is the cruel message I have heard all my life–that my needs are not important enough to matter, and if my needs don’t matter, then I don’t matter.  No wonder I feel hurt when I’m forced to deny my needs.”
“Were you actually forced?” He asked.
“No, but I know it’s what you want, so I have to do it.”
“So you feel that I care more about Kimberly’s needs than yours?  Actually, you feel as though I consider everyone’s needs as more important than yours, that you are last in line, and that I therefore care least about you and your feelings.  That is heart-breaking!  I want you to know that I care more about you and your needs than you could ever imagine.  You are precious to me, uncountably precious.  The resentment you feel right now is just your heart standing up for you against those lies that say you don’t matter.  And I’m here to tell you that you do matter, that you matter supremely to me.  That is what the cross really means which you celebrate now in communion.  I welcome you, resentment and all.  Come, Let me hold you!”

After that it was easy to slip my arm around Kimberly as we knelt together at the communion rail.  In the deep affirmation of God’s love, peace flows into our hearts and relationships.  We are loved.  That is all that matters.

Posted December 28, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Fixing Sandy Hook   Leave a comment

My first feeling was horror, quickly followed by outrage, and then a creeping sense of helplessness: horror for how many and how young the victims; outrage for the unprovoked, extreme violence; and helplessness because it was inexplicable and unpredictable.  As a red-blooded, American male with an overblown sense of responsibility, my powerlessness is the most frightening of these emotions, so I try to get passed it as quickly as possible (though I would not have admitted this even to me most of my life).  The way I protect myself from horror is to let my outrage stir me to resolve, to make sure such a terrible thing never happens again.  In other words, the quickest way for me to escape those wretched feelings is to jump passed them into problem-solving mode.

My gut response to natural disasters or unavoidable accidents is quite different, much simpler and cleaner.  I move easily into grief and solidarity with everyone since we are all in it together.  There is nothing to examine and correct.  I am responsible for nothing, and can simply feel. This acceptance is typical in fatalistic cultures, even for calamities that are preventable, but that seems like a defeatist attitude to us Americans.

As a nation carved out of the frontier by pioneers, we are very gifted at overcoming adversity with our “can do” spirit.  We are independent, pragmatic, self-confident, and creative… so much so that we see everything in the light of problem-solution.  We are able therefore to use action to largely override any feelings that crop up.  In fact, feelings themselves are often seen as part of the problem that needs fixing.  We tend to deal with insecurities by taming the situation.  We are a nation of controllers.  We take charge of ourselves, others, and our environment.

Within hours of the Newtown massacre, some of us were demanding solutions: better school security, more gun control, better ways to identify and fix those with emotional issues (or just as vigorously rejecting these ideas).  “We can stop these killings;  we can fix this,” we told one another.  No.  We can’t.  We can limit violence in various ways, but we really are not in control of what happens on this old earth.  The most we can do is influence it for the better.   Malicious, unprovoked, random violence is an inescapable part of our broken world, and embracing our sense of vulnerability and fear might be a good place for us to start.

I am a particular kind of controller.  I gain a sense of security by figuring things out.  I am at my most vulnerable when I am confused or stymied.  I often “resolve” my feelings of powerlessness by sorting, categorizing, and explaining the situation–intellectual escapism.  (I guess this blog is exhibit A.)  When I am lost in the maze of life, I fall easily into depression.  But choosing a sense of helplessness rather than avoiding it can be my way into grace.

So in my next blog I will get out of my head and into my feelings.

Posted December 18, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Clinging to Grace with Our Fingertips   3 comments

This is where my story gets hard and healing, frightening and amazing.  First the mess.  My needs displayed themselves in a hundred ways that were threatening to Kimberly and her needs.  For instance, I have often used anger and blame to protect myself from looming danger, but Kimberly was raised by a mother who screamed and shouted, so when I honestly expressed my feelings, her alarm tripped.

Early in our dating we sat for lunch in a restaurant booth in Arlington, Virginia where I was living.  The man in the booth behind us, apparently a construction foreman, was carrying on a loud conversation on his two-way radio.  I muttered to Kimberly how rude this was, which she feared he could overhear, and then I swiveled around and gave him a “dirty look” hoping to shame him quiet.  When I turned back around, she was visibly shaken and said she did not know whether she could stay in relationship with someone with anger issues.  So began the saga of conflicting needs in the area of self-defense, specifically anger.

The machinations of the mind are complicated, so unless this is your experience, you may not understand the root of my anger.  Anger is the result of feeling disrespected, having my boundaries crossed.  As I grew up, my sense of worth grew dependent on the value others placed on me.  If they seemed to devalue me, I was  threatened at my core.  There are many ways folks can protect themselves from this, and one of mine was anger and blame.  When the crew chief raised his voice, I felt disrespected, and in my insecurity, I reacted to protect myself against this threat.

Is This Going to Work?

From childhood, Kimberly has taken the opposite approach of protecting herself by accommodating every one so that she is liked.  When threatened, I bared my teeth and Kimberly wagged her tail.  She was quite successful in acting in such a way that no one would ever get angry with her.  Underneath was her terror of rage and denial of her own anger.   Both of us were living out of fears that we did not recognize, incompatible anxieties, each person’s defense mechanism triggering the other’s fear.  I thought I needed a mate who would be okay with my anger and Kimberly thought she needed a mate that never got angry.  This did not look like a match made in heaven!

But what we wanted was not what we needed.  Let me put it plainly–we each wanted to marry someone who would help us escape our deepest fears.  Our coping mechanisms were not “working” (protecting us from pain), so we wanted a spouse that would reinforce our defenses, not so we could face our underlying issues, but so we could avoid them successfully.  We were both blessed to have a very supportive and accepting relationship…  except when it wasn’t.  She was not trying to expose my denial (the anger that hid my fear), but in simply being herself with me, and I with her, the truth was forced to come out, and it was very painful.  After all, there were quite good reasons why we developed these protective patterns early in life.  Let me relate a very common interchange

Me: “That jerk just cut me off and then slowed down to turn into Sheetz.  That’s really considerate!”  My insecurity is shouting at me that I have been disrespected.  I don’t realize that I feel threatened and fearful because my anger jumps in so quickly to protect me and blame the other driver.  I think my aggravation is his fault.

Kimberly: “Maybe he was running low on gas and saw the gas station at the last minute.”  Kimberly feels her fear rising at my heat, and she jumps in to protect the person I am attacking.  I feel unsupported and shamed.

Me: “He could have easily slowed down and pulled in behind me.”  My coping mechanism is being threatened.  If you take away my anger, I have no protection from being devalued.  I still don’t realize that my true, underlying feeling that needs addressing is fear.

Kimberly: “Maybe he didn’t have time to think of that.”  I feel the legitimacy of her argument.  I really should not be mad.  I begin to feel shame for my temper instead of sympathy, which would give me the safety to look deeper into the roots of my fear.  I shame my anger away, closing the one door to my true heart’s need, and I no longer feel safe sharing my feelings with Kimberly.

Me: “Whatever!”  an irritated dismissal.  Kimberly senses my disapproval of her responses.  She is deeply hurt by my unspoken criticism that she is not supportive and caring, that she is not enough.  I am challenging her one shelter against shame, her remarkable ability to be supportive and empathic.  Her solution for the world’s problems is “Life is so hard, let’s all just get along.”  To feel safe, she needs me to be nice to everyone, especially her.

This dynamic played out scores of times.  We were committed to honesty in sharing our feelings and in accepting one another “as is,” and this characterized our relationship, so we grew more trusting and secure with each other.  The problems came when our needs conflicted, when supporting her meant denying my own needs. But our commitment to love and understanding in the other parts of our lives slowly began to soften these areas of conflict.  Kimberly moved from “your anger is bad” to “your anger is hard for me” to “your anger is understandable” to “I see how your anger is a vital protection.”  I moved from “you are not enough” to “I feel hurt by you” to “I see why anger is a problem for you” to “wow, you have every reason to fight anger.”  This was only possible by understanding ourselves and one another better.  We had to face into our fears and trust one another to listen, understand, and accept us.  We often failed.  It was messy.

OKAY, LET'S TAKE THIS SLOW

Posted October 5, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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