These are frustrating days for many of us. We have short fuses. Life has been disrupted and we are often unable to go where we want to go and do what we want to do. We are, most of us, frightened though we are not willing to admit it so we let it turn in on ourselves as rage. Even those with a money-buffer against pain and uncertainty are only protected from some things – not everything – not the most painful things. I find that our fears are less about the big things of life like income or job-security or even maintained health. Mostly we are afraid of others. People. And especially the ones closest to us.
Why? I think it is because they know too much. Like our therapists, siblings, and spiritual directors, those close to us know our soft, vulnerable spots. After all, the root Latin word for “vulnerable” is “vulnare” which means “to wound”. Those closest to us know our weaknesses, which is why so many live alone as solitaries and hermits – they are trying to keep safe. It works, however it causes other problems. Those closest to us know what frightens us, hurts us, and causes us to be afraid or ashamed. I have often said that “my mother was the person on this planet who could best push my buttons precisely because she was the one person on this planet who had sewn them on.” And it was true.
Cloistered as we are within homes and small circles of family or COVID-approved-house-guests, we are spending much of our time with people who know us very well. And people who know us well are armed with knowing our soft-spots; where to place the verbal blade for maximum pain and maximum bleed. Not always, but sometimes. That is why betrayal by a close friend or loved-one is exponentially more painful than a wound inflicted by a stranger.
And still worse – often, we humans confuse anger and fear. Apparently the human brain often confuses them when they happen with people whom we believe love us. It does not happen with strangers or acquaintances at all. Apparently our reptilian brains read all “others” as potentially hostile, based, I suppose on experience – and are therefore ready for attack. Who has not had someone turn on them and cause anger? But apparently, when someone we believe loves us, is close to us, is an intimate of ours – turns on us, we think we are angry. The emotion we are feeling is so visceral that it indeed does feel like anger – the flush, the lack of control, the fight and flight, the whoosh of attack or retreat – of domination or shame. These feelings all seem like anger, but in fact, they are fear.
Why would we be afraid of someone we love when they hurt us? Why not just be angry like we are at the things people do all around us every day? We are angry when a driver cuts us off in the highway. We are angry when a store clerk takes a call in the middle of a conversation about the location of corn muffins (I LOVE corn muffins!) We are angry when a not-so-close friend forgets an appointment for the third time, sending a subconscious message about their value of the relationship. These things make us angry.
But when someone betrays us who is close to us – a lover, close friend, a family member, a spouse – when one of these betrays us, there is a very slight migration in the brain from the centers for anger to the centers for fear. This is because fear and anger are so similar in our brains and are located immediately next to the brain-centers for sex (passion). It is very hard to differentiate anger feelings from fear feelings until you untwine them, slowly, later.
When betrayed or hurt by someone close to us we feel fear because we are afraid of being hurt again. Betrayal is always a surprise – that’s how we know it is betrayal and not just anger, grief or loss.
We are so stunned by being hurt by someone we love and trust, that our stay-safe-alertness (often PTSD) kicks into turbo-drive and then, even the slightest encounter will shock us with the kind of fear we feel swimming with a shark…not fear as much as panic. Were they the postman or the store clerk or the auditor or even a surly neighbor, we could just get angry and blow it off with a burst of expletives or a long run with a dog. But when it is someone close to us who hurts us, the pain is so searing and touches us so deeply, that we become afraid that it might happen again with a kind of terror.
It turns out that we are still afraid of those saber-toothed tigers – fear deep in our DNA. The reactions to pain and death are hard-wired into us over 200,000 years of DNA development. We can’t even help it. Only those tortured over long periods of time can overcome this natural brain-flip. Anger is just fear turned in on itself. When we learn that, we can get curious.
So what to do with anger?
There are two things to do when one has been triggered with anger in a relationship. The first thing to do is to stop the action, separate yourself from the vulnerability – some water and a long walk usually does the trick.
The second thing to do is then to look back at the experience from a new, safer, distant point of view. In other words, get curious. What works for me is this little exercise:
Imagine yourself as a character in a novel about your life. The “story” of the novel is your life. Ask yourself about yourself as if you were writing a novel about yourself. So one would say (if one were named Charles) “Hmm…I wonder why Charles experienced that?” and “I wonder why Charles reacted that way to that stimulus?” and finally (and here is the hard part) “I wonder what Charles will do next?” In other words, get mindful. Imagine your next step in a mindful, careful, thoughtful way.
In my experience, conflict in work-places and households usually stems from careless speech. So I try to remember my house-rule:
Before you speak, ask yourself:
“Is it kind?
Is it true?
Does it improve on the silence?”