Afraid of my feelings
I used to think it virtuous that I rarely got angry. My equanimity was a reflection of inner stillness, my preservation of composure meaning I could hold moral superiority over others. I wasn’t one of those people who were carted around by the vagaries of emotion. I was in control. A friend once asked: “do you ever get angry?” and at the time it was a moment of pride. I squared my shoulders and puffed my chest. “nope!” I was sure this marked my emotional maturity. Today, I don’t claim to be enlightened enough to know what emotional maturity looks like. But I do know something: anger is powerful, and I love it.
My childhood home was perpetually at the brink of conflict. What would start as a microagression between my parents, some stupid power play or even just a misunderstanding would leave our kitchen in disarray, my ears deafened by Amma and Appa at first talking but eventually, reliably screaming over one another. I was present to the simmering of anger in them, small escalations going unnoticed until eventually they were both throwing words and hands and all other kinds of shit across every room. When we had people over, I feared the moment when folks left to go home, the door slamming shut freeing us of pretense, a new door opening for my real family to emerge. These fights were the most intense, drawn out by anticipation that spontaneously combusted into rage. I’d hide under the deck behind our house, not necessarily feeling safe in the weeds but satisfied enough that I was hidden, though the ever-escalating voices from inside the house were never hidden from me.
We were all angry. My mother raged at my father for his culturally-endorsed ritual kidnapping and deflowering of her—all facilitated and celebrated by her parents. My father erupted over us holding him accountable to his behavior, especially when they violated a series of norms he didn’t understand, norms no one had educated him on. And I smoldered on the inside, angry at the shit hand I was dealt, angry that I barely knew what kind of person I was without the oppressive institutions my parents insisted I submit to, angry that I had to role-play as an adult to fend for myself and my little brother, angry that I felt powerless to change anything that could make my home feel safe.
I learned early on what kind of outcome follows a display of anger. Talking past others, no room made for listening. Jumping to conclusions. Disassociation. I resolved to keep my anger to myself, to be different, to “break the wheel” and without knowing it I had cut myself off from my anger entirely for much of my adolescence. Over the years, I was given plenty of opportunities to express my anger: conflict with friends, at work, with roommates, all loved ones with whom I was in close contact. But I stayed conflict-avoidant. I kept my anger to myself, often more comfortable letting the relationship go. It was easier to walk away from someone who made me angry than it was to express what in the dynamic was hard, and what I wanted from the other person. And I’m pretty sure it’s further isolated me.
I recently resolved to let people in on how I’m feeling, in particular to be more forthcoming about when I feel angry. It’s scary as fuck. I worry I will push others away—much in the same way I let myself be pushed—and it will make me more alone. I fear the repercussions of channeling a feeling so energetic and uncontrollable, it’s described by buddhism as a hot coal: when you grasp it to strike another, you burn yourself. And it’s been messy. I overshare my feelings sometimes, and letting anger flow through me is incredibly tiring: I feel spent afterwards. And in other moments, when I’m feeling more grounded, when I’ve had the chance to sleep on the honesty and trust with which I’m sharing myself, I once again feel proud.
Listening to my anger puts me in touch with my values. These feelings unveil a deeper-seated truth about myself and what I believe, what is being violated, what is untenable. I’m able to more quickly calibrate with my inner compass. And when I share my anger, I’m (indirectly) sharing these values with others: funnily enough, they stop and listen to what I have to say. And those who love me stop and listen and hold me and reassure me, too. This is all early days for me, and I’m still discovering what kind of relationship I can have with anger, one that’s vulnerable and true but also patient, loving, and connective. I know one thing, for sure: anger has earned its seat at the table.