Anger scares most of us. But John McElhenney found a way through the fear.
As a man, these days, I don’t have many opportunities to experience incoming rage, but it does happen. Today was one of those days. This morning, a man who was unhappy with something I had done called me on the phone and simply came unglued at me. After about two minutes of yelling he ended up hanging up on me.
My physical reaction was a bit delayed. I sat there in shock and fixed the problem. It took another minute. I tried to check-in with myself to see if I was scared, angry, sad, or what. I felt nothing. I did want to run out of the room. I did want to call the man and tell him I’d never help him again. I did want to lash out and strike something or someone. To return some of the unwanted negative energy that had just been jolted, unfairly and without warning, into my day, my system, my physical body. Anger is physical.
And the physical effect of this encounter had shut most of my logical faculties. I was sitting there. Looking at this computer. Stunned. Unsure what to do next.
Anger scares most of us. My dad frightened the hell out of me sometimes. After he divorced my mom and moved out he would occasionally call me on the phone and give me a taste of his rage. (Growing up it had mainly been directed at my brother, who was eight years older than I.) As my father remarried and descended with his drinking partner further and further into an alcoholic death spiral, he would occasionally call me and chew me out for not “respecting” him, or not loving him.
As a 12 and 13 year-old kid, I did my best to defend myself logically from the onslaught. The emotional damage was much harder to understand or deflect. My dad raged on. And the next day, when I would talk to him about something, he had no recollection of even being mad at me. I guess he was blacked out when he called.
As I grew up, with this random and roving fury in my life, I became a bit dysfunctional around anger. I was afraid of making my dad mad, so I became more and more afraid of making anyone mad. I learned to lie, if it meant I could avoid being yelled at.
Unfortunately this behavior, as an adult, and more specifically, as an adult in a relationship with a woman, this inability to tolerate anger, was less effective. In fact, it was part of what got in the way of maintaining a healthy marriage. But as I am learning, it’s not too late to lean into the anger. Avoiding confrontations at all cost has consequences too. And the term “soft man” was not too far off the mark when describing my fear of other’s anger.
Today, when I noticed how shut down I had become, I had to make a radical adjustment to my day’s agenda. By paying attention to the physical response in my body, I made a decision about 15 minutes after the event, to go for a long walk. I chose to skip the conference I had been invited to, and get my body back to center by going some vigorous exercise to release my body from the shock it was in. I made sure the project situation was handled correctly and cut my chords as I headed for the door.
And as I started walking I began to notice how I was holding the fear in the tension of my entire body, my normal response to being yelled at. And about 15 minutes down the road I was taking deep breaths and allowing my mind to go back over the rage event and pick out what was had been triggered in me.
If we look at anger research we know that most rage is not actually about the event or problem that set it off. When there is so much pent-up fury, and one simple mistake becomes a volcano, there is probably more beneath the mountain of the man than a simple issue. When we don’t process our anger, or get it out, it comes out in other ways. In relationships, it comes out sideways and a partner gets blasted for something that, in hindsight, wasn’t worth getting too worked up about.
Still, it happened, and trying to defuse the event by excusing the rager is not an effective way of getting to the root of the issue for me. The rage ended up being my issue, not this other man’s. He’ll go on about his day, maybe blow up at a few other people, and no problem, same ol’ same ol’. For me, it was more important to understand what had shut down in my body, so I could listen and recover the joy of my day. Before this happened, I had plans to return to a conference, with people who were looking forward to seeing me, but I had to let that go, too.
As I walked further and my body began to loosen up, I started flashing back to my father’s yelling. And this time, rather than getting scared, I felt sad. What the rager today had triggered for me was the sadness I felt at being yelled at by my father. Probably 30 seconds in, it was no longer about the issue for me, it was about my relationship with my dad. Boom! And ugh!
I felt the tears come up, and I welcomed the expression of this old hurt. The energy of another man’s rage had allowed me to feel the sadness surrounding the rage of my father. Wow, that’s pretty big stuff. I could feel the ache in my body. But it wasn’t from wanting to run away or rage back; rather it was sadness at wanting to connect and be embraced by my dad.
When I was in high school, I no longer had regularly scheduled dinners with my dad. Instead I would call him and say, “Hey, can I come over for dinner?” And actually, part of what I was doing was gauging how drunk he was before I asked. Sometimes, when my mom and I lived only a few miles away from him, I would run to his house.
Today in the rain, walking, I could recall that muscle memory of running towards my father’s house, running towards him in any way I could, to find a connection. I was desperate to establish some love between us. Even as he continued his random drunk-dial rantings at me, I continued to strive for a relationship between us. Such is the struggle between father’s and their sons.
This man, today, who yelled at me was not my father. And his actions had little to do with the error that he perceived. His rage and yelling was about him and whatever was going on in his life. And maybe he’s come to believe that this is an acceptable behavior. I don’t agree.
But I am not looking for him to apologize or own his mistake at taking his frustrations out on me. Nor am I looking for my dad to give me a hug and say how much he loves me. The two wishes are tied together by the feelings that coursed through my body and paralyzed me as this younger man was attacking me, but I can now feel how that longing and sadness was the unfinished business I brought to the confrontation today.
I walked it off. I don’t expect to rehash the moment with today’s angry man any time soon. It is not often that we as men get a chance to experience the terror of being raged at. And today, rather than return fire or fall into depression, I owned my feelings and released what had been held inside me in some scared 12-year-old boy’s memories.
My dad died when I was 21 years old. He was afraid to die. And he was angry at God and the world for allowing his death to happen. He was no longer angry at me. He was no longer capable of being a scary figure in my life. He was small, curled up, and very angry. But like today’s man, he was no longer capable of hurting me with his anger.
As the story continues, I’ll explore how my anger has evolved and how I’ve learned to harness it both in relationships and parenting. I won’t pass the rage of my father on to my kids, and for that I give thanks.
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images: in the pool with my son, and my rage, john mcelhenney, cc 2014
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