I am not proud to say this but I, essentially, am a very angry person. For years, I have used anger to what I thought was my benefit, sending messages that I am not a person to be trifled with or to “emphasize” my points-of-view. Of course, this has never really worked for me, despite a long, delusional history of thinking so.
Like most, I come with my own heavy set of baggage. I was raised in a toxic home, with parents whose relationship was no less noxious. I was an overly sensitive child, and a strange one to boot. I was often picked on by peers and endured years of bullying during my middle-school and high-school years. Life was tough, and years of depression and pent-up resentment did not help matters much. As a boy and young man, I was very aware of the socio-cultural expectations around me that insisted I find a way to deal with my emotional pain and angst, quietly and in a dignified manner (meaning no crying or falling-apart): a tall order, indeed, when those were the things I wanted to do on a daily-basis.
To make matters worse, I was also dealing with the fact that I was a gay male living in a small, predominantly Hispanic community, where “gay was not the way.”
Managing that internal struggle only added fuel to the fire, as my sexuality—and its associated struggles—were not things that I could process with my parents, whose dreams for me involved, ultimately, getting married and starting a family. I think it would be too hard for many to understand the sort of psychic isolation young adults go through when they deal with situations like this, wanting help that is within reach but not being able ask for it for fear of rejection and judgment. All that suppressed emotion must go somewhere and—for me—anger was the most effective and efficient way to let off steam.
I was angry at my mother and father for not being “together” enough to think about anyone outside of themselves and their “train-wreck” of a marriage. I was angry at my sister for getting married and moving away, leaving me to fend for myself in a home that was marked by multiple parental separations and deafening silence. I was even angry at my friends for not being available sources of support for me (my perception, not the reality). Lastly, I was angry at God for sitting back and watching the show and doing nothing to toss me a break.
My focus was purely outside of myself, finding any and everything that contributed to the dismal pit my life had become. As a male, I tended to do that (I still do). It helped to “see” the problem, so I could have a better sense of what it would take to “fix” it. The issue with that line of thinking was that it pulled my attention to the objects of my distress, not the ugliness of the distress, itself. Moreover, it did not touch on the core issues that were making the guts within me melt away like sugar in the rain, which were years of imposed silence and what had become a case of deeply rooted self-hatred.
One does not weather years of being called “faggot” and “queer” without scars. When you are told long enough that you are “less than” and “don’t belong” you begin to believe it and, sometimes, act in ways the support such assertions. I eventually learned to hate the person I saw in the mirror, giving my anger a new place to go and do its thing.
It is strange to think that, as a gay man, I would have internalized all the homophobia I experienced, but I had. I was not special enough to avoid the impact of that noise. I have not quite shaken it off, much to my surprise. I am not sure I ever will. This concept of “the looking-glass self” is a topic that comes up in my social work classes from time-to-time, mainly as it relates to the negative consequences of living in oppressive environments. I am quick to let my students know that this, indeed, is fact, not fiction.
So, I learned to rage. It got the point that my own mother was afraid of me. Friends would walk on eggshells to avoid getting me mad. People would couch their own needs and let me have my way. At a cursory glance, things were fine: I was, finally, getting my needs met. Unfortunately, my relationships suffered, as a result. I was not oblivious to this fact. Despite the damage I inflicted, I thought the people in my life would have rather seen me as “angry” than “weak.” Reflecting, I think I was not too “off the mark,” which is quite disturbing.
One must put away the toys of youth when one grows-up. The things that served us once don’t necessarily serve us as adults, leaving us to re-strategize and re-calibrate. Our narratives change. They must.
I have had decades to look back on my stuff and try to make sense of it. I know I used my anger to be heard rather than using my words—my voice. It all boils down to fear, really. Being afraid to say what needs to be said. Being afraid that no one would listen. Being afraid of not being heard—which is different.
I know that I used anger—needed anger—to keep myself going. This happens to many of us—men, especially—when depression develops and starts to pull us down. Anger becomes the fire that fuels us, keeping us from sinking into a pit that we no longer have the energy to claw our way out of anymore. It helps us keep focus on the things we need to in order to make it through another day in one piece. Anger helps us feel powerful when we are not. As contraindicated as it sounds, anger can be used to serve a variety to needs, but there are better—more constructive–ways to utilize it.
There is nothing inherently “toxic” about anger: it is a naturally occurring emotion that helps us gauge where we are at, emotionally, letting us know when lines have been crossed and boundaries violated. It is what we do with it that determines our character in the end. I still get angry: it is a default setting that I am slowly trying to reprogram. My first instinct, during times of conflict, is to pull “anger” around me like a warm blanket and verbally lash-out and intimidate the person in front of me, but I politely decline the impulse and put the relationship in front of me first, instead.
I truly value the relationships in my life and no longer see the need to test them on a regular basis. I do not DO anger, anymore. Some things are just better felt and not demonstrated. Instead, I use my words and try to keep my actions aligned with the “better-self” I have visualized in my head: he never steers me wrong…usually.