I don’t know the first time I realized I had a problem with anger. It was a confluence of events—fights, usually escalated by me—between my ex-partner and I. A criticism would be shared, usually something that reflected her efforts to create clearer communication and feel recognized, and like a regulatory function in my brain I saw it as an attack.
Pretty soon it’s going back and forth, voices rising in volume and throaty harshness, and then she’s a “BITCH” and I’m throwing my Iphone across the room, punching a doorframe, or walking out in a fury. My blood pumping with adrenaline, I am convinced with total certainty that I have been ambushed, that I am an innocent bystander, that I was defiantly and nobly defending my honor from my partner’s betrayal. If she loved me, then why would she criticize me so harshly?
In time, the tension would ease—often after the shedding of tears. My rational mind would kick in and I would apologize, genuinely, for my behavior. Oftentimes, I could not remember the words I had said in the moment. I would cry too, citing my fear of abandonment, of rejection, of feeling unlovable. I lashed out because I was scared. Violent language was my defense against the perimeter I had built to maintain stability. My words were retaliatory blanks, fired off to reduce me from boiling over. But when you are on the receiving end such hatred, absorbing the volley of epithets and curse words and insults designed to hurt, you cannot forget. It stays with you, brands into your thoughts. It was and is, abuse.
I think it was easier for me to defer confronting my toxic anger because I never raised a hand to directly hurt my partner. I believed that abuse, in its definitive form, was attacking someone physically. I may have clenched my fists and thrown objects, but never at her, so how could that be me? That wasn’t me.
Except, it absolutely was.
The truth is, it really doesn’t fucking matter if you ever hit someone. Words are violence. And when you are intimately connected with a partner, you know their weak spots, the chinks in their armor. You’re entrusted to protect those places, but in my moments of rage I would swiftly use them to my advantage. You hurt me so now I will hurt you tenfold. All the while, believing that, because I was demonstrating assertiveness, my partner would not think I was weak. She would see I could stand up for myself and be even more in love with me.
There are numerous root causes for what is often deemed “toxic anger”, and much of it is pervasive in masculine culture. Emotional vulnerability is not the paramount lesson of young boyhood, but it very well should be. We teach our young men to “man up” and carry themselves with stoicism and boldness. We advocate extremes that negate the multi-faceted emotional landscape of being a human. Our parents do it. Our coaches do it. And our young men repeat it, and condition it into one another.
As a child and teenager, I was never the strongest or most gifted athlete. I cried easily, and I remember the jeers, heckling and even physical taunts of my peers-- both male and female.—because of it. I was a fag, a pussy, or just a woman. And I was desperate to relieve myself of what I saw as an inherently faulted personality.
So over the years, I used anger to defeat my fear of being ostracized. It emboldened me. When I roared, the room quieted. The laughter stopped. But mostly it caused devastation, and mistrust amongst my partners over the years. You lash out at loved ones enough, and eventually they will pull away. I’m lucky in that my most recent partner loved me enough to tell me how much I was hurting her when I lashed out. She encouraged me to seek help, therapy and healing to dissolve my anger. She established her own boundaries, took space and time for herself. That takes tremendous courage. And love.
And I still have flare ups. Sometimes I take criticism of an action as criticism of me and before I know it I absolutely cannot be fucked with. It’s my own version of going on a bender. I reemerge bleary eyed, amazed at the damage I have caused in so little time. It’s mortifying at first, but I learn more each time. I write. I speak to my therapist. I cry. Yes, I fucking weep, and I dig deep into the depths of emotional sludge that we try and hide away within ourselves and upchuck it onto the floor. It’s messy and sometimes downright terrifying, but when you face it, it disappears. Little by little.
And I’ll take that. Small steps. Incremental pushes toward the light, toward good, toward healing. A little more open, everyday.