I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read:
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible
be found in us. . .
It was all about letting go of everything.” Pema Chödrön
When we take a feeling and then add anxiety to it, we create what we call an emotion. That is the magic formula. Emotions are anxiety-based behavioral constructs designed to create psychological distance between the person and a perceived threat. Feelings exist in the present, whereas emotions come from being anxious about the future – about what might happen.
Emotions cover a wide range of behaviors, but because they all serve the same purpose, they all operate similarly. Emotions give rise to things like confusion, rage, hate, resentment, stress, nervousness, tension, scorn, irritability, jealousy, disgust, stubbornness, spite, sullenness and depression. These are all based in anxiety. They are defensive. They express concern about being exposed and being found to be unworthy or unacceptable.
Anger and rage, one a feeling the other an emotion, offer us the opportunity to examine the differences between them, and how they are often confused. They appear similar, but come from completely different origins.
We don’t see real anger very often. What we mostly see is rage. Real anger is a feeling, a situational response, primarily a response to injustice – feeling cheated or used, for example. It is a measured reaction to an offense and it happens in real time. Anger can actually bring people together. It can help to create resolution. Anger says, “I love you enough to tell you that what you did hurt my feelings.”
Rage comes from a completely different place. Rage is created by the ego to keep us out of sticky or difficult situations. It’s purpose is to create psychological distance between the person and her tormentor. It is a defensive reaction created by an inner child who feels helpless and fears that she will be exposed and found wanting.
A rageful reaction is related to, but not necessarily proportional to, the offense. Rage is usually explosive and noisy, a lashing out by someone who feels helpless or powerless against a force she cannot control.
Where anger requires provocation, rage can come from something as simple as a word or a look. And a small trigger can generate a big response because it has little to do with the present circumstance. The pattern was created many years ago in childhood. The other person just happened to get in the crosshairs of an old unhealed wound.
The two situations and your emotions about them are related only by the contamination that has occurred from one situation to the other. Otherwise, your feelings about the present situation would be clear and you would act on them. The feelings of powerlessness is what generates the rage. It is the inherent unfairness of the thing. The fear is of loss – loss of support, loss of love, or maybe a loss of freedom or security.
In the opposite, rage, although we don’t call it that, can also be an icy collapse from feeling powerless. But since collapse seems different, we speak of being withdrawn, shy, or fearful. But underneath the collapse is a mountain of repressed emotion. In any case, note the focus on the external world as a source of love or acceptance. This is true for all emotions.
We all get angry from time to time. After all, life can be a pain! And anger helps establish healthy boundaries. That’s the feeling part of it. But, if you lose it easily, if you’re reaction is the equivalent of a nuclear meltdown or if your partner or kids fear “those episodes,” then there is something more going on than just mere anger and it would do you well to pay attention to it. Conversely, covering up or hiding your feelings under a rock isn’t healthy either.
Do you get upset easily? Do other people set you off? Do you get “angry” at your partner over little things? What about other drivers? Waiting in line? Worse yet, are you unremittingly harsh to yourself? Or conversely, are you withdrawn and timid? Do you live in fear of being found out, judged and condemned?
Let’s say someone cuts you off in traffic. There is a normal response to that intrusion. You honk, then you slow down, change lanes and go about your business. The anger dissipates. You won’t like what happened, but it’s over. Responding to the other driver’s carelessness is understandable, but exploding at them has nothing to do with driving.
Blowing up at the other driver means that yo have aggravated an old, unresolved wound. A vulnerability has been triggered that you don’t want exposed. Maybe as a child you felt disrespected, discounted or in some other way, unimportant. But, since you can’t do anything about the other’s intrusion, you cover your feelings of vulnerability over with an outburst. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
The imbalance in a person’s reaction tells us that something more is going on. Other drivers sometimes do stupid things, but pulling out a gun because of their driving has nothing to do with cars. The pain in that situation is old and deep and comes from another time.
A child has limited coping skills and powerful feelings and matters are made worse when parents do not provide an emotional safety net. It leaves many children feeling alone and abandoned. Children don’t have strong boundaries and anyone can easily violate their emotional or physical integrity. If you struggle with rage, for example, something happened when you were young. We would call it abusive, although it may not have seemed so extreme. As I said, feeling discounted or being judged (repeatedly) would do it. And then of course there is physical abuse, other kinds of emotional abuse, possibly even sexual abuse.
In those days speaking out would probably have been met with rejection or even condemnation. That is why most victims blame themselves, at least in part, for what happened in childhood and have a difficult time believing they were actually innocent, but it is true. Children are simply not capable of the kind of things they hold themselves responsible for. That is also why it is sometimes difficult for partners or friends to understand our struggles. They look at a situation and to them things seem pretty straightforward. And from an objective perspective, that is true.
This is where I often run into the protest, “But my parents loved me!” And although I am sure this was true, even with the best of intentions, unresolved emotional issues in parents will interfere with their ability to unconditionally love their children. This is how God’s plan plays out. It gives parents the opportunity to work on their issues and affords you (eventually) the opportunity to work on the feelings of vulnerability that you brought in to resolve. And, it happens for everyone. Everyone.
This surprises people, but inner children are surprisingly rational. If she is feeling anger she had good reason. But “had” is the operative word here. Inner children live in the past. Your inner child still clings to the perspective that the world is like it was when she was four or six years old. And it doesn’t matter that the original perpetrator is no longer a part of her life or that what happened was 30 or 40 years ago. She felt powerless then and she feels powerless now.
There is a related problem and that is that conscious of it or not, people are reluctant to seek out the truth. When you were a child, you built a house of beliefs about yourself and about world that were, in some very important ways, untrue. When your parents said that you were lazy, not smart or too emotional, you believed them. When their love was withheld, you concluded it was because you were unlovable, not good enough, etc. You also accepted these judgments to keep peace in the house. After all, what would have happened if you had confronted them for whatever they were doing? (Remember you were six!) So you bought in to keep the peace in an environment that was emotionally unsafe.
Moving into clarity (truth) today means tearing your house of beliefs down. And that house, although significantly untrue, comprises much of how you have come to see yourself. And those basic beliefs, although none of them could possibly be true, lead to the feeling that at the core something is wrong. Letting go of your house raises the prospect of being exposed and being vulnerable because you are unsure of the substance that lies beneath it. You built that house for good reason. And, even though the people you built it to defend yourself against no longer have the influence they once did, the myth persists.
You see, when all is said and done, you really don’t know who you are. You feel like you will be asked to stand naked before God and be judged. That’s not true by the way, God does not judge, (but people do) and that’s the fear.
You’ve been skating on the surface for 40 years. And the prospect of finding out the truth fills most people with dread. People will destroy relationships, decimate careers and lose their friends rather than give up their emotions and the fear they have been living with. Conscious of it or not, their resentment, sorrow, scorn, stubbornness and spite has been protecting them and their imagined defectiveness for years.