I'm perpetuating the cycle of emotional abuse

I was a victim of rage and violence and now I can't control my temper.

By Cary Tennis
Published April 23, 2008 2:05PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

My parents were abusive. My dad in particular was a batterer but he also engaged in emotional and financial abuse, and control tactics. He was very easily inflamed and enraged.

The emotional abuse and the effects the financial abuse had on my life still affect me emotionally and are difficult to deal with. I feel it dictates a lot of my actions and thoughts. But the physical abuse also affected me; now I do it, too.

I guess that is a learned behavior. Mostly I just take out my anger on inanimate objects. I don't become physical with other people, apart from my parents, because I am inclined to become engaged in futile, antagonizing arguments with them. As a result I distance myself from them and would be further distant if it were not for my mother's constant phone calls. Conversely, I am difficult to arouse to anger in my interactions with other people. I have often heard that I appear timid and this in itself causes many problems. I definitely feel that I lack balance and an understanding of how to react properly.

I am still very embarrassed of my temper when it erupts. How can I change and gain control of that aspect of my personality? I am in my mid-20s right now and I don't feel it is as easy to change. What can I do? Also, what is the best way to let go of the things they said to me and how they treated me?

Please give me some direction.


Dear Angry,

May I say first I am moved by the plain simple statement of fact that begins this letter: My parents were abusive. It reminds me of Steinbeck's first line in "East of Eden," "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California." A simple statement of fact. It leads to so much more. But it begins with this: My parents were abusive. (Thanks to Andrew Hildebrand's "Eden for a Reason" in Vol. 10 Issue 1 of "The First Line" for reminding us of Steinbeck's wonderful beginning.)

I wonder how long it took you to arrive at that simple statement. When I think of those who disdain the raw, unfiltered revelations we make in these pages, I wonder if they realize how much back story resides in such a simple declaration. I wonder if they know how much courage it takes to sit alone in a room with one's thoughts and finally admit to oneself, My parents were abusive. Hats off to you for getting here. Congratulations for undertaking the struggle.

And who among us except the very lucky can say that there is not violence in the background?

In my family we channel our anger into our jaws and serve chicken and gravy with a smile to seething aunts and uncles. We channel anger into our joints where it stiffens us with age. We channel anger into our eyes, which grow hard as ice. We hoard it like Standard Oil stock. We keep it until death comes and it matures. We keep it at the ready like cannonballs in a Confederate store. We house it and groom it and take it out hunting if the weather is right. We sometimes, full of shame, unleash it accidentally, and it is like dry powder going off. But mostly we hoard it and house it and contain it in our bones.

We are not alone in this I do not think. I do not think we are the only ones who fear that to show anger is to lose face. Nor are we the only ones who perhaps have great violence in our past, in the untold family tales from back when leather straps were used on animals, people and slaves. I'm sure we have our share of depravity. Our jaws contain joules of anger.

Here is an excellent brief on the subject, from the American Psychological Association, Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You.

What is my own experience of anger? My own experience of anger is that it is intoxicating to release, and dangerous too. So it cries out for control. On those rare occasions when the jaw unclenched and the anger flowed from my chest full-throated, or when the fear to strike another (fear of retribution, fear of punishment, fear of shame) left me and I actually struck out in anger, violently, I felt a satisfaction and power whose intoxicating depth was enough to satisfy me that there was addictive danger here, that if I were to take anger and violence with relish I would soon be a junkie. So it is in the category of potential addictions spurned.

It can be a drug, masking shame and humiliation, covering layer after layer of hurt with yelling, a yelling that fills the head with power and masks the smallness of the man. It masks our smallness by making us bigger. So we must spend our lifetimes learning to recognize it when it starts to erupt, learning to breathe and calm ourselves, learning to know its many forms and give it controlled expression. We must learn to be angry and say we are angry without lashing out and hurting others. We must learn to observe it with serene detachment, and admit soon after it overtakes us: You know what? I did that in anger. I was angry. I am sorry. What I want is this. What happened was that.

I urge you to dig deeper into your relationship with anger and violence so that you learn to know these urges when they arise and learn to channel them in useful and non-scary ways. I suggest that you learn fighting arts, in order to find the pathways of violence and control in your body, in order to find how rage is stored in the body, and to find those postures that radiate power and protection, so that you may adopt those postures when you feel threatened. I suggest you simply seek heaps and heaps of help of all forms. If I urge you on in your journey like one of these marathon fans urging on runners with cups of Gatorade, will that help? Will you do it? For that is what I want to do: I want to urge you on, now that you have made this simple, courageous declaration.

Let me read your letter over again and think about what I have left out. Each word sears me. I have to go slow. You begin so matter-of-factly. It unnerves me. I wish to cradle you. It awakens the compassion, which I in the same breath disdain. Complicated, aren't we, and we pay, don't we, for our complications? We pay with isolation and obliqueness? We pay with muted gestures that begin in free compassion and end trailing off in irony. What is irony but a violent twisting of pure compassion? (I feel it in my jaw.)

I do not know your sex. Perhaps that is good, so that I do not make sexist assumptions. I only know this: When one has any such early experience of violence and anger, it stays with you. It becomes part of your life. So you are right to see it and to ask what you can do. You can do much.

I am a big fan of counseling, group therapy and the like. My embarrassment at my own proclivities in this regard knows no bounds. I know how people sort of laugh when I talk about my life coach. I know it is all quite funny. And yet it is deadly serious for me because a guy like me has no facade to fall back on, no exoskeleton at all, actually; I am like the ooze myself, primordial and directionless. So I seek direction constantly.

But this is getting too much about me. I am, as one dear correspondent put it recently in a private note to me, using your letter as raw material for my own writing. All too true. So how can I be of help?

Briefly, then, donning the mask of serene concern, I say this: If we are capable of imagining personal change, and if we are capable of dialing telephones and arriving at appointments on time, we can change how we react and what we do. I urge you to begin this journey by seeking help -- in groups, privately, in forums, in journals, even among family members. Make this your work. The work you do will reward you a thousand times over.

Got parents? Got anger? See pp. 123, 234, 242, 255.

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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