Expressing Anger

September 08, 2003

My earliest memory is of Christmas. I must have been about two-years old. When I described the scene for my parents years later they were astounded that I could remember something from such an early age. To my knowledge there are no pictures of the things I described so I think these are actual memories.

Most of my childhood is remembered in my head somewhere. Odd things will cause me to remember something from long ago. Mostly these memories are images only, there is no sound or feeling attached to the memories. Maybe as children we don’t remember our feelings, or maybe, the emotional memories are such that as adults we aren’t aware of them in a meaningful form.

In any event I have almost no emotional memory of my childhood. Even the few moments that standout are felt through a thick barrier. It is like I am an observer of my life and not a participant.

I grew up in a very intellectual atmosphere where thought and reason were far more valued than emotion or feeling. The emotion I have the most memories of is anger. Anger expressed by my parents, either towards each other or me. And I remember that I wasn’t allowed to express my anger. My recollection is that I was always told to stop being defensive whenever I expressed any anger. The message I got was that it was okay for others to be angry, but it wasn’t okay for me to express that emotion.

Later as an adult I was terrified of my anger. I told my wife that I was afraid of it and that it was a horrible thing. She worked very hard to get me to express my upset and anger at various situations. Situations where anger was warranted, and its expression would actually benefit my mental health. It took a tremendous amount of work on my part to break through the conditioning I had not to get upset and express anger. After I had expressed it in several appropriate settings, Michele pointed out to me that my anger wasn’t some horrible out-of-control thing to be feared. Rather it was a natural expression of truth.

Whether the message that anger was just an expression of truth was given to me as a child or not I do not know. All I know is that I took the messages, verbal and otherwise, from my childhood and built a model for dealing with the world. We all do this in our childhood; we all construct a model of how we think and feel the world works. Over the course of our lifetime we continually add to and subtract from this model. In some cases the model works extremely well and allows us to function successfully. In other cases the model hinders us greatly and causes unending struggle.

In my case my anger model wasn’t accurate or helpful. I felt that anger indicated I had done something wrong. Anger meant I had failed. I punished myself with more anger. Over time this cycle of unexpressed anger, and self-directed anger as a result, built into a series of medical issues and life threatening situations. In my early thirties I started having great difficulty swallowing my food. Over time this condition grew until I was throwing up during almost every meal I ate.

After several tests and doctors it was decided that I had a narrowing in my throat called a ‘shotski’s ring’. There is a treatment for this that literally tears the ring apart by inserting a balloon device into the throat and slowly inflating it. I had this treatment done 6 times in less than 3 years time. After each treatment I would have 2 or 3 weeks of eating with no swallowing difficulties and then the problem would reappear. Already dismayed at the prospect of going to the hospital every 5 months, I was crushed at the idea of going once a month.

After a move forced me to seek out a new doctor to perform this procedure, and after being thoroughly disappointed in the new doctor, I decided that medical treatment of this condition wasn’t working. I needed something else.

I have spent the last 6 years dealing with my emotions. The primary emotion I have difficulty with is anger. Especially anger towards authority figures. When I am on top of my emotions, and expressing them openly, honestly and in the moment, I have no trouble eating. When I am not facing some part of my emotional being I start to have trouble swallowing. When I start throwing up during meals I know that I have lapsed back into my old, destructive habit of not expressing anger.

I consider myself lucky that my inappropriate expression of anger as a truth was self-directed and not focused on others. While I have suffered medically as a result, I am healing emotionally and physically now. Had I turned my anger outward I could easily have ended up as one of the tragic figures seen on television after a spree-shooting incident. As a society we are failing miserably to give young males either an accurate emotional model of the world, or a safe place to express the anger that is a natural by-product of life.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.