“Well, I’ve noticed something.”
As my therapist was wrapping up the session, I started to rub a scar above my heart as the now familiar heavy rock in my chest showed up. Was I getting heartburn from this session? I winced as I pressed just a little too hard. Why was my scar so tender?
“What is it, are you alright?” Her eyebrows knit together in concern. She had looked up from her notes just in time to see my distress.
“Yeah, I think so. I just realized my chest hurts every time we work on a past confrontation. It feels like there is a hot burning rock crushing my heart.”
“Hmm…” She returned to writing for a second. She paused and stared at the page. “When you think of the hot rock crushing your heart, does any emotion come to mind?”
As she asked, an unexplained flush of panic washed over my whole body. “I don’t know.” I blurted out. her eyes narrowed just a bit. She continued to look straight at me, leaving the question hanging between us. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I had to pee again. I wondered what time it was. I looked up at a huge wall clock hanging above her head. The batteries were still dead. When was she going to fix that god-damned clock?!
“What is it like when you get angry?” She asked, catching me off guard. I forgot about needing to use the bathroom and the broken clock.
“Oh, um… what do you mean?”
“Let me ask you this instead; what were you taught about being angry as a child?”
As I thought about this, my stepmother came to mind.
“I’m going to place my hand in front of your face and count to three.” She said to my pouting stepsister. She wanted to be done with dinner and go play with her Barbies. Her mother was insisting she stay to finish the meal. “When I move my hand, your sour face had better be smiling. Now, count of three, One, Two…”
“Kids weren’t allowed to be angry.” I said. “Anytime we were upset, we were told we were being ungrateful or acting spoiled.”
“And do you get mad now?” She asked. My heart started pounding in my ears.
“Well, sure.” I said. Then quickly added, “I mean, I try not to, and I always feel awful when I do. I hate it when I do…” I trailed off. My stomach had turned acidic. I swallowed hard to suppress the wicked case of heartburn bubbling up inside me. I couldn't bring myself to look at her.
“From what you’ve told me, you’ve been taught some f#cked-up sh*t about anger.” She said. “Just looking at you, it is obvious how uncomfortable even talking about it makes you feel. We are going to stop here for today. Between now and the next session, I want you to be kind to yourself.” I looked at her quizzically. “Yes, be kind to yourself. And remember, emotions are neither good nor bad. They are just information our bodies are giving us.”
The next morning, armed with a cup of coffee and protected by my blind Shih Tzu curled up beside me, I opened my journal and began to write anything I had learned or thought about anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Somewhere along the way I had heard this and internalized it. I had repeated it to many clients and students over the years. It is usually masking another emotion, one you’re afraid to express.
Anger is expressed instead of what the person is really feeling. I think less of people who let their anger control them. At the same time, I was afraid of them.
People who are angry are irrational. I hate getting angry – I always regret it when my anger gets the best of me. Then, I somehow shifted into thinking about what makes me angry.
I can’t let my anger show. As I wrote that, I felt the same lump in my chest as yesterday. The image of my stepmother placing her hand over my face and counting to three came to me. She had done this many times to both my stepsister and I.
Why did I still hold on to this idea? The lump seemed to be heating up now. Was my heartburn going to return if I kept thinking about this stuff? I hoped not. Another image came to mind.
“Why don’t we take this outside and settle this like men!” My father yelled. “I’ll show you who’s boss, you ungrateful punk.” I was shocked into silence. My father was threatening me, wanting to get into a fistfight because I didn’t want to drive over an hour in the snow to go get my stepsister so he could avoid seeing his ex-wife.
“You leave him alone! You always ruin everything. I’m calling mom to come get me.” My sister was crying and shaking she was so angry.
“You stay out of this you little brat!” My father turned his anger on my sister.
“Alright!” My grandfather stepped in the middle of the fight. “You kids need to listen to your father, or I’ll take you outside and tan your backends for not showing respect.”
My stomach churned as I relived the Christmas of my junior year at Penn State. Not one of my family’s prouder moments. My chest was getting tighter and hotter. As I reached into my mind to contain the memory, another one joined it, and then another. Soon I was caught in a torrent of angry memories refusing to be contained.
Suddenly, my dog stretched at my side, knocking me back to the present. I was sitting in my living room, my coffee was cold and I was shaking, but I was in my adult body again. Maybe I shouldn’t be digging up all this “f#cked-up sh*t.” I went to the kitchen for a warm-up. As I settled back into the chair, rearranging dog, blanket, and chair cushions, I decided to allow myself to attend to the feeling in my chest. What does anger feel like in my body?
At first it felt like a chunk of lava, solidifying around my heart as it cooled. The burning sensation seemed to be coming from the center of my heart. I concentrated on this part of me, mentally drawing in closer. My brain to switch from words to images.
I could see waves of heat radiating off this little ball of anger. Was it beating too? No, it was more like it was breathing in time with my heart. Some long-dead part of me was coming back to life as I attended to it, offered to notice it. I decided to acknowledge it was a part of me.
You are welcome here.
As soon as I uttered these four simple words, the lump of cooling lava began to reveal itself. An outline of a living, breathing, little creature curled up around my heart emerged. Its black, scaly skin was highlighted like cooling embers from a fire burning inside it. What was this thing I had been afraid of my whole life?