By Catherine DiMercurio
I took my rage for a walk the other day because the only thing that made sense was tiring it out. I wondered if it was more like a toddler in tantrum or like a puppy full of energy to spend. But the rage—my rage—was unlike either of those things. It wasn’t innocent frustration opposing the structure of its world and it wasn’t joyful and bored and antsy. It was more sophisticated and self-aware, and I couldn’t think of it in a way that made it seem cute and small and not very dangerous. It was not cute, and it felt volatile and intimidating.
On my drive out to the woods, the rage quieted. Simmered. Waited. I was tired of trying to talk myself out of it, just because I didn’t know where it came from. I was tired of trying to figure out all the reasons I felt so full of this surging and unpredictable reactive energy. But I did it anyway. Was it because of the world at large and all the ways it is hateful and crumbling? Was it frustration with life and how there’s no way off this treadmill of working to pay for a roof over your head and having little time or resources to ever do much else? Was it this new and uncontrollable bristling I feel when I encounter inauthenticity? Or was it the powerlessness I feel when I witness people abandoning themselves the way I once did, in service of people or situations that were hurting them? Or was it simply grief’s companion, still flailing over all the things that still hurt?
I don’t know that I learned how to properly self-soothe as a child. People tell you to calm down but they don’t tell you how. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with myself when emotions feel too big for my body. When my kids were young, I would tell them to not do anything with their hands when they were angry because we’re so much stronger when were mad. Mostly this was to keep them for hurting each other when they were upset. We talked about different things they could do when they felt that way. Scream into or punch a pillow. Jump up and down. Take deep breaths. But we probably didn’t talk often enough about all this. I was still learning myself, but I suppose a lot of parenting is like that.
Now, as I began walking a trail covered in snow, several inches deep but packed down by other feet and frozen into other shoe shapes, my own boots slipped and slid. I had decided by then to just let myself be angry instead of trying to figure out why it had appeared out of the blue without an obvious trigger. I tried to not be resentful this time. Fine, be mad, I sometimes told myself, all the while feeling a meta-anger, that sense that I was mad about being mad.
This time, I tried to be agreeable about it all. Okay. Today we’re going to be mad, I guess. It’s okay to be mad. I tell myself this now. Because it is, even though I don’t like how it feels inside my body. And I did try to impart this to my kids, too, that it’s okay to be mad but it’s not okay to take it out on other people. But whenever I tried to apply this lesson to myself, I kept trying to talk myself out of my feelings. Maybe I was told too many times that I didn’t have anything to be mad about.
I have this idea that as an adult I’m supposed to be calm and in control of my emotions all the time. I have a habit of judging myself for the “negative” emotions that take me over. In a way, trying to figure out all the reasons I might be mad felt like an attempt to justify, to counter the “you don’t have anything to be mad about” charge, like part of me was yelling, yes I do! It’s as if I’ve been seeking permission from myself to be angry. I have embraced sorrow. When it visits, I let it stay as long as it needs to. I feel it, I talk to it, I cry. I let it have its say, and that seems to matter. But I’ve been afraid of doing this with rage. It feels too big, unstable, uncontrollable.
As I hiked through the snow, I turned on the path that leads to a loop through a big, open, hilly field. It’s a less popular trail and the snow was fresher here, less hard-packed by the few hikers who had passed this way before me. It was deeper to trudge through, and it felt good, pushing through the snow. I checked in on my rage and it felt like it was diffusing a bit. By the time I’d finished five miles, I felt tired and refreshed. The rage had loosened its hold on me, glad perhaps that I didn’t try to tell it to go away, that it didn’t have a right to be here.
On the other side of rage, it is sometimes easier to see that it’s often about fear and things we have no control over. I always want to understand it because I’m afraid I’ll miss something. People say that you should listen to your anger because it’s trying to tell you something, point you in the direction of something that needs healing.
But the tricky part about healing is that it doesn’t mean something stops hurting. At least, not so far. Sometimes we’re pointed in the direction of our pain and all we can do is recognize and honor it, just like we do with the emotions that brought us there. We self-soothe as best we can. We cry, take a hot shower, go for a snowy hike, scream into a pillow, ask for help or a hug, snuggle the dog. Sometimes we simply must take a deep breath and get on with our day.
Maybe healing is simply showing up for yourself, again and again, without judgement. Without criticizing yourself for having grief, or rage. I think all of us are all the time trying to heal, from big psychic wounds that we never saw coming and stay with us for decades, and from all the little things that gouge at us more recently.
For a week I was not able to pinpoint what it was that had made my insides churn with a rage that seemingly had nothing to do with my life at the moment. Everything had been relatively calm in the days preceding and then I woke up and the rage just hit me. I’ve spent the week thinking about it, and telling myself to stop thinking about it, that the why doesn’t matter. That I did the right thing in finding a way to let myself feel it safely. Anger is a big emotion and it made sense to enlist the woods and the solitude and snow to help absorb it, and that worked.
But it still bothered me that I couldn’t pin it down. This morning, a week to the day, I woke up, and as my amorphous thoughts gathered into language like raindrops on a windowpane melting into one another, I thought, I’m mad at myself for still feeling grief. I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t think I should. But I do. As I walked myself back through the previous week I realize it all started with a dream. I’d woken up, been frustrated that my subconscious was still nursing old wounds, but I didn’t give it another thought. Then as the morning wore on I realized this rage had seeped in from someplace, seemingly all of the sudden. My dream had been forgotten. And I didn’t put it all together until now.
Our minds and hearts operate in strange ways. In the calm and safe world I’ve built for myself, my brain works on things while I sleep, in ways I do not understand, but in waking life, I’m left to process it all along with the residual emotions. I suppose it is all happening the way it should. The part of me that has waited for me to be ready to do this part of the work is nudging me. But sometimes it feels like a war between two voices inside me, one saying you don’t get to be mad at yourself because things still hurt, and one saying, just watch me.
Maybe it’s my job to be the peacemaker. To tell myself that my anger is a valid response, especially since, if I pick it apart, I can see that it isn’t solely anger at myself for still hurting, it’s anger at the people who hurt me, and anger at myself for “letting” them. In peacemaking, I can allow safe spaces for the anger to exist and expend itself, to rise up when it needs to, just like I’ve learned to allow with the grief. Maybe my anger just needs some time alone with me, away from grief.
I don’t know if it will ever all dissipate, or if all these disparate parts of myself will peacefully coalesce, like those raindrops on a windowpane. For now, though, there’s not much I can really do except keep listening, and making space when the big emotions show up and demand attention. Maybe healing is simply showing up for yourself, again and again, without judgement. Maybe life is.