It was over 25 years ago, so the details are a bit hazy. What I vividly remember is a group of girls standing around me outside our high school classroom and a girl named Toni looking me right in the eyes and asking out loud: “Why are you always so angry?” I can still feel the shock now as I did that day when her words landed. I remember thinking "Oh, so that's what that feeling is called!"
I was reminded of this incident last night as I read “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. I had many angry outbursts as a teenager, but it was totally at odds with who I felt I was inside. I was just a scared, insecure girl who desperately wanted to be loved. So why did I act in a way that alienated others?
Last night I thought about what unmet needs could have been at the root of my anger. The first word that came to mind was SAFETY. Immediately my 41-year-old self was filled with compassion for her younger 15-year-old self who had grown up in a home in which she always felt on edge and vulnerable. As soon as she felt threatened or powerless in other situations, such as school, she reacted with swift and often sarcastic rage. Which was always, always followed by deep shame and remorse.
Now I am beginning to understand that it was a coping mechanism to protect myself when I felt threatened, in the only way my developing brain knew how.
I continued to use this coping strategy as I grew older and got married and had children. As soon as I was in a situation in which I felt threatened or vulnerable, I would lash out with vicious words and then drown in feelings of immense regret. I tried so many ways to hide the anger, to squash it down, to try to dissolve it but it’s like trying to hold a big gym ball under the water - no matter how hard you try, it just keeps popping up to the surface.
So now I want to try something new. Instead of being mad at myself and filled with regret, I am going to try to fulfill my need for safety. But how does one even start to do that, especially as an adult and the actual danger is gone but my system is still on high alert in self-protect mode?
Firstly I want to say that I feel very honored and humbled that you would share an experience in your life that was so precious and also request my thoughts.
My understanding is that the event related to your epiphany has been buried by your sub-conscious since it occurred. Reasons for this are primarily due to the intense overwhelming emotional pain you experienced at that moment of time that led to deep shame. Shame can have an extremely powerful hold over us. You may have experienced "painful thinking" over the years and you may find "it feels as alive within you now - as when it occurred 30 years ago". Painful thinking is when we think about events or situations that have occurred and we experience physical and emotional pain that causes real discomfort internally for us. (Often in the pit of our stomach and in our head). Research clearly shows that this does occur at a psychological and physiological level.
I would suggest that your epiphany has occurred now due to you being in a place of searching and personal growth; you are now ready to curiously examine it, without it feeling too overwhelming.
You word it beautifully - when you compare it to trying to hold a big gym ball under the water. You are also very right that this is just not possible. This experience was a significant event that shaped your perspective and the coping strategies you used to protect the little girl within you.
I would suggest that your starting point as an adult to fill your need for safety is to firstly explore the situation and process it more. Journal about it, talk about it with people you trust, explore the feelings and needs that sit under your anger. While you are doing this, you will experience more epiphanies along the way - it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle.
Think about what SAFETY means to you. What feelings and needs do you associate with it?
You can also explore what your triggers are now as an adult. What words, events, smells, situations or people cause your system to be on high alert?
Then as you discover your triggers, consider what thoughts are linked to these? For example: do you blame yourself or others, what does your inner critic say?
As you process these, they slowly become less intense and you can more readily connect them to past events and grow in the realization that they are not part of your present.
I have personally found The No-Fault Zone® Game extremely helpful in understanding why I react the way I do in certain situations. The cards help me to recognize feelings and needs that I wasn’t aware of and the mat provides a safe, self-paced, framework to process all aspects of the situation. When I see it all laid out visually in front of me, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming and I always feel equipped to take positive action going forward.
This is a process that I have followed myself for gaining an understanding of painful past events and have resulted in me becoming more grounded and anchored in myself. My past also has stopped having such a hold over me.
If you would like to explore this option, you can contact me through our Facebook page or website.
You sound like you have a deep desire to live a life of integrity, transparency and honesty and be the absolute best you can be. I wish you all the best.
*Lisa’s name has been changed to protect her privacy