I once dated a woman who had previously had a relationship with a very abusive man. Over several years, she endured beatings, rape and emotional abuse — mostly when he was drunk but sometimes when he was sober.
Soon after I met her, she told me that she should wear a sign on her shirt that read, “Caution: I have many hidden emotional triggers.” It turned out that she was right. She was so filled with painful memories of past experiences — full of post-traumatic stress syndrome — that she found it impossible to have a normal relationship.
I’ll never know what it feels like to be in a mind such as hers, but there are times when I feel as though I’ve had a taste of it — just enough to be haunted by demons that arise when someone triggers one of my own emotional buttons.
Today was filled with that feeling. Tonight, I’m left going back and forth between emotional numbness and rage that makes me want to hide from the world.
The rational part of my brain can explain that everything I’m feeling relates to interactions with just two people. What’s more, the rational part of me knows that neither person intended to push my buttons — and that neither person had any ill will for me.
I feel guilty when I’m angry at people, especially when those people don’t understand why I would be angry. This will sound crazy, but I almost feel as though I need other people’s permission to be angry with them. I need people to understand why I would be angry at them.
As with so much of the programming on my darker side, it comes from my childhood relationship with my father. I was not allowed to disagree with him about anything. I could be punished at times just for expressing the mildest hint of disagreement with him. I wasn’t allowed to be angry with him, no matter what he did. If there was a hint of disagreement with what he did to me — no matter what the punishment had been — I would be punished further for “disrespect.”
I carried this into adult life and it changed the way I’ve handled some things. Even when I fired people — when I ran my own business or when I was a newspaper publisher — I would bring a person in and carefully go over my grievances with him. I would carefully lead the person into the position of admitting that firing him was the reasonable thing to do. At that point, I didn’t have to feel guilty. He had given me permission.
When people today push my buttons — but have no understanding of why I might be upset with them — I feel like a trapped animal. I feel as though I’m right back into that childlike situation of being afraid of my father — afraid that he will know I’m angry and will punish me for disrespecting him.
Dealing with such feelings twice today — both in situations that felt like long-term oppression by people with power over me or looking down on me — leaves me feeling like a scared little boy hiding in my room, afraid to risk any interaction with the monster at whom I want to rage.
I can typically hide these internal feelings, but this was a day when it felt so oppressive that I just couldn’t fake the smiles and good will which people have come to expect from me. I just wanted people who expected that to go away and leave me alone.
But I also didn’t want to be left alone.
I wanted to have someone to whom I could turn and say, “This is the way I feel. Please let me tell you all about it. Please understand me.”
I don’t need anybody to fix it. There’s nothing to fix. I’ll be out of this funk tomorrow, but I need to talk about it tonight. I need to be loved and understood tonight.
But since I don’t have what I need, I’m temporarily trapped in this terrible darkness, feeling rage and hurt and guilt that I fear I have no right to feel.
It’s not a pleasant place to be, but it’s a place that I suspect a lot of people understand — especially if they’ve experienced some type of serious emotional trauma. It’s a dark, dark place. And it’s lonely here.