My crime was slight, but my father was filled with rage. While he was out of town, I had used the record player in our living room. I was about 8 years old. My mother had been there and the four of us — my two sisters, Mother and me — had wanted to listen to some music.
It was some sort of silly, child-like music. I can remember us dancing around the living room — all four of us — having a joyful time.
Then my father came home.
Somehow, he found out that I had used the record player. He had told me numerous times that I wasn’t allowed to use the record player, because I might scratch a record. I could even damage the needle. Or something terrible, apparently.
He flew into a rage and screamed at me. I stood quietly, just as I always did. I picked a button on his shirt to concentrate on. I was required to look at him, but I wasn’t allowed to say anything or show any response. That was the unspoken rule. Most of all, I couldn’t dare talk back or show any hint of anger.
If I focused all my attention on that button, I could avoid crying. I could avoid showing any emotion. I could avoid feeling anything — and that was the only way not to break. I could stand as a rigid lump of clay while he yelled at me until he had finally screamed enough.
That was the first day he ever whipped me with a belt. He had always used his hand before, but he was so angry — and this offense apparently so egregious — that he used a belt.
He eventually had me get in the floor on my hands and feet — as though I was about to do push-ups — and he beat me with his belt.
I felt the physical pain, but I didn’t feel anything emotionally. I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time. It certainly wasn’t conscious. But I learned how to repress any negative feelings, especially toward him.
His treatment got the results he wanted. I was a perfect child. At least pretty close. Certainly I was the perfect child compared to the disrespectful and out-of-control children he constantly pointed out to me. I was as perfect as I knew how to be. In an angry, hostile, chaotic world — the world revolving around my father — it was all I knew to do, because it was the only way I could survive.
If I was perfect, I might have his grudging approval. If I was anything less than perfect, I felt his terrifying fury. In an environment in which there was no in-between — I was either perfect or “wrong” — I followed my incentives and did my best to keep the monster happy.
And I knew that there could never be even a hint that I disagreed with him — about anything. Disagreement or disapproval — even the wrong look on my face — was called disrespect and was punished severely. I knew better than to show that I was hurt or angry. I learned to repress all emotions except the positive and socially acceptable ones. Even in my own home, I was like an actor on stage — constantly playing a role over which I had no control.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my anger. I’ve started becoming more aware of the anger I felt as a child and I’ve allowed myself to start understanding how much rage I have bottled up. In many cases, it’s difficult for me to even realize I’m angry about something. I trained myself so well not to feel such things that the old programming has continued to work for all these years.
Something clicked in me recently as I worked through some issues and tried to understand some puzzling things. I started realizing how I’ve continued bottling up my rage — long after he can no longer scream at me. Even after he’s dead.
I’ve been working to get back in touch with those “forbidden” emotions. I’ve been shocked to start discovering that I’m angry about things I had hidden from myself. I had convinced myself for so long to be rational in my approach to my emotions that certain negative feelings were buried so deeply that they were hidden even from me.
There have been practical advantages to this dysfunctional pattern. I can stay incredibly calm in a crisis. When other people are shouting and out of control, I am fully composed and focused. I can be completely rational and productive.
This ability to repress things also made me really good working on newspaper deadlines, because nothing rattled me and I simply solved the crisis at hand. A newsroom “on deadline” could be a very pressure-filled place. Things are constantly going wrong. Stories fall through. Pictures don’t arrive on time. So much can go wrong — and the paper still has to go to press — but none of it bothered me, even pressure which caused some adults to break down and cry like children.
Even today, I can stay calm and civil when I’m angry with people who’ve wronged me or hurt me in some way. Because of this, they usually have no idea how angry I am at them or how much they’ve hurt me.
But all this outward calm comes at a cost.
When I need to express anger, it’s very difficult. In fact, it’s hard to confront people and tell them what I’m unhappy with them about. Firing people who’ve worked for me is incredibly difficult, because there’s a part of me that believes I’m not allowed to be angry with them.
In fact, I eventually worked out a particular method of firing people which required me to calmly talk through all the things they had done wrong and my attempts to correct the problem. I ask them questions and get them to give me the obvious answers, leading up to me asking them what they would do if they were me — based on what we’ve just gone through. Inevitably, they admit I should fire them. In this way, I get their permission to fire them — rather than venting my anger as I might like to.
I’ve realized lately how much of my life has been given over to trying to be the “good little boy” who made others happy. This started as a survival skill in childhood, but it turned into a lifelong pattern — and it doesn’t always serve me well.
Deep down, I thought (then and now) that if I could be good enough — if I could somehow be perfect in every way — I would finally have the love and approval which I so desperately wanted.
As an adult, I have felt angry — and I’ve repressed the anger — that no matter how good I was, no matter how much I gave to someone else, no matter how loving I was — it was never good enough for me to have lasting love and acceptance.
I feel guilty when I’m angry with other people. That’s not allowed.
I feel guilty when I expect them to give me what I need. Why should I expect them to love me?
And I feel angry at myself for having trusted — once again — that I could have the love I still so fiercely need.
When it comes to anger, I’m still that small child who focuses my attention on a spot so I can avoid feeling the negative emotions — the anger and hurt and betrayal — that it was so dangerous to feel. But the feelings are starting to come out.
I spent the first part of my life completely repressing my negative feelings and learning how to be a productive machine. I spent the next huge chunk of my life exploring the positive side of my feelings and learning how to be a loving human being.
I’m going to spend the rest of my life integrating some very different parts of myself — and figuring out if there’s anybody else I can finally trust with both sides of me.