Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about sayings that are often taught and utilized in society. Several of these sayings were engraved in my mind at a young age. They later became the map that I navigated my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with. These maps are our belief systems. Everybody has one. As young children we believe almost everything we are taught, including that Santa Clause is real. However, as we grow-up we have the ability and responsibility to re-evaluate and update our belief systems. Your phone probably calls this an iOS update. I like to call it reconstruction.
The older I become the more I find myself doing this “reconstruction” on my map. I just got sick and tired of running into the same old dead ends. I often was frustrated with myself and others to the point were I began to cope by sleeping all of the time. My map was not working and I was tired of being lost. When I told my therapist this she said “it sounds like you are really angry, and anger turned inward leads to depression”. My head dropped down in disappointment. I knew she was probably right but it felt like she just handed me another problem that needed to be fixed. I shut down. As she began to probe and ask questions, my belief system unfolded. I said something like:
“I can’t be mad because it’s not ‘what Jesus would do’ nor is it ‘keeping the peace.’ If I’m angry with others, it is bad, but if I do nothing with the anger, apparently I become depressed.” She looked very confused. She then asked me about where I learned that and what my relationship with anger was like. I explained how I remember being told often to just “Keep the peace” when I got angry and to avoid conflict often. So me and anger were not friends. In fact, historically I had spent most of my time avoiding anger. Not just mine, but everyone elses as well. Anger was the outcast.
My therapist slowly but surely showed me my “map” and what I had unintentionally taught myself:
Anger will lead to conflict.
Conflict leads back to anger.
Avoid anger and conflict at all cost in order to keep the peace.
This led to extreme avoidance which produced anxiety surrounding conflict. I learned early on to suppress, deny, and avoid my anger. I became an excellent shotgun rider in other people’s cars because I payed attention to their emotions and denied my own. By paying attention to people’s emotions you can determine what is important to them, what they value. I knew people’s maps like the back of my hand but was completely lost when it came to my own map. I knew when people needed to go to the bathroom before they needed to. I knew when people needed to stretch their legs or even what they were in the mood to eat but I would often deny my own needs just to prevent conflict. I also thought this was how to best serve others, by putting their needs always before your own. I was miserable. I started to resent riding shotgun and those whom I rode with.
My therapist pointed out three big areas were I needed to re-examine my beliefs on anger. The first was spiritually. Biblically, I had always thought that Jesus was just nice all the time and never got angry. Turns out nice isn’t even a fruit of the spirit. Kindness is, but kindness is not the absence of anger. My therapist showed me several areas were Jesus displayed and even utilized righteous anger. It turns out Jesus got so angry he would challenge authorities, flip tables, and frequently called people out for their hypocrisy. Jesus often disrupted the illusion of peace in order to pursue authentic relationships. Jesus never put on a mask. He was much more than just “nice”. He is and was relationally dynamic. His authenticity lead to some people abandoning and even killing him, but many more found life through getting to know him.
Which leads me to my second area, interpersonal relationships. Pretending that I wasn’t angry, didn’t mean that there was peace. It actually meant that there wasn’t peace and I was being inauthentic. A hard pill to swallow. Expressing my anger or disappointment to others felt like relational homicide. It seemed like I was putting myself in a situation where I could be abandoned or was abandoning others. Unfortunately, sometimes friendships did break. As I stopped people pleasing, some people did not like this. I learned very quickly that those people didn’t love me, they loved the mask I wore for them and the things I did for them. “Keeping the peace” gave me false security and it also lead to depression, anxiety, and eroded self-respect. I think one of our hardest jobs as friends, siblings, and parents is this: allowing others to see you instead of shifting your boundaries to rescue people from uncomfortable situations.
The last area was my understanding of anger within myself. I learned that anger is often an indicator that I had an unmet need. Anger was trying to defend my well-being. All this time, my anger was trying to help me and wanted me to see how bad I was hurting. It was the friend I actually needed. It was both affirming and freeing. For so long I had imprisoned my anger because I often saw other people’s anger being managed inappropriately. However, when managed well, it was actually another form of love called protection.
What you believe over time becomes your truth. Unfortunately, I believed loving people meant not rocking the boat. It has taken time and work for me to unlearn my old belief system and to reconstruct a new one. However, this is what true mental health and self-care looks like. It isn’t easy but the peace within is worth is. Anger can lead to love if you are willing to learn how to manage it. It lead me to getting help and even writing this letter. I was very blind- blindly following what others taught me and blinding myself from my own emotions and needs. So I leave you with this: challenge the map that you call your value system. If something isn’t working or making sense, go find the answers and make sure you know what your own values are.