Recently I’ve had several clients working on the significant task of individuating from the family system – we’re never too old to leave the family system behind!
One of the ways that I experience people remaining stuck in the systemic family dysfunction is that it can be hard for them to give up any anger about the the role they played in the system, and the cost of their role.
For example, I had a black sheep role in my family. I was the one who went to multiple colleges (scandalous!), had more than one marriage (shocking!). I was the one who got caught smoking, hitchhiking across town, skipping a class or two, all kinds of stuff that could have long-term implications, but were simply grounded in my need to individuate in a very controlled environment.
Another individual I know is a second mother to one, and at times, two of her younger siblings. Her mother has the audacity to pawn her troubled children off on her eldest daughter when their issues become overwhelming. Nice work, Mom, pass the buck when you don’t feel up to the challenge! All the while shaming her eldest daughter and patting herself on the back for excellent skills as a mother. Really?
Another woman took care of her mother throughout her childhood; she was not allowed to have her own feelings, point of view or desires; her mother took up all the space in the house with her relentless needs that her young daughter became expected to fulfill.
I could write a thousand other examples, but I think you’ve got the drift.
What is interesting about the last two stories, is that both of these women are stuck in sadness. One of them begins to marshal her anger (which is justifiably formidable), and then collapses in to a frozen affect, just wanting it all to go away. The other can marshal anger in brief increments, dissolving into tears almost immediately.
What’s missing from these two fabulous women’s lives is their anger. They are able to access their sadness and grief over time served in the jail of the family system, but their anger at the injustice, the outrage, the lost innocence of childhood? Not so much.
We have this mistaken notion that anger is not something we’re supposed to feel. It’s not appropriate or viable as an emotion, even though it’s part of the full spectrum of emotional capacity that each of us organically carry.
I have to tell you, it royally pisses me off that people feel unjustified in feeling anger. They feel unworthy if it starts to rise up in their gut. They feel frightened by the power that is generated from the strength of the emotion. Or they let it rise to the surface and then suppress it back down again; the suppression freezes their energy and their affect goes flat.
And yet, these individuals – like all of us – long for autonomy, individuation, self-esteem, happiness, fulfillment.
Sometimes people will even work for years on forgiveness (unsuccessfully, I might add) without first meeting the anger that keeps the forgiveness at bay.
So what to do?
- Parent yourself. Look at the little one inside of you and tell him or her how you would parent differently in the same situation, with a little one just like you. Through noticing how you would parent a child differently, you galvanize intent and you encourage the little one to feel seen, heard, acknowledged and validated.
- Have a psychic conversation. Imagine the offending parent(s) sitting across from you. If all bets were off, no holds were barred, no collateral damage was possible, what would you say to those inept parents who cost you your childhood? How would you refuse to take up the role of caretaker, 2nd mother, black sheep? In engaging the fantasy dialogue, my clients often find themselves in the midst of their anger, and it becomes a liberating, feel-good experience to let the feelings loose. Say it like you mean it, brothers and sisters. Say it as if it counts. It does. It’ll set you free.
- Allow the anger to generate movement. Kick the stuffing out of a teddy bear. Take up kick-boxing. Run a couple of miles. Buy a punching bag and gloves. Clean out your closet. Use it!
- When you collapse into sadness, or freeze up with no ability to feel or deal, acknowledge that you’re furious, pissed, ranting mad. Tell yourself that this collapse, this frozen state is a learned pattern from not being allowed to have YOUR needs met. It’s what you did in the there and then to recover from your disappointment, your anger, your clear sense of injustice. It’s not useful in the here and now. Call yourself out. Invite your upright, fully thawed anger to the surface. Demand its presence in the room with you. Know that the white heat, red rage, blue intensity of the flame of anger is a force. It’s propulsion up, out and through the miasma.
And then go forward. Confront them? Not necessarily. You’re galvanizing you, not changing them. That’s their job.
Anger redressed relieves anger repressed. And even good girls and boys get angry. Amen to that!