In 1995, when I was a Middle School Counselor in San Francisco, I was asked to facilitate an “Anger Management Group” for the most out-of-control boys in the school. Most of the boys in this group were in trouble with the law: they stole cars, belonged to gangs, carried guns…you know, they were just the kind of people I usually hung out with.
One of the main things I learned from facilitating this group was that underneath anger, there is always sadness and hurt. ALWAYS. No exceptions.
When I was in middle school, in 1966, it wasn’t safe to be gay in my small Ohio town. I felt so trapped and helpless there. I begged my Dad to move our family to a bigger town, where I might fit in (and I thought, desperately, that there might be more people “like me”.) He refused, telling me, “You’ll just have to wait ‘til you go away to college.”
So I was sad, hurt and, subsequently, very angry. What did I do with my anger? It wasn’t safe to openly show it, so I started scratching my arms…until they bled. I wasn’t exactly a “cutter”, I was a “scratcher”: same difference. And it did feel better: I had an external way to express my internal pain.
I also started driving very fast and recklessly. I would borrow my Mom’s car and go 120 MPH on country roads. Sometimes I was going too fast to stop at stop signs.
The anger didn’t stop when I got to college: I was afraid to come out there too. It was 1971 and, as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, I began to sleep with other boys (clandestinely). I also bought a used Pontiac GTO (with a 396, V-8 engine) and I drove so wild and so fast that no one was willing to ride with me.
Fast-forward about 25 years.
I was facilitating the Anger Management Group for those middle school boys and they wanted to talk about cars. Sure, I said, go ahead. So they went around the circle and these tough, macho little guys talked about the cars they knew, loved and dreamed about. It was pretty typical stuff until one of the guys, the same guy who had been arrested the week before for stealing a car, said, “Yeah, I remember my uncle’s Cadillac. It was pretty fine. Then one day, I saw someone shoot him dead in it.”
The group went silent. This boy didn’t cry. He just looked down at the floor. No one knew what to say.
Finally, the sadness and hurt came out. Slowly, one-by-one, all of the boys started to talk about people they knew who had been shot, killed or hurt.
A few months’ later, I was driving home from the supermarket when I found myself becoming more-and-more angry at each stop sign. I started to curse other drivers, for no reason. I yelled inside my car (I’m glad the windows were up). After driving a few more blocks, I pulled the car over and looked at myself in the rear-view mirror. I asked myself, “What is going on with you?” as my therapist had encouraged me to do.
To my surprise, I began to cry. And cry. And cry. Sobbing in my car, I started to say, out loud: “I hate my job. My boyfriend doesn’t really love me. I don’t love him either. I don’t like living in San Francisco. It’s too crowded and gray here. And I feel so lonely I could die.”
My sadness and hurt had finally broken through my anger. The boys had taught me well.
We can’t take away other people’s anger, but we sure can address our own. When you feel angry, I encourage you to dig a little deeper and find the hurt beneath it. Tend to your hurt and sadness, and I’ll bet your anger and rage go away too. This is how we can take care of ourselves, and, by extension, take care of each other.