Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Gift of Anger

Let’s face it, most of us choose therapy because we’re in a whole lot of pain. People have described the process of therapy as peeling back the layers of an onion. The first layer you come to helps you understand part of the problem but you figure out that underneath that layer are a whole bunch of other layers! For me the first layer was definitely terror. As I began to really think about my past abuse it just terrified me. My father had done a very effective job of terrorizing me and memories of the past abuse could get me immediately back in that place of being physically cold and shaking and feeling like I was a slug on the floor who could not even move.

After I was able to work through my terror the second layer was sadness. And then would come something I never expected to grapple with. That was as I was slowly beginning to connect with the anger I should have felt, as a little boy. My therapists and I talked about how one day I would begin to experience the feeling of anger.

That sounds kind of strange. It sounds like somehow I misplaced the ability to get angry along the journey of life. But it’s exactly what happened. At least anger towards my father. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the emotion of anger was conditioned out of me. It was conditioned out of me because being angry against any wrongs my father had done to me in my growing up years was met with swift and brutal abuse. So, anger, I guess, really did get misplaced along the way of my life as an effective way of processing violations or wrongs done to me.

Or perhaps a better way to describe it is to say the anger got displaced. Remember I have said you can’t fool the heart? God made our minds to work a certain way. This includes the gift of anger. Human beings need anger to give them the strength to respond to and fight back against hurt and injustice. I had a volcano of rage in my soul from years of living with my father. But I learned to suppress this rage as a way to survive.

Rage does not just go away. Human beings cannot suppress anger out of existence! It showed up on my face as looks of anger at my wife. Undeserved anger! It came out in my body. The slightest routine irritations of life became bursts of anger at people all around me. I verbally blasted the fast food worker that got an order wrong. I unloaded a barrage of expletives at the vendor or supplier that did not get supplies or materials delivered in time or in the way I wanted them. I unloaded on the bill collector who called to ask about their payment. The customer service representatives at utility companies or government agencies regularly got a piece of my mind. I was known as ‘Mark the Shark’ by all of our company employees. Bankers and loan officers and most everybody around me in my life knew not to cross me.

Once a man told my wife he needed to take a tranquilizer every time he saw me because of how intensely I moved about everywhere I went. I could not keep my body still, constantly moving my legs or tapping my fingers. Once a professor blasted me for my incessant tapping of my pencil on the table while he was lecturing; “Are you neurotic?!” he yelled. I did not even realize I was tapping my pencil. At night, after a full day of work, with no more work to do, I would eat everything in sight. Nacho flavored Dorito chips and ice cream were my favorites. I put on fifty pounds. I had a generalized anxiety in my body that I could not contain or subdue.

The rage in me had to have an outlet and it was spilling out in so many ways in my life. But the most damaging outlet was how it showed in my demeanor; facial expressions and tone of voice, at different times, with my wife. I was not about to hurt my wife physically, but I was a very painful person for her to be around. And it took a profound toll on her life and on our relationship!

I read books on how to be a better husband. I read books about how to build positive relationships with others. I read books about how to develop and maintain a positive attitude in life and how to set goals. And I made valiant efforts to stop blowing up at people over petty matters. These books were helpful to me. And it made some difference in my treatment of my wife and the treatment of people in my life. But I remained unable to contain the rage inside.

I could not work hard enough or long enough. I could not run far enough. I could not find enough people to mistreat. I could not find enough junk food to eat. My wife could not think of enough ways to be “good enough” to fix my hurt and anger. Nothing I did, or that my wife could do, was sufficient to get rid of the rage deep in my soul! The feeling of rage I was trying to stuff was destroying my life and causing profound hurt to my precious wife.

What my therapists knew well was that people who are not allowed to have access to their own feelings and are not allowed to express them appropriately struggle in life. But they also knew that people who are finally allowed to express legitimate feelings, even ones that are long overdue, are able to make great strides in healing. My therapists knew that not being able to be in touch with appropriate anger ABOUT the abuse and beatings done to me was impeding my ability to be a vibrant adult who could live and walk and breathe as a free man and be available to love my wife and my daughters and my employees and people I would come into contact with.

When we began to dig into this process of trying to “recover” my anger at my abusers my therapists were very careful and very purposeful in helping me feel okay about this process. Nothing happened in my therapy without my explicit permission. I had wonderful therapists. We had talking sessions, pre and post sessions each time we got together. My therapists provided these times so I would understand exactly what they were hoping to accomplish and give me the ability to debrief what had happened at the end of each session. These sessions were critical to my truly incorporating the truths of what I was experiencing. I owe them a great debt for the wonderful work they did with me.

These sessions discussing ways to manage anger happened on several occasions so I always knew ahead of time what would be safe ways to vent my anger. And this was in preparation for me one day connecting with the anger I should have been able to have against my father as my abuser. They were preparing me for the day those feelings would begin to well up in me. My therapists understood the mind/body connection and that when my anger against my father came I might need mental as well as bodily ways to express it. My therapists did not want me to hurt myself, or others, once I began to feel the anger. So my therapists left plastic bats and soft chairs in the room and maintained a supply of heavy, soft pillows and soft exercise mats.

These mats were just large enough to absorb blows and not allow damage to hands and fists and knuckles. I mostly used the really soft (like for tumbling) mats - three on top of one another - so I did not hurt my hands - and I walloped the life out of them a bunch of times. And I used the plastic bats on the chairs while standing. I was on my knees usually when I would hit the soft mats. Just tools to help vent rage without hurting people . . . or self. Very simply, it allowed me to connect and vent anger that ended up being the way I could connect to my deep sadness and it made a huge difference for me.

Doing this work did not increase my anger in any way whatsoever. It allowed me the freedom to connect to the anger. This work was done with just me and my therapists. It was not a circus by any stretch of the imagination. It was very serious business, as far as I was concerned. My anger had hurt my wife for far too long and God gave me the grace to be able to connect to the anger, finally, and I got rid of it. God allowed me to empty myself of the intense anger and brought me to the deep sadness and the softer feelings of hurt and brokenness deep inside me. This was something that truly set me free as a person. To be done with all that intense anger.

The first time I started feeling the anger that I should have been able to express to my father for what he did to me it seemed almost impossible to think I should ever express it! My therapists encouraged me to say whatever I needed to say but to “stay” initially in the very safe place they created for me. The safe place was simply me lying on my back with my eyes closed. I was able to talk back to my father (so to speak) while continuing to lie on my back with my eyes closed. I was safe enough and started to be able to speak the exact words I wish I could have said to my father years ago when he abused me. Eventually I was able to start yelling back at my father, so to speak, but I had to continue lying on the mat while doing so. And I eventually was able to begin opening my eyes as I spoke and yelled, still while lying on my back.

After many months I was able to get up on one knee and talk back to my father. Then after a long period of time I was able to get up on one knee and yell back at my father. After an extended period of time I was able to begin to stand up on my feet and talk back to my father. And then finally after nearly two years of work I was able to stand solid on my two feet and yell back at my father! That was a massive breakthrough for me!

It was very healing and strengthening to me to experience this. Other words I would use to describe this feeling of being able to speak truth to my father would be freeing or empowering. It was refreshing to be able to get my rage and anger out at my father. So I would cry intermittently in the midst of it, tears of anger. Sometimes the reality of what had happened would hit me as I was raging and I would go into angry crying - then at times, even more intense rage and even angrier crying.

And all the while it was draining out of me the pent up anger of years of having no voice about my own abuse.

As I would yell, my therapists would continue to rage and act out my father’s behavior and say things my father would have said, to continue to act out abusing and attempting to further control me. This included my therapist threatening me with a beating if I continued to yell. And he would threaten to beat my ‘mother’. In my early experiences, the therapists acting out my father’s behavior resulted in me shutting up and feeling really scared. They understood the process I was going through and we always debriefed what was going on with me and the fear and the shutting down. After many experiences, I was eventually more able to continue yelling and arguing. This was very healthy for me to express the legitimate anger I felt at being beaten and screamed at and humiliated as a child.

Later as I connected with my anger more and more, I was able to start using the plastic bat to hit the soft chair as I yelled, or I would just hit the pillows or mats with my fists, either standing or on my knees. I had many sessions of working on my anger. Anger that very much needed to be expressed at some of the abuse and torture and mind control my father had put me through. All with the goal of helping me become an integrated human being who was living in real time with the emotions I was experiencing being the emotion of the day I was in. And not carrying around 35 year old emotions that had never been expressed!

Over a long period of time I had begun to connect with a little anger from time to time but I was still having a hard time feeling real anger toward my abuser. During this time of struggling to connect with anger I mentioned this to my therapist on one occasion. I said “I still just can’t feel anger. I just don’t see what I have to be angry about”. It was just an honest statement to my therapist about what I was experiencing. I did not think any more about this as we started into our work that day. As I was relaxing and the therapist began to do his normal reenacting of my father’s rage and verbal abuse the therapist did something he had never done before. As he reenacted the verbal abuse and physical abuse of my father, speaking as if he was my father, the therapist began to taunt me.

He said: “Oh, you’re too weak! You’re just a little coward! You’re a little sissy! You’re a pansy! I can do whatever I want to you and you can’t stop me. I can beat your mother whenever I want to because there is nothing you can do about it. I can beat your brother Nathan and you will just stand there because you’re too scared. You don’t care what happens to your brother Nathan or your sister Katherine or your brother Fred. You’re more worried about yourself and staying safe. You’re too scared! See, you’re just a coward! Big baby! Why do you just lay there! Cat got your tongue?” Then he just laughed and laughed.

If I thought I did not have anger up to now, I want to tell you something! That day, listening to the words of my therapist, I went into a rage that day. I connected with a rage that I would have never imagined I had in me. It was like taking the finger out of the dam. The rage erupted and came pouring out of me. My therapists’ taunts were tapping into some of the deepest pain I had ever felt. And were describing very well both the horrible things my father had allowed himself to do in our family, but the fear that kept us all from acting to save our mom and siblings from his beatings. My therapist, by even using my father’s horrible evil laugh, had recreated for a moment what it felt like to live with him. My father did horrible things to us and laughed at us as he did them.

For us to understand abuse in our family system means coming to terms with the fact that the abuse we witnessed is a particularly painful part of our pasts. Your own abuse, and beatings and being screamed at and belittled you just dealt with yourself. Somehow you got through it. Each time it happened. But to watch others have to go through it and be paralyzed in your fear and not able to respond is just a nightmare to have to go through. And for my therapist to be taunting me and saying I was a coward was just more than I could bear that day. What was particularly cruel about it was that any abuse victim wrestles for years with the agony of “what I could have done to protect others.” The abuser might very effectively brainwash you into understanding you have no way out, but you still feel the guilt.

That day when the rage and the anger toward my father’s actions and horrible, destructive words came out like Mount Vesuvius was an important turning point in my life. So often we think of anger as something that must be tamed or gotten rid of. And truthfully most of the time it is something we must be very careful about. Anger and rage normally just destroy the people around them. But in the case of people of trauma and abuse, the response of anger towards the abuse is not only appropriate but very necessary to going on in life. Unexpressed and unexamined anger and rage will simply go inward and destroy the abuse victim if she doesn’t find a healthy, constructive way to express it and release it.

During my most intense experiences connecting with and venting anger I beat the soft mats and pillows with all my physical strength and I screamed and yelled with all of my voice until I was hoarse. I vented anger; beating the mats with my fists, hitting the bats against the soft chairs, and screaming back at my father (so to speak) for over an hour non-stop. I would lift my fists over my head as high as I could and slam them with all my physical strength against the mats and pillows. I would scream the truth at my father about what he had done to me, to my mother and to my brothers and sisters!

Ultimately, hour by hour, day by day, I took back the power I had forfeited to my father and took back my heart. I cannot tell you how important or how wonderful it is to get your heart back. To get connected with the real you in the present and be able to accurately look at whatever happened to you in your past. And express the emotion that so desperately needs to be expressed about what happened to you.

I was able to work through my anger over a period of two years. It took me over six months before I was able to first experience my own anger toward my father and his abuse. If all of you normal folks out there reading this blog think about not being able to even experience anger for a full six months of therapy it lets you see how much my coping behaviors as a child were truly walls around my heart. And while initially they had served to protect my little child self, it also made it so I couldn’t connect with all the healthy emotions necessary to live a complete, healthy adult life.

My therapists were wise practitioners who knew I needed to work through other emotions before I would finally be able to reach and connect to my anger. But they also knew that beyond the legitimate anger, was a garden of subtle, beautiful emotions God meant for me to have and even enjoy that had not been available to me. I grew up in Kansas. It makes me think of the movie the Wizard of Oz and how it was for Dorothy and her friends to go to Oz and see everything in color. I was a kid who had seen life in emotional colors that were largely black and white and shades of grey. Through beautiful, ethical, caring therapy I was opened up to a world of good and healthy emotions that have been a delight to experience.

Some people are able to connect with their anger far sooner than the deeper emotions (for them) of sadness. Each of us will be different if we have had to stuff emotions to protect ourselves! Please be patient with yourself as your buried emotions begin to come back to the surface where you can deal with them.

I do hope you are able to glean little bits of wisdom from my experience, but if you don’t, remember that you will have your own beautiful journey of healing that will get you back in touch with many things that seem unavailable to you right now. Freedom from fear and anger! Freedom from the storm within you that is likely to burst out. And freedom to go on to live the amazing life you have within you!

Mark Phelps


  1. Good story Mark very graphic on how your late father called you names and how powerless you felt when your father beated you, your mother, and siblings. I'm glad to know you are stronger now than you were 40 years ago. Keep writing and God bless

  2. No words can express how utterly helpful and healing and comforting it is to me that you got that festering wound out. The wound with seemingly unending festering. Like monster glue that just keeps on growing no matter how hard you try to contain it!

    1. Genevieve, thank you for your expression of support and kindness. It means a lot to me! My eyes actually let more light into my body following the anger work I did. I don't know how to describe it other than my vision was brighter as if more light was getting into my being. God made our bodies and minds with amazing abilities to overcome and get stronger no matter what we experience.