Monday, May 17, 2010

On Anger

For the past three and a half years, my sister has been angry at me and has refused to communicate with me. I'm not really sure what we're fighting about and she has refused to explain. We haven't really communicated during this period except for the few times I tried to reach out clumsily, only to make the situation worse.

Before the fracture, I had considered her the most important person in my life along with my parents. Of course, we've had our differences, and I'm sure the things I did to annoy her accumulate to a sizable mound. But whenever I cooked a new dish, I made plans to cook it for her and my parents. And when I traveled, I always bought her a little trinket first before buying one for myself. I had valued her as a friend and an ally in the family, and trusted her as someone I could talk to about things that mattered the most. She always had great insights, and it had always been important to me to get her perspective and input.

I have friends who are estranged from members of their family, but I never imagined it could happen to me, especially not with my sister. I just never thought we would have a problem that we couldn't talk or fight through, that we would at any point in our lives just give up on the other person, that we would forever condemn each other for our faults or foibles.

Since it started, this has been a great source of distress. She didn't attend my wedding, hardly knows Jeff, and has not yet met our baby. Also, because of the awkward situation, I have avoided going home to New York to see my parents or my brother and his family, including during the holidays, which has created all sorts of additional guilt. The one time I visited during the summer, I pleaded with my mother not to mention my visit to her. I couldn't stand the thought of having some huge blow up or being treated as a pariah by her.

In a way, this fracture has colored my perception of so many other things in my life. For one, it makes me question the nature of relationships in general. When a relationship you've relied on for a big part of your life breaks off, is it possible not to wonder about the tenuousness of all relationships and to feel anxious about life's unpredictability? The severing of our relationship has also made me despair a bit about my family in general. Whereas before I saw cohesion and rays of possibilities despite all of our difficulties and differences, I now only see fracture and the looming cloud of failure.

It may be different if I had a better understanding of what we're fighting about and if she could explain why she is so angry. There is a list of offenses that accumulated after we started fighting, but they never seemed to explain why this started in the first place, what is really at issue. Being in the middle of a devastating fight without understanding its cause has felt maddening at times. It takes away the ability to think through the issue, to assess the rightness or the wrongness of the behavior, to address the problem, to make amends. It takes away the ability to find a sense of order. It makes me feel powerless and helpless. It's being stuck in a maze with no way out.

I've tried to examine our relationship from every angle to try to understand why she may be so angry with me. I of course have my suspicions, but it's difficult to reach any conclusion or view it with any clarity when the other person in the relationship refuses to say yes, that's why or no, that's not it. I am in limbo, waiting for her to respond in some manner and address the issue.

Last week, I read a book called The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. Years ago, I read a few of Lerner's other books and bought this one at that time, but never really got around to reading it because I never thought of myself as a particularly angry person. Something made me pick it up the other day, and it is probably the single most important book I've read in the past ten years. It helped me to see the relationships in my family, particularly with my sister, with a new perspective and to understand some of the causes of tension as well as my own missteps.

Lerner's premise is that we become angry and our relationships suffer when we allow the demands of the relationship to supersede our own needs or if we expect others to address our needs for us. The book starts with this insightful comment about anger:

"Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self -- our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions -- is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say 'no' to the ways in which we are defined by others and 'yes' to the dictates of our inner self."

She also writes:

"Anger is inevitable when our lives consist of giving in and going along; when we assume responsibility for other people's feelings and reactions; when we relinquish our primary responsibility to proceed with our own growth and ensure the quality of our own lives; when we behave as if having a relationship is more important than having a self."

She believes people (women in particular) "betray and sacrifice the self in order to preserve harmony with others," a process she calls "de-selfing." "De-selfing means that too much of one's self (including one's thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is 'negotiable' under pressures from the relationship."

In the book, she focuses on family relationships because she writes "[i]t is here that closeness often leads to 'stuckness,' and our efforts to change things only lead to more of the same." One of the most insightful points she makes is that often, family members fight, not to change, but to maintain the status quo. In other words, fighting is a way to resist change.

"If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur."

I found myself underlining sentences from every other page so that I could remember her words and go back to them later. There are too many to go through all of them here, but I'll discuss one point that's relevant here.

Lerner says that in close relationships, our boundaries often blur so much that our sense of responsibility gets confused. She writes:

"Instead of taking responsibility for our own selves, we tend to feel responsible for the emotional well-being of the other person and hold the other person responsible for ours. When this reversal of individual responsibility is set in motion, each partner may become very emotionally reactive to what the other says and does, and there may be a lot of fighting and blaming..."

She believes women in particular are prone to this blurring of the self: "Why is the question 'Who is responsible for what' such a puzzle for women? Women in particular have been discouraged from taking responsibility for solving our own problems, determining our own choices, and taking control of the quality and direction of our lives. As we learn to relinquish responsibility for the self, we are prone to blame others for failing to fill up our emptiness or provide for our happiness -- which is not their job. At the same time, however, we may feel responsible for just about everything that goes on around us. We are quick to be blamed for other people's problems and pain and quick to accept the verdict of guilty. We also, in the process, develop the belief that we can avert problems if only we try hard enough."

She writes, however, that we do not cause the other person's reaction; the other person chooses how to react:

"It is tempting to view human transactions in simple cause-and-effect terms. If we are angry, someone else caused it. Or, if we are the target of someone else's anger, we must be to blame; or alternately -- if we are convinced of our innocence -- we may conclude that the other person has no right to feel angry. The more our relationships in our first family are fused (meaning the togetherness force is so powerful that there is a loss of the separate 'I's' within the 'we'), the more we learn to take responsibility for other people's feelings and reactions and blame them for our own. ('You always make Mom feel guilty.' 'You give Dad headaches.' 'She caused her husband to drink.') Likewise, family members assume responsibility for causing other people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

"Human relationships, however, don't work that way -- or at least not very well. We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reaction that other people have in response to our choices and actions. We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people's reactions; nor are they responsible for ours."

Those words fell on me like a bucket of ice on a hot day. I am not responsible for my sister's anger. Her anger is her own.

Somehow that thought is completely liberating. I feel like I've been punishing myself for the past three and a half years, trying to set this right, trying to find a way to appease her, trying to get to the bottom of it. And this whole time, I've been waiting, waiting -- waiting to be pardoned, waiting to be forgiven. But if someone were to ask me for what, I wouldn't know the answer.

At the same time, I've been allowing my sister's reaction to overshadow my own. I was so caught up in reacting to her anger and being consumed with a sense of guilt for having caused her anger that I didn't really think about what I want out of all this. She has not been a part of my life for the past three and a half years. During those years, I got married, had two miscarriages, lost a job, had a child, and experienced so many personal changes that I don't even know where to start. Yet, she has not been involved in any of that. We no longer have a relationship. So why am I struggling so hard to try to find a way to have a relationship with someone who wants nothing to do with me?

I've decided to give myself the permission to move on with my life and not feel hung up by this situation. I also decided that I should not use this situation as an excuse to give up on my other relationships and to give in to the easier path of dejection. There is nothing I can do to change her or her anger, and it is hers to live with as she wishes. But I can find a way to be happy in my own life.

Yesterday, Jeff and I went to our friends' wedding at the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park. They are one of the greatest couples we know, and we were thrilled to see them on this day. The day was chilly and foggy, but the smiles on the faces of the couple, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, all the family and friends lit up the place. The couple had written their own vows, and they each promised to be present for each other -- to listen to each other, to fight fairly, to forgive easily. Later, after all the jokes and the stories and the laughter, the bride's father - who was himself divorced - toasted the couple with his one wish -- that their love for each other be stronger in 30 years than it is now -- as he admonished them that they have to work at it, that it won't come easy. As I sat there to witness, I gathered the wisdom in all of those words and took them in for myself, as I vowed to apply them to those who choose to remain in my life.


  1. I talked to a clergyman once and he said something profound..."Anger is a sign of confusion and pain". I think its so true.

    Like you, I have reacted and personalized anger; sometimes its warranted but often there are external drivers creating all the negative feelings. Realizing that helps me to remove myself and negotiate better. It still hurts like hell sometimes though.


  2. The Dance of Anger was revolutionary in my life as well. It's been several years since I read it, a lot has changed in the way I view my family dynamics, but I'm now inspired to reread certain sections from your post that struck a chord with me while reading this. Best of luck to you in finding peace with the situation that exists between your sister and you. It sounds like you're well on your way (or already there?).

  3. Wow - this is great. I'm 40, and only in the last 2-3 years (seriously) have I started to loosen the belief that I am responsible for my Mother's happiness (and of course I could never be good enough to make her happy all the time) and that her actions and feelings determined my own happiness.

    I was stuck for years in blame and anger (and am still partially stuck) over all the times that she told me I'd be a failure and loser unless I was a MD, JD or CEO, and my guilt at being a "loser" child and misery at feeling like I had to give up everything I valued in life to make her happy.

    Like I said, I'm not finished yet, I'm still trying to work through this (it eats at my every day on my drive to work), but I have got to get that book - very much on point for me and it sounds like it will be useful.

  4. So powerful Shinyung! I am so excited. It sounds like you've had such a break through. I am inspired to see how I can apply some of these ideas in my life. Sarah xxx

  5. im glad you realized your sister's emotions are not your responsibility. let's hope your sister will stop wasting precious time and make up with you.

  6. I read that book too. So eye openning.
    Btw, please don't let your parents and other siblings miss out on your baby because of this issue ... if you can.

  7. This post is amazing. Perfectly timed as if you knew I needed to read what you wrote. (As if you write your blog just for me. ha!) I plan on reading it over and over again, too. (And I'll probably buy the book after that.)

    Thank you

  8. I'm adding the book to my summer reading list, but think I've begun to follow some of its suggestions. Only recently have I begun to give myself permission to cut communication with people who only bring negativity and criticism to my life.

    With your new outlook, do you think at some point you could meet with your sister and start the conversation with: "I know we have a lot of anger between us. Do you think we could talk about it and try to find some way to move forward, or is our relationship as sisters over?" Tell her how much you missed her being a part of your wedding, her nephew's life, your life. Or put it in an email. I would personally need the closure, particularly as I have a family that would continue to ask why I hadn't tried to fix the relationship.

  9. i can totally relate to this post as recently i've been feeling as though a close friend seems to be avoiding me after i have confessed and asked for forgiveness for having lied about something extremely personal in my life. i can't know for sure whether my feelings are warranted as i am thousands of miles away from this friend, but i am confused nonetheless about the state of our relationship. it is painful and i find that the hardest thing to deal with in life is "relationships". we work so hard to keep everyone happy, including ourselves, that sudden changes scare us to death. i wish i had perfect relationships with everyone in my life, but i know that's not possible so long as we live in an imperfect world. so i cling to the only one who is perfect and can make all things perfect - even our bad relationships and our angry hearts: my lord and saviour jesus christ. our own healing can bring about the healing of those around us and the healing of our broken relationships. thanks for this raw and honest post. :)

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