She was referring to her inability to control her anger, which many adoptees find hugely challenging. It spews from our pores and communicate it through our body language. Yet, we may not be self-aware enough to realize what we’re communicating.
Our anger can be like a raging lion, seeking to devour everything in its path, while at other times it’s like a time bomb, ticking silently, threatening to detonate within our souls. We’ve all felt it surge through our bodies and minds, possibly escalating into uncontrollable rage. We’ve felt guilty, victimized, and ashamed for having anger. For many of us, it’s been an enemy to be sought out and destroyed at all costs. We’ve tried:
- Taking anger management courses
- Counting to ten before exploding
- Stuffing it and getting depressed
- Ventilating to a support group
Many would conclude that the self-help options listed above are all dead ends. Thus, we might conclude that we were just born filled with rage—it’s a personal defect.
You know what, friends, that is a downright lie! We weren’t born angry and anger is not a character defect. There is something new we need to learn about anger that will bring it under control. We’ll do that here.
There is an extra twist that adoptees must learn about anger, but first, let’s look at three reasons why we can welcome it.
Three Reasons to Welcome Anger
You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that our job is not to eliminate anger, but to welcome it as a friend carrying a very important message.
“How could it possibly be a friend?” you may be asking. Let’s look at four reasons why.
IT’S AN INNATE CAPACITY FOR PREPAREDNESS.
Anger can be beautiful because it is an innate capacity that is wired into us from conception and something that offers incredible possibilities, if used in the correct way. It alerts our minds and bodies to flee or fight while energizing us for action in response to either physical or psychological danger. It is a state of physical preparedness.
Todd Beamer, a 9/11 American hero, experienced its beauty. Who will ever forget the horrific tragedy of 9/11? It is burned into our memories forever. Can you imagine how Todd felt when he learned that the plane he was riding in was going to be turned into a missile that would destroy the White House? He must have been terrified in a way that is unimaginable for most of us. He was staring death straight in the face.
Todd told GTE telephone supervisor, Lisa Jefferson, by cell phone that he and fellow passengers Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett, Jr. had decided they would not be pawns in the hijackers’ wicked plot. The innate physiological component of anger propelled them out of their seats and helped them rally other passengers to take action.
Armed with nothing but their own courage and a plastic butter knife from their airplane breakfast, Todd Beamer rallied his fellow passengers: “Are you ready? Let’s roll.” The passengers attacked the terrorists, took over the plane, and forced it to crash outside of Pittsburgh, killing every person on board but undoubtedly saving many other lives.
IT’S NOT WRONG.
For those of us with a faith-based belief system, we might be misled by pontificating preachers who only give half-truths about anger. We don’t want to do wrong, so we stuff it. That is what I did for years.
I am reminded of these words: “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry —but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry.”2
Todd Beamer displayed healthy anger. What was the first thing he did? He humbled himself, called 9-1-1, and prayed with the operator. He knew he had a vital, life-giving mission to accomplish before he left planet earth.
IT’S A SECONDARY EMOTION.
Another aspect of anger is that it’s a secondary emotion. That means that there is a trigger that produces what is called a primary emotion.
After the primary emotion, such as fear, is triggered, the secondary emotion, which is anger, kicks in. I like to think of the primary emotion as a wound and the secondary emotion as a scab over the wound. The wound has to occur before the scab forms. Thus, anger is secondary.
The triggering event for Todd Beamer was the news that not only was he facing death, but possibly so were the President, government officials, and employees at the US capitol. Terror would likely have been the primary emotion in response to the pain. And then anger.
If we could talk to Todd today, I bet he would tell us how thankful he is that he was so wonderfully wired. Without that physiological response to danger, he would have sat paralyzed in his seat and the United States would have been further devastated.
IT MIGHT BE A SIGN WE ARE COMING TO LIFE.
A therapist friend of mine once said that she believes anger is like a sacrament—something sacred that must be revered and something that can give life. Because of this belief she asks her clients to demonstrate their anger in a way that is unique and safe.
One client brought in a beautiful vase that belonged to her late mother (no… not the one that held her ashes!) and during one session in the therapist’s office she smashed it to smithereens while shouting all the things she was angry at her mother about. Afterward there was release and freedom. She was moving out of numbness to experiencing a fuller spectrum of her emotions, and she celebrated with her therapist.
Triggers for Primary Emotions
As we reflect on these aspects of anger, we can conclude that anger, if handled correctly, has the potential for being a good thing. As adoptees, I believe it is important for us to know the common triggers for our primary emotions so we will understand the source of our anger and discover healthy ways to manage it.
BEING SENT AWAY BY OUR BIRTH MOTHERS
An interesting article about adoptee anger is written by a birth mother named Carol Komissaroff. She says, “What are adoptees angry about? Lots of things. They’re angry with people like me because we gave them away. They need an explanation and an apology. Of course they can’t get one because we’re nowhere to be found, which frustrates them and makes them mad as hell. Some are also angry because we sent them away from their ‘kind,’ abandoning them to an environment in which they suffer a chronic, cumulative, vast feeling of unacceptability. The pain, helplessness, and frustration caused by that sort of thing can make a person very mad.”3
Dirck Brown says, “I spent a year in analysis before I even mentioned that I was adopted, and even then I was very tentative about talking about it. My analyst commented when I began to talk about it that I seemed to be furious and that what he sensed I really wanted to do was strangle my birth mother!”
Kim Norman says that her blood didn’t begin to boil until she began looking into the impact of adoption on her relationship problems. It was then that her feelings polarized about adoption. She concluded that adoption is the worst thing a birth mother can do to a child. “My birth mother wasn’t trying to care for me — she simply decided the easy way out was to give me up when I was one month old. The question I ask is, ‘What attempts did she really make in order to keep me?’”
BEING TREATED LIKE SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS
Another common trigger is being treated like a second-class citizen for many reasons.
As this book is penned, many adoptees in the United States can’t have access to original birth certificates. Why is this important? It is important because it proves:
- We are a real person
- We had a real birth
- We had a mother who gave us birth
- We were at a real hospital
Kim Norman is still very angry about one aspect of being adopted — the fact that she feels like a second-class citizen legally. “I am angry that I am not legally entitled to my true birth certificate! The information represented on that piece of paper is about me, yet I can’t have a copy. I am angry at the way the system is —that there wasn’t someone present thirty-two years ago raising these types of questions when I was adopted.”
There are many ways that adoptee’s report feeling second class. Here are a few:
- For the foster child who ages out of the system, no matter what country, with nothing but the shirt on her back, she feels incredibly second class, if that. She’s angry at people that use words like “forever” in regard to “forever families.” To her, “forever” is like the “f word.” As she tries to make her way in the world, society often treats her as a loser child.
- The media, at least in the U.S., always reports that if someone did something bad, he was “the adopted son of_________” some famous person?
- What about adoptees who have a different skin color than their parents? Do they not feel second class when others ask who the real family is?
- How about racism? Comments like, “Send her back to her own country where they grow coconuts.”
- How about international adoptees that are sent to their new homes with only a certificate of abandonment? Ouch.
Another injustice is not feeling free to ask for what we need. Do you ever find yourself shrinking back when someone offers you a choice between two gifts —one more appealing to you than the other?
Perhaps the person offers you the choice between a silk or burlap scarf.
She says, “Go ahead, take the silk scarf,” and you say, “Oh, that’s okay.
The burlap one will be fine.”
I do that all the time! I don’t feel like I’m entitled to ask for the silk scarf (what I need and love). Why is that? Is it because I don’t feel worthy enough to have anything good?
Connie Dawson says that not feeling entitled to ask for or receive what we need as human beings—unconditional love and connection— naturally leads us to feeling angry. She says, “Hurt? ‘You bet I’ve been hurt and of course I am angry’ is what my ‘inside baby’ wants to say — stomping her foot to claim her entitlement to her feelings.”
Cheri Freeman says that she lived a nightmarish childhood with a father who was mentally ill and full of rage. When her parents eventually divorced when she was seventeen, she finally expressed some of her pent-up anger toward her adoptive father. The next morning, he showed up at the courthouse and terminated his parental rights and responsibilities. “Of course, he couldn’t have done that unless her new stepfather was willing to adopt me, but I felt like I’d been rejected forever and banned from the family for expressing anger.”
What Will Tame Our Anger
Forgive me friends, if you already know this and it seems simplistic. For me, it has been a game changer.
There are two kinds of anger—misplaced and healthy.
Misplaced anger often is directed at our adoptive or foster moms, for we are furious with our birth mothers for disappearing from our presence, even if just in the parenting role, as in open adoption.
We’ve already discussed healthy anger and its purpose that has been innately wired into us.
I don’t know about you, but I clumped all anger together—misplaced and healthy. I didn’t know the difference and concluded that “I’m an angry person.”
There’s the lie I believed for most of my life. I was ashamed of my anger and wondered if there was something wrong with me because it was so intense.
We need to identify and then work through misplaced anger and get rid of it. As we work hard, the power of the misplaced anger will slowly fade. My husband says of me, “You’re not so angry anymore.”
We need to find appropriate ways to express anger that are not destructive to ourselves or others. Here are several to get us started.
REMAIN RESPONSIBLE THROUGH AFFIRMATIONS.
I don’t know about you, but when I get angry my natural response is to run away. I did this as a child and I am embarrassed to say I have done it as a grown, married woman. There have been many nights when I’ve packed my bag and called my favorite inn in Michigan for a reservation. The trouble is that I took the pain with me. Geographical solutions don’t work.
We can choose to remain responsible. I am learning to say to myself, “Sherrie, you are a grown woman with a family who loves you dearly. You would only be hurting them and yourself if you made this rash decision to pack up and leave.”
PAUSE AND EVALUATE.
It is important to remember that there is a fleeting second between primary and secondary emotions. That fleeting second provides us with a choice. Will we react impulsively or respond responsibly? We’re not victims of anger. We have a choice about how to behave!
Cheri Freeman is trying to learn to respond in the right way by backing off for a “time-out” before sharing angry feelings with anyone. “I can show irritation and frustration easily enough, but anger and fear are harder for me to share maturely.”
REFUSE TO RETALIATE.
If we blame others for our emotional pain, we give them power over what we think, feel, say, and do. Blaming statements such as “They are doing it to me,” or “She makes me so angry” reveal a victim’s mind-set. Nobody can make us angry. In any situation we have the power to identify our primary emotion and choose how we will respond in a way that preserves our dignity and safety.
It helps me tremendously to recall this verse, “Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. ‘I’ll do the judging,’ says God. ‘I’ll take care of it.’”4.
How much better to have a higher court deal with rejecting/cruel people? This verse says it aptly: “But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” 5
WELCOME HEALTHY ANGER.
For many of us, anger has turned inward and become depression. Wemay have been the good little adoptee and stuffed it. We are shut down.
But when we begin to feel angry, it can be sign we’re coming to life!
The late Dirck Brown, when confronted by his analyst about his anger says, “I was able to begin to feel my deep, deep anger and resentment overbeing rejected, abandoned—that Gretchen (my birth mother) did not want me and perhaps didn’t want to have me from the very beginning.”
Connie Dawson says that when she and her husband separated, she couldn’t hold back. “Oh, I was still ‘nice,’ but I’d never felt anger as I felt it then. I’ve done a lot of rage work in therapy. I still get angry, but most of the original abandonment anger at being ‘put out’ as a baby has receded. Now when I’m angry I take it as a signal that there is a current problem to solve. I think of all those years I couldn’t afford to express my anger for fear I’d be sent away, abandoned again. What a waste of good time.”
And so what is the choice we need to make at this juncture?
To identify and process misplaced anger.
HOW TO BEGIN
- Make an anger chart. Beginning as far back as you can remember, list all the things you have felt angry about. Then go back over the list and see if you can identify the primary emotion (unmet need) beneath the anger. Ask yourself: “What was the predominant injury?”
- List the primary people in your life with whom you have anger issues. Then, write “Misplaced Anger” or “Healthy Anger” after each person.
- Search for answers that will satisfy you about anger. Theologians, great writers, ordinary people.
- Write a letter TO and FROM your birth mother. Use an online feelings chart as well as an online Thesaurus to amplify your descriptions. Experts say this is the best way for adoptees to surface repressed emotions.
- Identify some untrue beliefs about yourself and anger and then counter them with a truthful affirmation. For example, “I’m just an angry person.” vs “I am a precious person.”
As we identify misplaced anger and the work inSherrvolved to move past it, certainly the days will be painful…but productive.
This is Chapter Eight from the newly-released 20 Life-Transforming Choices Adoptees Need to Make. You may purchase the book here: Http://SherrieEldridge.com/shop/