Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence
ANGRY TO PASSIONATE
When they feel insignificant, they will get angry. The anger gives them a false sense of importance.
Jeremy’s grandfather was a highly intelligent man who, according to the Alabama state tests, was a bona fide genius. But in those days, there weren’t many opportunities for even a brilliant black man, and all his pent-up frustration and resentment was channeled into emotional cruelty and physical abuse against his family. Jeremy’s father, Walter, a Vietnam vet, was also a highly intelligent man who could not seem to make his way in life. He felt held back from the rewards and recognition to which he felt entitled. Jeremy can remember him only in a state of anger that would regularly erupt as verbal or physical abuse.
“My father was kind of a victim and he blamed everyone for everything,” Jeremy says. “Even if he was just having a bad day, me or my mother would be the cause of it. He would spend more time being critical of others than focusing on himself.”
As a physically underdeveloped four-year-old living with domestic violence, Jeremy did not understand that his father felt out of control and had very low self-esteem. He was unaware of the generations-long cycle of growing up living with domestic violence, exacerbated by racial prejudice and poverty.
As is often the case in homes with domestic violence, Jeremy wasn’t the direct recipient of physical violence, but there was plenty of screaming and verbal abuse. What hurt and angered him most was feeling helpless to protect his mother. He keenly felt every kick, punch, and shove she experienced.
In her book, The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik says that because children are naturally empathetic that they “literally take on the feelings of others.”1 This is due to the activation of mirror neurons, which cause children to respond strongly to what they see.
One night Jeremy’s father turned his violent energy on his little boy with a stream of verbal abuse. But young Jeremy was through with it. He straightened himself up to his full three-foot, two-inch height, stared his father dead in the eye, and said: “You know when I am older I’m going to kill you, don’t you?” He was only six years old.
Stunned, Walter said nothing and backed away. The little boy must have convinced him he was serious, because shortly after that his father disappeared out of his life. From age seven, the only contact Jeremy had with him was an annual phone call, when his father would tell him how special Jeremy was.
But Jeremy meant every word of his promise. Ever since that confrontation, Jeremy’s singular focus was on getting big and strong enough to beat his father into a state of helpless submission. He wanted that man to feel what his mother felt, what he felt. He couldn’t get big enough, fast enough. He took weight gain supplements and trained like a maniac.
“It plagued me,” he confesses. “I just wanted to create enough competence to fight and confront and, if necessary, kill this person who I hated from the pit in my stomach.”
Jeremy wasn’t interested in relationships, he didn’t think about building a business or having any kind of compelling future. He was bitter, angry, and guarded, especially when it came to his mother’s subsequent boyfriends. He blamed himself that he couldn’t defend his mother from his father, something no child should have to do, so he became especially protective of her, to the point that it was next to impossible for her to have another relationship.
BLAME TAKES AWAY YOUR POWER
Jeremy’s intense training in his quest to become more physically powerful led him to join the Navy SEALs. This elite and incredibly demanding special forces unit requires an almost superhuman combination of strength, endurance, and intelligence. Tellingly, a recent study of naval cadets suggested that about 48 percent of armed forces recruits are children of domestic violence. All that anger and energy has to be channeled into something, so protecting your country, becoming a uniformed defender, is a logical next step for a person who grew up living with domestic violence.
“The pain of seeing my mother hurt was ten times worse than anything I ever felt going through the SEALs training Hell Week,” he says.
With all this training, Jeremy was satisfied with his size and strength because, as he says, “I knew I’d be able to give him a good fight, at least.”
But a week before graduating as a SEAL, during a port of call in the Mediterranean, he was called into the chaplain’s quarters in the middle of the night and was told that his father had been killed in an accident.
“Thank God!” Jeremy exclaimed aloud. He was so relieved that it wasn’t his mother or sister or grandmother. Never for a moment did he think it would be his father, whom he did not consider immediate family.
At first, it was a huge relief, but then it hit him: “I could never be normal. There were all these things I would never get a chance to fix.”
Now his long-simmering anger had no outlet. Jeremy would never be able to meet the man and get closure. It was a loss—not the loss of a loved one but the loss of an opportunity, and he felt cheated. More than physical revenge, though, Jeremy was really seeking to understand his own tendency toward rage and how to deal with it. Now he couldn’t. This was the truth he had to face. His father was gone, and Jeremy was no longer that puny child, a fact that hit him hard at the funeral and became a turning point.
“Seeing him in the casket, he looked like a scared little boy finally at peace. He looked like me. The moment had finally come, but the anger energy came and had nowhere to go. The energy had to become something else, and we’re talking massive amounts of pent-up energy. The only thing it could become in the moment was passion or I would have been buried with him that day.”
On some level, Jeremy always knew that his lifelong obsession, and the emotion that fed it, wasn’t healthy. Anger in all its manifestations—violence, aggravation, impatience, dominance, controlling tendencies, bitterness, frustration, even the habitual turning a cold shoulder—can become the dominant themes in the lives of people who lived with domestic violence in childhood. These kids grow up feeling insignificant. Their only role models are teaching them that anger is the way to confront most problems. They are misled into believing that acting on anger can somehow give them more certainty, power, and control. While this misconception is understandable, it often leads them to take actions that lead to a life of unrealized dreams, sadness, blame, and unmet potential.
I NEVER HAD CONTROL WHEN I WAS A CHILD; ANGER GIVES ME THAT CONTROL NOW
Anger comes from the amygdala, which is located deep inside the brain. It detects danger and regulates emotional responses to threats, such as fear, anxiety, and anger.2 It’s also responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction we have to danger.
Psychologist Stephen Joseph describes it this way:
The pupils of the eyes dilate, the heart beats faster, the rate of breathing increases, blood flow increases and is redirected to the muscles for quick movement, the skin becomes cold and pale, fat is made available for energy, hormones surge throughout the body, muscles tense, the bladder empties. Lighter on our feet and equipped with energy that has been diverted from ingestion and reproduction, we are now ready for action. We are ready to fight or take flight.3
That threat could be to our physical body or to our inner selves—even to our self-concept. Whether perceived or actual, if someone makes you feel unloved, guilty, worthless, or weak, your sense of self is threatened and that part of your brain will work to find ways to feel secure again.
Both men and women experience anger, although sometimes it comes out in different ways. As Harvard neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine puts it, “Once some men’s anger ignites, it’s hard to stop, because it gets fueled by testosterone. When a woman yells at a man who is angry, he knows she isn’t a real threat to him. So her anger just gets him more fired up. His anger is feeding on her anger and then back on his own.”4 For both sexes, anger provides a sense of immediate certainty, dumping chemicals in your body that literally numb the pain.
When children are exposed to anger and violence, they learn to deal with what they perceive to be threats in kind. The brain’s job is to keep its owner alive by collecting information, and the data being collected by children of domestic violence during their formative years are the out-of-control, negative emotions of the adults in their lives. By living with violence in their home, they learn that violence is the accepted way to settle arguments. What they see, they do, either to others, or themselves.
According to R. Douglas Fields, “Early childhood experience, such as bullying, abuse, being raised in an unwholesome violent environment, and traumatic events, all affect the propensity for rage and fear. . . . [C]hild abuse and neglect produce long-lasting changes in connections between the left and right brain (corpus callosum), the amygdala (a brain region involved in fear and anxiety) and prefrontal cortex (critical for decision making and complex social interactions).”5
Beyond brain and emotional development, the stress of prolonged states of anger can damage the rest of the body. Just consider what happens to the muscles of someone who takes steroids for an extended period of time, and imagine what that does to the body of a developing child. All those feelings, stirred up by a prolonged state of fight or flight, get sustained 24/7 in the life of a child of domestic violence.
REDIRECT ANGER’S ENERGY TOWARD YOUR PASSION
Jeremy really wanted kids of his own someday. But first he had to figure out how to live a life free of the all-consuming desire to avenge his mother and demolish his father. “Rage had become my filter through which I saw the world; my dominant emotion” Jeremy says. “I blamed everyone for everything.” Just like his father had done before him.
Because he never wanted to repeat the cycle of violence, he was in a constant state of high alert. By never having the chance to deal with what he now calls his “warped motivation” he knew he had to somehow unlearn what was learned, figure out how to trust, and open himself up to normal relationships. But he didn’t know how to live any other way. And the thought that he might be capable of repeating the cycle of violence terrified him.
“I was terribly afraid to have a family or even be serious about someone,” he recalls.
Even Jeremy’s father’s funeral didn’t give him an opportunity for closure, and afterward he went into a deep depression. He no longer felt he had a purpose. He tried religion, but none of it made sense to him at the time, so he tried other paths on his search for meaning.
An inquisitive and determined man, Jeremy started reading every personal development book he could get his hands on, doing all he could to develop a self-concept beyond the anger that defined his life. He was determined to learn everything he could about the science of human achievement. He knew he had to change his self-concept. This was key. After a few years of searching, he found a way: He took the energy of his rage, identified it, and then pointed it toward something he desired deeply—to do what he could so that others did not have to experience what he had had to endure.
During his research, he stumbled upon methods to describe how we can turn certain negative emotions into their opposite. Jealousy, for example, becomes empathy. You cannot take away the strength of the emotion but you can redirect it. Just as you can’t eliminate a habit but can replace a bad habit with one that will benefit you. So he turned his anger to his passion, to an outcome that had great personal meaning. Passion is about immersing ourselves into that which we want most. What we have a deep desire to do, become, experience, or achieve. Fulfilling a passion is a pursuit that transfers the destructive energy of anger into something worthwhile and productive.
Every time he felt the feeling of anger coming on, he would remind himself of the truth—he was not an angry person; this was just a pattern he had learned that can be unlearned—and then would take action toward his desired outcome to free himself of this lie. In particular he took to heart the lesson taught by the influential management expert Albert E. N. Gray, who says: “Successful people have formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do. Failures follow their natural likes and dislikes; they are guided by their natural preferences.”6
In other words, those who don’t succeed do whatever they feel like doing, not what they know they must do. Jeremy applied this idea. As psychiatrist Norman Doidge notes, by focusing on something pleasurable in the place of the anger, people can form a new circuit that is gradually reinforced instead of the anger.
WHAT ELSE CAN I ASSUME ABOUT THIS?
Jeremy began this process of finding meaning to the experiences of his life by giving himself the space to recognize and channel all his anger that was just below the surface. When a feeling of anger would come over him, he would ask himself, “What else can I assume about this? What else could it mean?”
Doidge explains that neurons that fire together, wire together: By doing something that is positive, satisfying, and fulfilling, when the feeling of anger strikes, people form a new circuit that gradually takes precedence over the compulsion. By not acting on a compulsion the link between the compulsion and the idea is weakened and so is the anxiety that we feel.
“It’s like SEAL training. It’s all pain, but the experience helps you create a proper meaning for it—pain with purpose.” With that statement, Jeremy showed how he had taken control of the meaning of his life. He was able to turn his anger into passion, which allowed him to learn the methods, tools, and strategies that would be needed to help improve the lives of others.
Through an expanded network of like-minded individuals, including many who were also children of domestic violence, he embarked on a career as a local church leader. He also founded a consulting business that helps entrepreneurs and executives reach their true potential. In effect, he discovered a new purpose: to help others.
Gradually, Jeremy’s relationships deepened. All that passion—or inversed anger—got channeled into becoming a loving father and husband. Through his work in the community and as a pastor, he focuses on families, helping strengthen them with a particular focus on the spiritual growth of husbands and fathers. In all, he’s been a catalyst for change in tens of thousands of lives.
By channeling our energy toward something more than ourselves, we discover our own strength, and our energy comes back to us as a reward. We learn a deeper sense of mastery and control—not over others, but over ourselves—that a momentary impulse of anger can never provide.
Jeremy’s example shows how this is possible. You do not have to let anger define you. It’s not your truth, just the lie that you learned. You had every reason to be angry, frustrated, and aggressive. You had every right to want to try to obtain some sense of security, control, and certainty because you had none of that as a child.
But what about now? Now that you are an adult? Now you know the truth.
CHANGE THE PATTERN AND QUESTION THE ANGER IN ORDER TO CONTROL IT
Adam, a successful interior designer, is another individual who successfully redirected the energy that his anger created. Sitting today in a café in Carmel, he looks like he never had a care in the world. Though he looks and dresses like a quintessential Californian, Adam grew up in a tough neighborhood just outside of Indianapolis.
Violence between his mother and father makes up his earliest memories. In Adam’s case, his mother drove the situation—yelling, instigating, and throwing objects across the room.
“Anger was everywhere where I grew up. And it was especially present in my home,” he recalls. “We were actually all pretty emotionally close, especially my sister and mom and I, but there was always this very controlling, confusing mix of love and abuse—guilt, yelling and screaming, physical violence.
“The source of it all was my mother. She was disabled, overweight, and unhappy, so my sister and I were really her caretakers. I hated taking care of my mother because she was such an angry person. And on top of everything else, I didn’t dare tell my family that I was gay for the longest time. So I had all this stored up anger and confusion I was carrying around. My father was an alcoholic—very quiet and withdrawn. He could never really stand up to her. None of us could, I guess. So she just ended up walking all over everyone. It all added up to a very bad mix.
“You’d never know from the outside, because my dad took such good care of our house. But during one summer the police were at our place almost every night, called there by the neighbors because of all the screaming and breaking things.
“I grew up hating everyone around me.”
Adam was resentful toward other people who he thought were more fortunate than he was. He would often wonder, “Why should they get to grow up in a loving house? They didn’t earn it. They don’t deserve it.” Somewhat delusional, he thought that his anger would cause others pain because they deserved it as much as he did.
Inevitably, Adam’s anger spilled out into his life. After he moved out of his parents’ house, which he described as the best day of his life, he started drinking heavily and dating abusive partners. He began blacking out during his partying and letting his weekend extend into his week.
“My whole childhood set me up to believe that even if someone treated you like crap—was verbally abusive or hit you—it didn’t mean they didn’t love you or you shouldn’t be with them,” he says. “And I was just as abusive right back.” At age twenty-seven, after a number of unexplained absences from work, Adam nearly got fired. That was when he asked himself, “What could this cost me?” The fear of losing a job he loved, along with his hunger for financial independence, prompted him to take some dramatic steps: He ended his violent relationship and got his drinking under control, entering six months of rehab.
Through the many relationships he formed in rehab, which he continues to foster, Adam was able to engage with people whom he trusts, to open up about his past, and to help others who grew up living with domestic violence. He gradually forgave himself and his family, although, he admits, “it’s an ongoing process.” He also realized that he could direct his anger toward working harder at his career. Having a successful career was a way of proving to others that he was neither unimportant nor powerless, that he was not to be ignored. He had discovered the power of transforming his anger into passion.
THE HIGH COST OF ANGER
Acting out, being aggressive, and expressing rage are the natural reflexes for people who grew up living with domestic violence. Manifesting anger is seductive because it creates an illusion of power. In reality, when we allow ourselves to be guided principally by our feelings of anger, we are enabling others to control us.
Finding strategies to control anger helps us channel this energy into much more rewarding and productive pursuits. We discover the truth that we can be far more powerful than we ever realized when we dispense with anger and follow our passion.
But if we don’t find some way to redirect that rage, we grow up failing to learn the difference between simply feeling angry and acting on it. “When children fail to internalize this lesson, it has a devastating impact on their lives, because they are acting outside the acceptable norms of society,” Sandra Graham-Bermann shared with me in an interview. “The cost is enormous on a personal and a social level. Forty percent of children exposed to domestic violence will develop conduct disorders in their relation to others, and many of them are quickly absorbed into the penal system.”
It’s worth noting here that children living with domestic violence often become schoolyard bullies. A 2003 study concluded that “exposure to interparental physical violence and direct bullying were significantly associated.”7 And yet bullying has become such a hot-button issue in schools with almost no consideration for one of its primary causes.
WHEN YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF YOUR ANGER, YOU CAN FACE IT
Of course, everyone can at times feel angry. What matters is how you handle that feeling. True passion comes from using your power to control your actions. No feeling of passion is greater or more powerful when you can control the meaning and use anger to move you closer to your full potential. You never have to be a slave to anger when you can transform it into passion. When you take actions that bring you closer to achieving your dreams, you convert anger into passion.
Learning this lesson saved Adam’s life, and showed him the truth. He discovered his own passion by immersing himself in his television work. The more he worked, the better he felt, and the more he increased his confidence and competency. His dedication attracted the notice of colleagues and allowed him to build new friendships at work. He began to confide in them, and they helped support his struggles to overcome a difficult childhood. Through his passion for his profession and the feelings of accomplishment from his hard work, the story he told himself changed. Today, he looks on his past with gratitude. He’s not mad or sad about it because it made him strong. Instead of it being the reason why he couldn’t, he chose to focus his energy on becoming a role model, and now he’s mentor to many who share a similar story.
“I can’t begin to tell you how different I am as a person,” he said. “I am at peace and feel happy. The relationships I have with friends are awesome. More than anything else, the biggest change is that I learned how to manage my anger. I don’t argue the way I used to. I can feel when that trigger goes off inside me, and I know that it’s time to take a big step back. I try to look at what’s bothering me from different angles and not let others control how I feel. In the end, it’s me who decides how I react. I control the meaning of what happens to me.
“Figuring that out, and just using those simple exercises for defusing my anger, has let me really focus on me and my career, instead of all that other stuff. I’ve learned how to get along much better with my mother—she’s a difficult person, but I don’t let her push my buttons anymore. And here I am today: I’ve got my own apartment, my own car, a great relationship, and a career I love. It’s unbelievable.”
TOOLS TO CONTROL ANGER AND IGNITE PASSION
On the face of it, the lives of Adam the interior designer and Jeremy the entrepreneur could not be more different. But their eventual success boils down to the same thing: a moment or a realization that showed them how to turn their anger into something incredibly empowering. Jeremy was able to remind himself of the truth whenever he recognized anger coming on. Adam realized that by asking himself one important question he was able to recognize that his hair-trigger temper and destructive lifestyle was about to cost him his career. Each one of them was able to unlearn what was learned, replacing a lie with a new empowering truth. When they identified the anger and pointed its energy toward a new more productive truth they were able to act in a way that brought them closer to their full potential, enabling them to contribute and improve the lives of others in turn.
“Children witness violence from powerful role models and they learn to manage emotions from those models,” Graham-Bermann said. “This is how they learn conflict resolution. They internalize those relationship paradigms and then act out in relation to other people.”
But you are not a child anymore. You are in control.
You have developed an awareness of the challenges that you are facing and have acknowledged that you need to take action.
You are learning to understand where your anger comes from. You have come to recognize that what happened to you in your childhood is not your fault and that you have been living with the lies of your guilt, resentfulness, sadness, loneliness, and anger for too long.
You are able to distill the information that you’ve been gathering through the stories and insights in this book and use it to your advantage. When you have this information, things start to change, and now you have a lot more information, or data, so let’s use it. Let’s use DATA.
DATA is a simple acronym that provides you with a tool to control anger: decide, ask, truth, act. It is a simple but powerful device to help you focus your feelings, thoughts, and actions whenever you are starting to feel overwhelmed with anger: DATA is a series of simple statements and questions you can ask yourself in the moment that will create space and allow you to look at the situation in a way that puts you in control. This is how it works: When you feel the emotion of anger, immediately . . .
· Decide what you’re feeling. Recognize and identify anger by asking, “What exactly am I feeling?”
· Ask yourself, “What else can I assume about the situation that is causing me to react this way? Could I be mistaken about the true intentions of the person who is making me angry? How would a stranger see it?” Remember, it can take up to six seconds for the rational brain to kick in; the first two steps will help you automatically take the time needed to rationally think through the situation.
· Remind yourself of the bigger truth: that you can use the energy of anger and intelligently redirect it toward the pursuit of your passion. You can control only the actions you take and the emotions you focus on. You can control only the meaning. Repeat this truth out loud.
· Act in a way that moves you closer to your full potential. By simply not acting in anger, you are unlearning what was learned. To simply not act in anger is a significant accomplishment.
From the Lie to the Truth
When someone threatens your sense of self, breaks the rules, or makes you feel not good enough, you can feel important and gain a sense of security by expressing your anger. Because anger gives you control and power, you can use it to let others to think twice about hurting you. You believe that anger is an effective way to solve problems and deal with conflict.
As a child growing up with domestic violence, you witnessed adults reacting in anger; children often mirror what they see. Unconsciously, you learned that such a response was normal. You often crave security, love, and being made to feel important because those needs were not met when you were young. So now, when you believe they aren’t being met, you use anger as a kind of payback, you teach others a lesson with your anger. You use it as a pain reliever. Anger sweeps away everything in its path, overwhelming all other feelings or thoughts and short-circuiting rational thinking.
I am passionate. I enjoy working on the things that will help me realize what I most want in life. I pursue my passions.
When I live passionately I take the actions that move me toward my full potential, free from what others think and free from judgment.
I realize that when a thought triggers a feeling of anger, there is great energy produced inside of me. I take control of this energy. Every time I feel overwhelmed with anger, I use DATA and apply it to the pursuit of my passions.
I understand that I cannot control the thoughts and actions of others. But I can exercise the ultimate control—control over the meaning of any situation—control over myself. I am in control of my thoughts and my feelings and my actions, and nothing is more powerful.
I choose to pursue my passions that move me closer to reaching my full potential.
Use DATA whenever a thought triggers a feeling of anger:
1. Decide what you’re feeling. Recognize and identify the feeling by asking, “What exactly am I feeling?”
2. Ask, “What else can I assume about the situation that is causing me to react this way? Could I be mistaken about the true intentions of the person who is making me angry?”
3. Remember the truth: that you can use the energy of anger and redirect it to the pursuit of your passion.
4. Act in a way that moves you closer to your full potential by taking that energy and applying it to your passions. By simply not acting in anger, you are unlearning what was learned. To simply not act in anger is a significant accomplishment.