Swallowing the Shame-Anger Pill

In a bat-shit-crazy Port Melbourne sharehouse, I lasted 3 months. The final faux pas was when Wayne, one of my housemates, opened my mail two weeks in a row, ‘accidentally’, with no apologies to spare.

Living in that house did more damage than I care to admit. A defiant voice in my head cries, “Don’t let one idiot derail you!” I even just watched an episode of Jane the Virgin where the lead character turns to her grandmother after a particularly painful rejection and emphatically chides, “Don’t let a boy ruin your future!” But the truth is that that’s exactly what I felt was happening.

My goal in that house was to practice compassion and to process my anger when it came to housemates Cameron and Wayne. I managed some of it (and even started a Newsletter Exclusive called A Racist, A Sexist & A Writer Walk Into A Bar as a self-reflective practice), but while I was under that roof, I couldn’t conquer those two goals.

When friends and colleagues were growling “Wayne’s a dick!” for playing metal music loudly in the living room on the first night I sat down at my new study table (also in the living room), lying about the real monthly rent of the house, and ultimately refusing to return my bond (“we were never friends, so why should I make things ‘easy’ for you”), I knew it couldn’t be that simple. My last ex, August, was very defensive, and my sister, Ally, can swing that way too.

A helpful Soul Session between Brene Brown and Oprah reminded me that people aren’t inherently evil or assholes. These behaviours can often be choices they make because of a past or a present they can’t process very well. I agreed with an episode from Red Table Talk too, where Will Smith said, “People who have pain spread pain.” I tried to reason with Wayne’s passive and outward aggression, defensiveness and cruelty by remembering what I knew Ally and August had gone through. August, perpetually uncomfortable in his own skin with no stable family or friendship circle to speak of, felt he was winning only when he was whittling me down to the marrow. I don’t condone it, but I get it. He needed to feel he was in control in whatever small way he could. And my sister? Well, she grew up with the same mum I did. Ammi tried her very best to do right by us, but I think she was irate about unresolved issues with her dad. She didn’t have any support dealing with her past, so most of our childhood was spent enduring her fits of rage or trying desperately to dodge them. Whenever my sister feels vulnerable, she starts yelling, before there is a real threat and even when there isn’t. Why wouldn’t she? My mum’s outbursts were frequent and unpredictable. I now live with a perpetual buzzing of anxiety under my nerves after walking on eggshells every day as a child, while my sister adapted by always being ready for a fight. Couldn’t Wayne’s story could be similar?

In my first evening in our house, Wayne started our first conversation by saying

“Hi. How are you? People who believe in God are stupid”, which I now understand was his way of trying to provoke me into an argument. (I’m Buddhist, so, it just went straight over my head.) As part of his bizarre conversation starter (which quickly escalated into a one-way diatribe), he mentioned he had grown up in a strict Catholic Family with immigrant parents who didn’t know a lot of English. In that moment, I was too perplexed about why the conversation had contorted into an aggressive insistence that religion was intellectually beneath him (it was a really weird night, TCK TOWN readers!) to see any connections. Confused by his limited viewpoint, all I could say was, “Er, okay? I don’t believe in God either, so if that’s what you think, sure?” but later I realised he had admitted that he was a TCK too. Having edited TCK TOWN for two and a half years now, having dated a very, very troubled TCK who was battling with his cultural identity, and through living TCK experiences myself, I could imagine that his past had made him this odd, awkward and uncomfortable rageaholic.

Did the kids in school tease him about his accent when he moved here, the same as they did me when I transferred to Tasmania in Grade 6? As a working adult in Melbourne, who dresses like other men his age and even sounds like them, does he still feel like he doesn’t belong, like I used to do? I now know my un-belonging is a gift of freedom (“You only are free when you realise you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”–Maya Angelou), but I also know many TCKs suffer from feeling this same displacement. Maybe his pain and discomfort were why he was so aggressive, though I still can’t understand why he picked me as a target right from my first night there and not our other housemate.

Honestly, he didn’t really have any friends, and that couldn’t have helped with whatever misery he might have been going through. Most weekends and evenings, he was upstairs in his room alone or smoking weed on the balcony at home with Cameron, our other housemate, who didn’t have much of a social life either.

What really saddens me was that, in the end, the TCK difficulties we might have shared were not substantial enough for me to overcome my anger and communicate so that living in that house was comfortable between us. After realising smirking derisively at me and arguing back aggressively was his standard reaction when I tried to reach out, instead of wanting to get to know him better, I shut down and spent more time in my bedroom, away from the common areas. At that point, it was too difficult to feel compassionate about someone who was clearly trying to make my stay uncomfortable and painful.

I was also alarmed at the mountainous amount of rage I was feeling. I couldn't really understand why I was experiencing this level of anger towards Wayne, when I’d never entertained many heavy negative feelings at all until that point. Then I moved out, started reading Brene Brown’s work on shame, anger and human connection, and stumbled upon the golden egg that is clarity.

Without spoiling it for you (please read her books, or check out her TED talk!), among many revelations, she writes about how anger is deeply rooted in shame. It took me a while to connect with this idea. What the hell did I have to be ashamed about? Wayne was the idiot throwing inexplicable tantrums around our house like an overgrown and under-developed man-child.

After some serious digging, I figured out what my shame trigger was. Wayne acting out every time I tried to talk about what was important to me made me feel that my opinions weren’t worth anything. I had experienced exactly the same thing living with my sister a few years earlier, where expressing my opinion mostly lead to explosive arguments and serious stonewalling. The dynamic between August and me was similar, to the point I was scared to say anything that might contract him incase he started screaming (but since I always chose to tell the truth for the sake of our relationship, I was constantly being yelled at). 4 years living with August, 8ish months living with my sister and 3 living with Wayne and that shame and lack of self-worth had bubbled into a protective, damaging rage, that as a previously non-angry person, felt like a viscous poison my organs were drowning in.

Figuring out my shame trigger was the beginning of my journey to recovery. Now that I know where my shame-anger comes from, I know how to address it. The first thing I do is give my voice another chance by telling the person who is invalidating my opinion that they are actually really hurting my feelings.

I have a cousin who, unfortunately, sends extremely sexist memes to a Whatsapp group that I’m a part of. My sister and I have frequently tried to explain why they are offensive, but it’s starting to look like he posts them to provoke us into an argument. After my experience with violent August, I have a very real understanding of how imbalanced gender roles can be dangerous to women, so it is a sensitive topic. Said cousin sent another post last night and that same shame of mine bared its fangs in fury. I found that the best way to respond was with a private message:

Hey look, I'm really not coming from an angry place here, or one that's aggressive. I think we both grew up in different cultures and at different times, so I totally don't believe we're going to agree on feminism and gender and all that stuff… But can you stop with posts like that?

I know you're not deliberately trying to be upsetting, but stuff like that actually hurts my feelings, and I thought, maybe if you knew, you might stop? Is that cool? :)

It was the truth. As hurtful as he was being, I had no idea what his real intentions were, so I decided to assume the best and be upfront and compassionate (like Oprah and Brene Brown said, no one is ever inherently an asshole). Honestly, in response, I was disappointed that he never made any apologies for his behaviour, and he repeatedly asked that I justify why I felt this way when I had made it clear I didn’t want to explain myself. It felt like he was still being quite insensitive even though I was being as honest and as compassionate as I could be, given the tough subject matter. I thought hard about what needs of mine still weren’t being met and replied with:

Yeah, I totally get that you're trying to understand things. It's just that how I feel about feminism/gender is difficult and heavy to explain, so I don't want to get into all of that. What I guess I need from you, and am hoping for here, is that you understand this sort of thing hurts my feelings, and hopefully, even though you don't have the whole story, that is a meaningful enough reason for you to stop?

Basically, although of course, you can feel however you want about this, I'm hoping it's like "okay, I don't really get Ava's feminism/gender stuff... and she's not explaining it either which isn't helpful... but it's clearly making her feel sad, and I don't want to do that to her, so I'm just going to leave this alone for her sake."

I only got an emoji thumbs up as a reply, but I will take that as a win. I felt like I gave my voice a real chance, so much so that his, frankly, lame response didn’t diminish the conversation—nor did it diminish me. I haven’t often been that articulate and honest about how someone’s actions were affecting me, and, although it was alarming and scary asking for help from the very person who was causing the problem, I discovered it is ultimately empowering (and a huge relief!!) to speak my truth.
Another sure fire way to fight shame-anger? According to Brene Brown, it’s to own and share your shame stories, no matter how hard or embarrassing they might be. She advises that you make sure you find a person/audience you trust when you do this, and after almost three years of putting my heart down in type, I feel so very comfortable leaving these experiences with all of you. So here I am, shallowing the shame-anger pill with this article, and feeling it slip slide down my throat, warm like honey.

*Ammi - mother in Sinhala