The Unspoken Shame of Anger in Caregiving

The Unspoken Shame of Anger in Caregiving rosemary Rawlins Dec 2018

I remember jumping up and pacing around my house, the walls blurring by, the sound of boiling blood pulsing in my ears. I didn’t even know who or what I was angry at. Fate? Bad luck? The person who hit my husband with her car? The injuries that pinned him to a turning bed unable to move or speak? The doctor who could not promise me that my husband would get better?

Emotions can feel like living monsters inside of us, crammed up creatures clawing their way out of our chest, clogging our throats so we can’t express what we are feeling.

And after a family member sustains a TBI, moments slow down and stretch out in agonies of waiting for caregivers — expanses of time spent waiting when fight or flight needs to kick in.

Poet and writer David Whyte speaks of anger in a way I’ve never heard before — in a way that spoke to me. And for the first time, his description of anger alleviated some of the self-hatred I felt for any anger I may have directed at anyone as a caregiver.

He writes:

ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt.

What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding.1

“Our body’s incapacity to hold it.” Yes. My anger stemmed from my vulnerability and helplessness. I am fortunate that my parents taught me that it’s okay to feel angry but not okay to take my anger out on others. They gave me coping mechanisms: talk it out, write it out, go for a walk, but be careful what words you let fly out of your mouth because you cannot always take words back.

But what was I to do with ANGER this monstrous, this overwhelming? TBI takes all that is your life and erases or rearranges it. It’s a storm that flattens you. It’s not just an injury, but also an adjustment that can take decades or a lifetime to figure out, to accept. It’s a whole new stepping off point into a world you no longer recognize.

Whyte gives us a way of understanding our darkest emotions:

What we have named as anger on the surface is the violent outer response to our own inner powerlessness, a powerlessness connected to such a profound sense of rawness and care that it can find no proper outer body or identity or voice, or way of life to hold it. What we call anger is often simply the unwillingness to live the full measure of our fears or of our not knowing, in the face of our love for a wife, in the depth of our caring for a son, in our wanting the best, in the face of simply being alive and loving those with whom we live

Our anger breaks to the surface most often through our feeling there is something profoundly wrong with this powerlessness and vulnerability. … Anger in its pure state is the measure of the way we are implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics.1

As caregivers, we have every reason to feel anger sometimes — as irrational as it may seem — as unnatural as it may feel — as shameful as it may appear. We are human. We are fighting for the lives of our loved ones, and we’re fighting for the right to reclaim our own lives. But maybe understanding that anger is connected to love can help. We’re angry because we love, because we’ve lost something precious, our lives have been upended, our loved one has been hurt, and we are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild. This anger may be energy that can be put to good use once it is understood.

Seeking meaning in times of trauma dispels some of the trauma. David Whyte’s words have crystallized a measure of the guilt I have held over the years for anger unspoken that may have shown in my body language or actions. And for this, I’m grateful.

References: 1. Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means,


Comments (3)

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This essay literally brought me to tears. My entire life as I knew it has certainly been upended by my son's Severe TBI. It's now been 2-1/2 years, and it still feels completely overwhelming at times. The knowledge that it's going to be like this (or perhaps worse, but never better) for his lifetime is sometimes terrifying.

Thank you. This was helpful for those of us who have been on the receiving end of what seem like endless and mystifying anger for something we did not cause and are suffering from ourselves, from those we thought loved us. Even though we might have some awareness that this is a symptom of grief, it can be very hard to take. I would always have preferred honesty with kindness.

Good words about a difficult emotion. Thanks for the insight.