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John Lee on Anger

An Interview

Copyright © 1993, 1997 by Bert H. Hoff

This story appeared in the December, 1993 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


At the Mendocino conference John Lee, author of The Flying Boy,(order on-line) At My Fatherís Wedding,(order on-line) and now Facing the Fire: Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately,(order on-line) led us in an exercise on releasing anger. We then crossed over a bridge and emerged at a campfire where we did a ritual to let go of our grief. The next day, John and I leaned on the rail of a bridge over a swift creek winding through the redwoods, and chatted about the importance of anger work.

John Lee,

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Bert: Maybe we should begin by talking about you, and your own journey of self- compassion and love and anger.

John: Well, to try to keep it focused a little, I would say that my first book, The Flying Boy, was the story of how I came to all of this stuff. Every book after that has been a further explanation of the theme. All the kernels of my work on compassion, self-love, anger, grief are in The Flying Boy, but it's done in a narrative. I couldn't feel. People told me I was very angry all the time, but I was always so nice. It was kind of confusing. I was numb. I had been reading Jung and Campbell for twenty years. When I ran across Bly, in 1981, everything just coalesced in a way that it never had before. I stayed with that for several years, reading everything I could get my hands on. I was teaching mythology, religion, and literature anyway, so there was a direct compatibility there.

In 1985, the woman I was with left me. When she did, I dropped down into my feelings, my pain and my wounds in a way that was absolutely necessary. This was a catalyst. At that point I realized that despite the Jungian material, all the psychology and the fairy tales, I still had not gotten down into my body. That's when I broke out and said, "I've got to get my body back. I've got to feel my feelings. I've got to go into my pain in a way other than just purely for the intellect."

I started doing body work of all kinds; Gestalt therapy, movement therapy, Rolfing, Shiatsu, dance therapy. I was trying to move down into my body and release a lot of the pain. I also noticed around that same time that there was a component to this work that was not being addressed as directly as grief was, and that was anger. Men, particularly, have both grief and anger, but not a lot is being said about anger. I certainly wasn't saying anything about it because I was scared to death of it. I had to go into that, I knew, because I was just too scared. The abusive home that I came from, the kind of home that nearly all people come from, somehow conveys to children that their anger is going to cause pain. You're going to be shamed, whipped, blamed, sent to your room, demeaned, preached to, or something. People are going to withdraw from you.

I was scared to death of it, and I knew that my inability to feel and communicate my anger was as devastating on my relationships and my life as my inability to feel and express my grief. I began exploring everything I could, and I started going into my own stuff. Then, somehow or other, I realized that I had two very viable keys to Men's Work: recovery and anger work. The field that I entered in 1986 because of my own need to do so, was recovery and the twelve step programs. I did Adult Children of Alcoholics, AlAnon, Co-dependents Anonymous, and I realized that they have omitted the anger component, too. There were workshops on grief, but no one was doing the anger and release work that I do now. I knew that was where I had to go professionally. To make a long story short, the anger work is now a piece of recovery. A lot of therapists do it more than they did before. Therapists come to my workshop on how to do physical expression of anger in a way that is appropriate and safe. Men doing Men's Work seem to be picking up on it more and more as time goes by.

Bert: What is interesting to me is that you're tying this anger to the body. You described yourself in your presentation here at Mendocino as a one hundred ninety pound head. So if I am not fully in touch with my body, and there's that anger there that I am not admitting, how can I be aware that I need to be doing body work with my anger? What are the signs?

John: Well, one is that when someone says something, and your adrenaline rushes, your stomach tenses up, your palms get sweaty, and you can't sit in your seat, it's almost always going to be about your history. Because there is nobody in the present that can make your body do that, no matter what they say. If you're in an argument with your lover, and he or she says something that you're just going nuts over, you can almost always bet it has something to do with your history. If you don't learn to recognize this and to take the steps necessary to deal with that, then you're almost always going to be trying to work out your history with some present person who can't figure out what in the hell is going on with you. Why are you so upset? Why are you acting so crazy right now? That person has to learn to deal with a lot of unknowns, that you're dealing with too, but they're even less equipped to deal with it than you are. It really has an impact on relationships.

Another area of impact it has is on our thinking. Most people live up in their heads all the time, trying to solve all problems from the neck up. If your body is filled with past rage and anger that is sometimes a day old, or ten days old, or decades old, then your thinking is not as clear. When your body is cleared out of repressed rage, your thinking improves immeasurably.

Bert: Because I am afraid to express anger, I wonít say anything. I let things build up over several days or weeks. Then some completely trivial incident will come up, and I'll make a complete ass of myself.

John: You explode. There will be some little thing that creates this small hole, and out rushes all these dark beings, accusations, judgments and criticism. You realize youíre trying to get decades out of this one little encounter. "What's been going on?" "Nothing. I'm just really angry about this one!" Well, now, you've been really angry about the last ten and you can't hold it in any longer. You've turned your valve on and you're going to try to let off those last ten in this one encounter. It always does damage.

What most adult children from dysfunctional families have is a very long response time to their feelings. They had a feeling on July 13th, 1993. It finally hits them on July 20th, 2007. When it does, someone is going to get hit by that feeling, either verbally or physically. Once you clear your body out of more and more grief and anger, disappointment and frustration, then there is more room for current feelings to be felt and expressed.

Bert: You describe that small hole through which all the anger flows out as the same small hole through which all the grief flows out when she leaves you.

John: Your partner leaves and, boy, your world stops, you can't eat and you just feel like dying. That departure created a hole where the memories, feelings and pain of all your past losses and departures never felt, start rushing through. What most men tend to do then is try to get that lover to come back so the pain will stop. Or they'll go get another lover real quick to make the pain stop. Or, instead of going into the pain, grieving it, getting angry about the losses and emptying it out, they'll throw themselves into work or other addictive processes until the hole seals up.

Bert: Yesterday we did a ritual of going through anger and then moving across the bridge to move into grief, and let go of the grief. What is the connection between anger and grief?

John: There is a very intimate connection. Fire and Water always go together. That's why, at a gathering, when you dip into anger, a few minutes later you're crying or weeping, and a few minutes later you're back to anger again. In some ways the anger work I teach is a very active and outward kind of expression. The grief is usually gentler and not as "out there" as the anger is. They're so intertwined you really can't do one without the other. But in this culture, grief seems to be just slightly more acceptable, even for men. Some people say, "That's not true. Men can get angry." I say that's not true. Men can get enraged, and the culture gives them permission to do that. But the culture does not give them permission, nor the tools or the skills, to get angry appropriately, any more than it does women.

Bert: What is the difference between anger and rage, and how do I know which I'm feeling?

John: Rage is the accumulation of angers, abuses, injustices, that have been stored in the body over and over again, and then finally erupts. It is usually psychologically, physically, or spiritually violent and abusive. All parties walk away feeling diminished, demeaned and demoralized. Anger is an energy in the body. Itís no more negative than joy, sadness, or ecstasy. It is to be felt and experienced every time it comes up, just like joy. But because of the things we've been told about anger, we don't do that. The anger then stores up into rage.

You can always tell when anger is expressed appropriately, because people will feel closer, relieved, and more connected. Very often they will even have more energy. The two are very, very different. The person walks away going, "Gosh, that isn't so bad, I'm glad you told me what you told me. I hear you." And both parties are energized. Rage is almost always depleting and debilitating.

Bert: You talked yesterday about the intellectual and spiritual bypasses we use. Could you elaborate on that a little?

John: There are two main ones. One is the intellectual bypass and the other is the spiritual bypass. The intellectual bypass, in a nutshell, is when men say, "I should be able to figure this out. I'm an educated man. What's the matter with me, going into such a Ďbaseí emotion?" Psychologists even tell us anger is a "negative" emotion, which is not true. And so, "If I can figure this out, read enough books, do enough cerebral work, then I shouldn't have to feel this emotion that is so Ďprimitiveí and Ďunsophisticated.í".

The spiritual bypass is taken by people who believe that anger is one of the "seven deadly sins." Therefore I should be able to pray it away, meditate it away, forgive it away, white light it away. Whatever I have to do to make it go away.

Both of those people are essentially saying the same thing. They say what all people who grew up in a family where anger equaled pain say. "I don't want to deal with it. I don't want to feel it. I don't want to activate it. Because I'm scared of it. So what I have to do is come up with a way to bypass it." People bounce back and forth between those two groups.

Another bypass is, "Well, I know it's not too anti-spiritual to do it, and I know I need to do it, but I'm just too scared to do it." And that's just enough reason and excuse not to do it. The intellectual says, "It's not necessary," and the spiritual person says, "It's a sin." The scared one says, "I'm scared to." So, the three of them will walk off together and kill each other! Because I'm scared, I'm going to kill you first. The intellectual might just cut you down verbally, so that you can't walk. The spiritual one will probably make you feel so bad about yourself that you'll end up feeling cut down as a sinner.

Bert: Or kill for the sake of righteousness?

John: That's right. Some of the most dangerous people are angry religious people. Like the fellow who killed the physician in Pensacola last year for performing abortions. Angry, enraged, crazy, but there were many, many angry religious people, who thought the doctor had it coming. And said so publicly.

Bert: That's scary. So if all of this anger then wants to come out, and we use one of these bypasses, it sinks back into the body.

John: Before I did this work I had to constantly have Rolaids in my pocket. I always had indigestion, heartburn, headaches. I couldn't sleep. I was using drugs and alcohol addictively, sometimes just to get to sleep. Since this great expulsion period in my life happened, years ago, I haven't had a Rolaids in my mouth. And damn few headaches. Anger will wreak havoc on the body and soul, and on your relationship to your children, your wife, and your friends. And if you still have tremendous anger at your father in your body, when you're around a father figure you'll project that onto him. It's not fair to that person.

Bert: One of the things that has come out here, and also in our local Wisdom Council, is that we've always felt free to go out and express our anger at father, yet some say that mother is sacrosanct and we will not express anger or rage at mother.

John: That's right. It's so complex. Part of it is that if I know I've got to get some anger out at my father, I'll get it out. As a little boy I know that if he leaves my mind, my body, or my life, I won't die. If I get angry at my mother, and she left too, I'd die. There are many men with little boys in them, who are still afraid to say what they need to say, and feel what they need to feel, about the lack of, or style of, mothering that they received. By holding on to that anger, they are actually continuing a connection, as dysfunctional as it is, to the mother. Meanwhile, their body is so full of this mother that there is no room for them to access or create from the feminine or mother within.

Criticizing mother has been taboo for so long. In most cultures you reserve the insult about the mother, until nothing else works! That's how far down the line she is.

I'm doing Mother work in my own life, I've got another book coming out next year, called Stepping Into the Mystery: Flying Boy Comes to Earth. It's the final book of the Flying Boy trilogy. In it I explain how I had to do this Mother work. I did a little bit of it years ago, but I only touched the top of the iceberg. As I saw that I had to do this work, I realized all over the country there were men saying, "I've done Father work, when is someone going to write about the mothers?" It just so happens that Bly and many others have been thinking about the Mother lately. Michael Gurian has a new book coming out next year, titled Mothers, Sons & Lovers. It's going to be a really wonderful book. I recommend it highly.

So, collectively, it's bubbling up. The Mother is a bit scary, but it is absolutely necessary to work on, because it will positively affect your relationship to women. The more you embrace the feminine, the more you embrace the Mother inside you, the more you're able to learn how to mother yourself and the less you need women to do it. But a man who can't confront and express the feelings that he has about his mother will remain a son to most women in some way.

John: One of the ways to do this, that I talk about this in the book, is to conceptualize and deal with the "ghost" mother. This is not the mother of 1993 that youíre dealing with. If you met that woman now, and she said what she says when you get with her, it would not send you into orbit. It reminds you of how she sent you into orbit when you were five or six, and how you had to fly away from mama, just to have a little peace of mind, just to get her off your back and out of your space. You get angry at the ghost mother of 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Thereís nothing damaging in that.

As a matter of fact, I can promise that if a manís mother or father is still alive, and they get the anger out at the ghost mother or father, when they get with the old man or old woman in Seattle or Tampa that they call father or mother, the chances of having a healthier, more vibrant, more in-the-moment kind of a relationship increases ten-fold. Iím not saying itís going to happen, Iím just saying that the possibility increases. If you bring those 40 years of baggage home for Christmas, the chances of your being any other way than the way youíve always been is almost zero.

Bert: What I hear you saying goes along two themes. Onaje Benjamin, the African- American social activist and mental health worker here at Mendocino told us that therapists in court- ordered anger-management classes were not supposed to encourage participants to express anger. And women are asking us what are we doing to stop domestic violence and rape. What are your views on that?

John: To keep it in the context of this interview, I would say that when men carry the rage at the ghost mother in them, and itís buried in their bones, their throats, their backs, their fists, they will say and do things that are unconscionable to all people, but most assuredly to women.

I also think that the menís movement has not gone as deeply into the mother issues as we are now probably ready to do. We have also, consequently, not explored the feminine as deeply as we are now prepared to do. I believe that the more we deal with the mother issues and our lack of mothering, or smothering mothers, the more comfortable we will be with bringing out the feminine at these conferences, to explore and to heal it. That will be communicated in both verbal and non-verbal ways to the women of the world. The women will say, "Ah, theyíre including us, even as they go out into the woods alone! Theyíre healing that part of themselves, and when they come back to us, theyíre different." Because the feminine is coming into these events more and more, just like at this Mendocino conference, more than would have been true a few years back.

Bert: You also mentioned all the books about anger that keep on talking about anger not being a primary emotion, and therapists all over the country telling men and women to get to what is beneath the anger.

John: It's like saying, "What's beneath the joy, go ahead and go for what's underneath it. What's underneath that happiness? Don't feel that happiness now." The thing about anger being a secondary emotion is an intellectual bypass. It's something that folks have concocted to avoid having to deal with it. It sounds so good, "Whew, oh good, OK, I don't really have to deal with it!" Relegating it to secondary emotion status just gives us more permission to not deal with it. Labeling anger a secondary emotion really comes from the fear of dealing with it.

Most therapists have only been taught what their teachers knew. I've had a tremendous amount of interest over the last few years in my training program for counselors. It teaches them how to deal with anger in these physically expressive ways. These ways work really well for men, because men need to go into their bodies and release it. But women love it equally as well. More and more therapists are saying, "I never was taught this. We were taught that it was a secondary emotion."

Those therapist were also taught that depression is a feeling. Thatís not true. People will come into therapy, and the therapist will ask, "How are you feeling?" They'll say, "I feel depressed." The therapist will say, "Oh, well I'm sorry you feel that way."

Wait a minute. Time out. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that depression is the inability to feel, the lack of feeling. And that is what causes the psychological state where the head takes over and numbs out the body completely. Then we're in this depressed state, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades. If you really get clear with that person, what they will say is, "I haven't felt a thing all week. I've been too busy, I've been working too hard, I've been eating too much, I've been drinking too much," or "I haven't felt anything since I was a child!" Years ago, I was depressed 85% of the week -- on a good week! I just thought well, this is the state of humankind and I'm not much different from the rest of these depressed people, so it's not big deal. On a bad week it was 95% of the time. Now, on a good week it's less than 10%, and on a bad week it's 30%, and that might be because of eating incorrect food or water, or some other external influence.

Bert: I had a psychiatric internship, and they said there that depression is anger directed inward.

John: Thatís a good statement. Itís the result of anger directed inward. When you ask many people who are depressed, and many people in general, who are they most angry at, 99 out of 100 will say "Me. Iím angry at me." I come back and say, "Man, weíve got to deal with how much a waste of time that is. They reply, "What do you mean, waste of time? I should be angry at me. I just got a divorce, Iím not a very good father." I go, "Tell me how wonderful a father you had." They go, "I didnít have a wonderful father." "Tell me how wonderful a marriage your mom and dad had." "Well, they were divorced by the time I was six." "Tell me how youíre supposed to know how to be a wonderful father, and how youíre supposed to know how to do intimacy in a relationship." Because you learn 85% of everything you need to know and are supposed to know before the age of five. So those are your primary models, showing you how to be this way. The real anger should be directed to the people who showed you, or didnít show you, how to live this life. How to be in relationship to your children. But to just direct it back to yourself is equivalent to, saying, "I came into the world, and I should know how to do this." Well, that just ainít true! You came into the world, but you didnít know how to do this until people told you. And look at what theyíve been teaching you. Get angry at that, and take responsibility for going into your anger about that. Then the next responsible step is to commit to an ongoing process of increasing your body of knowledge, information, tools and support to help you do relationships, or to be a better husband, parent, teacher or whatever.

Bert: Between the time the people read this interview and the time they rush out and buy your book, what are the things you would like them to do to learn how to handle their anger?

John: I have been telling people, something that I have never said in my professional life before. Every once in a while, Iíll say, "Well, yeah, if you get around to it, maybe read The Flying Boy. Maybe itíll help you in your relationship." Iím not doing that with the anger book. Iím saying that after you read this interview, go get the anger book, sit down and read it. Read it with your partner. Read it with your children. This is a book that I believe in with all my heart.

Itís not that I didnít believe in The Flying Boy with all my heart, but it was just my story, even if it did very well in recovery and menís communities. If it connects with you, fine, thatís great. My anger book is a tool that we need, I believe, very desperately. It will guide you step by step, on how to deal with the fear of anger, how to work it out in safe and responsible ways, and how to be angry with your children, your employees and your wife, in a way that works. Most people are so scared of anger, either theirs or somebody elseís. But there arenít a whole lot of resources out there to help a person get started, that I know of, except this book.

People are going to accuse me, for the first time, of being self-serving and commercializing my work. Iíve done that before, but not like Iím doing now. Itís because I believe in it thoroughly, in a way that I never have before. Weíve got to stop this anger inside ourselves. The way I feel about it is that this book is my gift to the community. Iím asking people to pass this book on as fast as they can to everybody, and to use it on an ongoing basis. Thatís why I wrote it. I want people to say, "My 13 year old son is mad at me. Letís go get the book, and see what we can do to get this out. I want this anger out of his body. I donít want it to stay in his body as long as it stayed in mine."

Chances are thereís not much you can do until you get firmly convinced that anger is not going to equal pain. At my workshops, and when we finished the exercise here at Mendocino yesterday, there were a lot of men who said, maybe for the first time in their lives, "Hey, not only does anger not have to cause pain, but I feel better that Iíve felt in years!" Until a man or woman is convinced of that, thereís not much they can do. Maybe reading my book will help that. Maybe getting with a group of folks who will work with this book as a tool, a workbook. Until people are convinced that they are safe enough to try risking and trusting that maybe it doesnít have to cause pain, they probably wonít do much of anything. Thatís what this book and my workshops are for, to say "Come on in and just trust." Because anger expressed appropriately will equal energy, intimacy, and serenity. Weíve got to get to the appropriate expression of anger soon, or else child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse, racism, and all the things we are using to let our anger leak out are going to kill us.

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Related stories:

Facing the Fire, A review of John Lee's book.

Men, Love and Betrayal, an interview with John Amodeo.

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