Everyone gets angry.
And most people have learned to hide their anger–often at great costs.
There is a LOT of baggage we carry around the emotion of anger.
These burdens come from our faith traditions, culture, family of origin, work, school, and inform your relationship with anger today.
We are constantly navigating the many rules of what is ok and what is not ok when it comes to expressing, let alone feeling anger.
In the process, anger can slowly start to consume us. Anger overwhelms and it feels like it owns us—even as we’re doing our best not to show it.
But contrary to what many of us have been taught, anger is an important and valuable emotion.
You can own your anger instead of your anger owning you.
To own your anger, you’ve got to trust yourself. You’ve got to be able to hang out with the anger you feel so you can identify where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to tell you.
My guest today is no stranger to rumbling with her anger and leaning on IFS to help her better lead her emotions and her responses to them. Sacha Mardou is a cartoonist, author of the graphic novel series, Sky in Stereo, and many webcomics about therapy.
Bringing readers with her on her therapy journey has changed everything for both Sacha and those of us who get to experience the profound impact of her work–making the world feel a little less lonely as we navigate the vulnerability of being human.
Content Alert: There is mention in this conversation of sexual assault. We do not go into detail but it is mentioned in reference to a family member of Sacha’s around the 27-minute mark. Take care and don’t push through if it is too much.
Scroll Down for the Full Episode Transcript:
Sacha Mardou: So how do you get angry when you never let yourself feel it, when it’s not okay to be angry. With anger, I was scared that it was a bottomless pit, so if I let myself get angry, there’d be no end to it, and then, you know, not knowing where it would lead. Then, I had this big fear of ruining everything.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Everyone gets angry, and most people have learned to hide their anger, often, at great costs. There’s a lot of baggage we carry around the emotion of anger. These burdens come from our faith traditions, culture, family of origin, work, school, and inform your relationship with anger today. Now, if you present male and white, your anger is more accepted, even celebrated. Otherwise, we are taught to hide our anger and shut it down when it arises in order to protect from being misunderstood and seen in a negative light. Toxic and degrading terms are used to describe women and women of color who dare to show their truth or their anger.
Contrary to what many of us have been taught, anger is an important and valuable emotion, but the backlash from feeling and expressing our anger is making us sick and tired. We are constantly navigating the many rules of what is okay and what is not okay when it comes to expressing, let alone feeling anger. In the process, anger can slowly start to consume us. When that anger overwhelms, it feels like it owns us, even as we’re doing our best not to show it, but you can own your anger instead of your anger owning you. You can respect its intent to inform and protect you, but to own your anger, you’ve got to trust yourself. You’ve gotta be able to hang out with the anger you feel so you can identify where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to tell you.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Anger is a powerful emotion that provides important data. It can take over like a rush of energy that consumes and overpowers. We all have our own experiences that influence our relationship with anger. Some of you may fear your anger or maybe you enjoy blending with your anger. Now, feeling your anger is one thing, but how you respond to it’s another. I, often, conflated the two, believing if I felt my anger, there was no stopgap, and I was gonna respond in ways I could not control, only furthering the legacy of toxic anger I was taught. I grew up in a home where anger exploded like a tsunami, taking out everything in its path. There was no restraint, and it was justified and blamed on others. The message was: “Don’t get me angry or else.” The consequences of activating anger in my family often left bruises and the burden of shame from public humiliation. I felt the impact of people offloading their anger onto me, and I’m still navigating the echoes of those experiences.
Growing up in a home where the anger was more toxic, I leaned into the aspect of my anger that was fueled by what I witnessed in the world around me. I loved a good debate and studied them on repeat. The energy around politics drew me in. I immersed myself in the stories of those who fought for social justice and channeled their pain into movements. I studied journalism and wordsmiths in undergrad, and my first job out of school was working in Washington D.C. for a senator. It felt cathartic to release my anger about the injustices and wrongs I saw in society. I believed it was a socially acceptable way to express anger until it wasn’t. [Laughs]
I started picking up the cues that expressing anger of any kind was not professional or ladylike (whatever the heck that means) or even welcome at all. Now, I wanted to belong. I also wanted to stand for what was right, but I noticed how people shrunk back and did not want to take sides when conflict arose, leaving me to feel more alone and, well, angry. I started to hate the parts of me that cared and felt deeply, and I was looking for role models (especially women) who navigated power, success, and conflict in ways that were not toxic. [Sighs] This search left me wanting for a long time, as all I saw were examples of fake it, hide it, or use anger as a power-over tool.
Now, when I went to graduate school and began studying the brain, the body, and emotions, I began to get a better understanding of the complexity of anger and the trauma caused by toxic anger. John Gottman, among others, identified anger as secondary emotion, asking us to look behind our anger to see what is fueling it. I think this is helpful in connecting the dots around your anger, but I, often, saw how we bypassed anger too quickly, missing the importance of witnessing and acknowledging anger before going into analyzing it or moving it aside. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp studied emotions and the brain and discovered that rage is one of the primary emotions humans feel. This rage was fueled by protection.
This research further supported my appreciation for anger and the desire to understand its purpose before vilifying it. I finally got a better handle on my own anger and the anger of others when I discovered Internal Family Systems, one of the key frameworks I use in both my clinical work and my leadership development work. Through IFS I could see anger on a deeper level and approach it with more compassion. I would own my anger and lead with it instead of letting it overpower me. I did the work to unburden the pain so I could do just that.
Now, if you’d like to learn more about IFS and other ways we can use it to better understand ourselves, check out my interviews with Richard Schwartz, founder of IFS or Frank Anderson who’s a serious lead trainer for IFS or even with Sunni Brown who’s a graphic artist and a level three trained IFS practitioner. Those are all great examples of how leaders are using this incredible model to heal and lead their emotions.
Now, my guest today is no stranger to rumbling with her anger and leaning on IFS to help her better lead her emotions and her responses to them. Sacha Mardou is a cartoonist, author of the graphic novel series Sky In Stereo, and many webcomics about therapy. Born in Manchester, England, Sacha now lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, daughter, and two cats. She has been making comics for 20 years, and after entering therapy when she turned 40, began drawing the healing process and eventually sharing them online. Bringing readers with her on her therapy journey has changed everything for both Sacha and those of us who get to experience the profound impact of her work, making the world feel a little less lonely as we navigate the vulnerability of being human.
Now, pay attention to the process Sacha went through in sharing her therapy experiences and personal sketches with the world. Notice how Sacha walks us through one of her comics where she rumbles with her anger towards herself and her mom. It’s a good one. [Laughs] Listen for how this process of sharing her traumas in difficult family experiences decreased the shame she felt because she spoke her shame. Now, I have a content alert for you. There is a mention in this conversation of sexual assault.
We did not go into detail, but it is mentioned and referenced to a family member of Sacha’s around the 27 minute mark. Take care, and don't push through if it’s too much. Now, please welcome Sacha to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Sacha, welcome to the show.
Sacha Mardou: Oh, thank you for having me.
Rebecca Ching: I’m so thrilled you made the time to connect. I first heard about you through the Internal Family Systems community, and I’ve been following your work and knew I had to have you on the show. I’d love to start talking about the time around you releasing your first graphic novel. You're an artist. It was also a time when you turned 40, and you had an awareness -- such as those milestone birthdays give us -- that things were a bit off in your life, and on the surface, you have shared that everything was good, but deeper down you knew things were brewing. So I’d love for you to walk us through what you were noticing and what was brought up for you.
Sacha Mardou: Sure, so, as you said, when I turned 40 in 2015 my first graphic novel came out. I did a movie project that year. I did comics for a film. It was a really landmark year in many ways. I’ve always been an anxious kind of person, and I figured that that was my genetic destiny ‘cause my mother is a very nervous, kind of, placating people-pleaser kind of person. My grandmother suffered from her nerves, and she spent the last years of her life withdrawn from people, and so, I’ve known that I’ve got this tendency in my family for anxiety, and I’d always kind of had it a bit, but as I turned 40, it was just increasing and increasing, and especially heading into 2016 with Donald Trump winning the election. I really felt that my anxiety was more than I could handle and, in addition to that, it was also giving me stress acne that just wasn't going away. I think had it not been for the acne, maybe I wouldn't have received therapy, but that was the turning point. I couldn't bear being covered in zits. So yeah, it was my skin to thank that I entered therapy, I think.
Rebecca Ching: What were your fears or judgements you had around therapy or even asking for help? What’s changed for you around that?
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm, well, I mean, you can tell I’m British, and in Britain we don't really have a tradition of seeking help. You go to the pub, you don't go to a therapist, you know?
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: And so, there was kind of a cultural prejudice holding me back for sure. Secondly, I just didn't really see how therapy would help. I didn't see how talking about my problems, or my imagined problems, with somebody for $150 an hour, I just did not see how that was gonna make a difference, but when I saw an acupuncturist for my skin, he connected the dots, so to speak, about the anxiety and everything else that was going on in my life, and he very gently recommended therapy to me. And so, it was on his recommendation that I found my therapist who I call Frank in my comics. It’s not his real name, but yeah, that was the journey for me, and just the fact that, you know, with Donald Trump winning the election, suddenly my anxiety was everywhere and there was, like, a whole social level of not knowing what was going to happen as well. I just felt like I couldn't continue pushing it all down. I really had to see if therapy would help. It was like my last shot, really.
Rebecca Ching: Tell me about, though, the inspiration of taking what you were experiencing in therapy and to the world.
Sacha Mardou: Okay, so, Rebecca, this was never the plan. I’ve always kind of kept sketch books and kind of kept a sketchbook diary of my life, and so, a lot of what was happening in therapy -- you know, I would get the train home as well, so on the train-journey home from therapy I would have my sketchbook with me, and I would write down all the things that I remembered my therapist saying and a list of what happened and came up for me. I would just kind of chronicle it that way, and then when we started doing IFS, cartooning was such a great tool to actually draw what was going on inside me so I could represent my parts as drawings, as figures, as images of me and using different colors and that kind of thing.
It really helped. It really helped organize what was happening in session and in my self work as well. It was a great way of recording that and kind of processing it. It really helped me understand it. It helped me understand the model as well, you know, just by seeing it in pictures.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, and I think this has helped so many other people, not only understand the IFS model, but to feel less alone, and to feel that common humanity of oh, I struggle with that, and just to see your inner-process of that it’s been such a gift. These comics have become so beloved by so many.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: How has that warm response to your work impacted you?
Sacha Mardou: Wow, it’s been really incredible. I didn't know what to expect when I shared the very first comics. You know, I mean, I had a lot of anxiety about sharing these comics, and I did it very gradually, but the response was actually really warm, and it was one of this was my story too. People tell me they felt seen, that they felt kind of understood, and it had an effect on me. I grew up feeling like I could never speak about my childhood, you know. It was something shameful to hide. So many people were telling me, you know, this is how I felt too, and it really made me feel like less of a freak, you know, for lack of a better word. So it really kind of gave me a feeling of being seen.
People would also tell me things, as well, that would help me go deeper with my work. I don’t want to get too specific, but I would get messages and comments from people, especially when I’ve shared some of the more stuff that came with a trigger warning, but people have messaged me and said, “This was me too, and this is exactly how I felt,” and it’s not even something from me, it’s something from a member of my family around me that I’m showing.
They were helping me understand the reaction of somebody else, helping you understand the behavior of someone else, and it sent me even deeper with my work. It’s kind of brought up things, and I’ve had to deal with those trailheads and actually pause, share my work, and do a little bit of work around it to really understand what was going on. I had a very complicated family dynamic, and allowing people to read it and see it has helped me grow in empathy towards the people involved in that story. It wasn't just about me. It became about my family’s story as well. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Isn’t that the truth, though, right? We exist in systems. You said a couple things that I want to circle back to briefly. The first was there was a lot of shame about sharing your story, especially a childhood story, and why would anyone want to hear about it, and the fear of people hearing about it. Tell me about the leap from even just getting to therapy, where you’d pushed that off for a while, to then sharing that. How did you navigate the shame and the fear around that since it was so strong?
Sacha Mardou: Oh, yeah, I kind of made more comics about it. It became this cycle of if something came up, and I was feeling very triggered, like, am I really gonna share this? People won't like me if they know this about me. Actually, when I did share it, the response was not the judgment I was fearing. It was empathy and warmth and understanding. So many good things came my way because of this work, but then I would actually share work about the fear of sharing the work, you know? So it’s kind of like a -- Dick Schwartz talks about all the parts of a garlic clove, and it’s like it is true. Each part is kind of surrounded by a cluster with the parts, and I just gradually removed that taboo from myself. I actually wrote myself a permission slip at one point saying, “I give myself permission to just draw this and explore it.”
In addition, I also got permission from family members before I shared stuff that involved them. But when it came to myself, giving myself permission to actually A. do this work and just draw it for myself, and then giving myself another permission like I can share this with the world, and I’m gonna be okay with it, you know? Or if I’m not gonna be okay with it, that’s another whole trailhead that I will do to be okay with it, you know?
It’s curiosity. There’s a cartoonist I’m thinking of, Robert Crumb. He’s from the ‘60s, and he’d draw these, you know, psychedelic comics, and he drew a lot of stuff about sex and sexuality. He really put himself out there. He drew things that just make me blush. I kind of think, you know, if Robert Crumb can draw that stuff about himself [Laughs] then I can draw about my childhood trauma. Why am I acting like these 30-year-old stories have to be locked away forever? It wasn't doing me any good, and in sharing them and drawing them and allowing the light to sort of see them, it’s kind of made me grow in a way, and it’s made my work grow. It’s made me a better artist and a bigger artist and a more empathetic person, and that is finding its way into my work.
So it’s been such a gift. You’ve said that my work is kind of like a gift to the world, but it’s been a gift to me because I’ve got this readership of healed and healing people who are really engaged and really care about what I’m making. I never thought I’d have that, you know? It’s amazing.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It is amazing. I’m so grateful for it ‘cause it’s so fun to share as a resource to people, also, to myself when I’m like oh, I needed to see that today. I feel less alone.
Sacha Mardou: Thank you.
Rebecca Ching: Now that your work has gotten some popularity, how do you navigate the parts of you that are very aware of others that are wanting to see your work? How do you make sure that you're drawing your story and not shifting to drawing for the audience? Does that make sense?
Sacha Mardou: It does. This was actually -- I had a whole conversation with my therapist about this back when I was in therapy, you know? I was very reluctant to be seen as the IFS cartoonist. I didn't want a label pinned to my work. It’s like why couldn't it just be about therapy, but IFS people are honing in on me. I had lots of resistant parts, you know? I got a really amazing comment last week. I had to take a break from sharing stuff about my dad. I realized there was a lot of unhealed feelings and things I was discovering about myself, and I was like I need some space around this work. I can’t keep sharing it to a weekly schedule. I just need to take a break. And so, I was honest with my readers. I try and post every Thursday. I just said, “You know, this week I just can't do it. I need some time to step back and just absorb all this stuff that’s really painful.” One of the comments on Facebook was like, “In taking this break, you're kind of showing us how to do the work.” [Laughs] I was like wow, thank you. That’s amazing.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, ‘cause I know a lot of leaders don't feel like they have permission to take breaks, to step back. I think, also, a lot of us who consume things, we feel entitled to things. And so, there’s just something about how you share your work, and you're modeling it with boundaries and intention and integrity that really is healing on a practical level, a literal level with your comics, but also your process. So thank you for sharing that.
The other thing I want to circle back to is you said you do the work, you work it through in a comic, and then give yourself space. You don't post it right away.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm. It depends. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Well, in some of the comics that I’ve read when I was prepping for our interview, there was sometimes a one to two year gap between when this was drawn and when this happened.
Sacha Mardou: Right. Right.
Rebecca Ching: You kind of illustrate when it happened. Talk a little bit more about your perspective as someone who is an artist and sharing things in the online space with the world with this sense of urgency, but this is, obviously, so personal.
I feel like that working-through-it-first-and-then-you-share boundary is so powerful and so forgotten sometimes. How did you come to that?
Sacha Mardou: So I didn't start therapy and immediately start trying this work. It took about a year of therapy before I even began sharing my very first comics. Actually, maybe more than a year. I started therapy in 2017. I think I posted my first therapy comment in 2019. So almost two years of therapy before I started sharing this work, and I kind of needed that time.
An answer to your question: I was watching an interview with Roxane Gay recently, and she also shares a lot of personal stuff, and she was talking about how the things she shares are things that she’s okay with sharing. There’s a whole world of stuff that people don’t have access to. She’s still a very private person, and that was really helpful to me to hear, you know? She was talking about how as women, especially, people do feel entitled to our story, you know, and setting boundaries for ourselves around that is super important. She’s absolutely right, and that’s what my therapist was very clear with me about as well, you know? I’m only sharing this stuff when I feel comfortable with it, and if I start to feel uncomfortable, I’ll take a break, you know? It’s nice that I can be honest with my readers and just say, “Yeah, this needs more work. This needs more time.”
You never really get there, you know? It’s not like I’m healed now and I can share everything.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: It’s a process, and I’m still working on it.
Rebecca Ching: I appreciate you saying that. I think there’s so much that is pushed out there that says we’re supposed to arrive and not be bothered, but if you dare to care and dare to love, you're gonna be vulnerable to hurt and heartache, and that’s part of the gig. It’s part of what we do.
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: You have a body of work that we’ve never seen, and that’s none of our business. [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: [Laughs] You know, just over in the corner there, I’m on sketchbook number 34 full of diary comics that I don’t think I’ll ever share. [Laughs] I don't know. They’d need re-drawing if I did share them anyway. But yeah, really, Brené Brown talks about this. I mean, her work is her life, and her life is a process, it’s ongoing. She’s still learning new things and sharing them with her audience. It comes from a very genuine place. She wants to do this work for herself. She wants to kind of understand herself and be more empathetic and run a company based on those values. I’ve learned so much from her and just her willingness to kind of keep being honest and keep saying I’ve not got it all figured out yet because, you know, who does?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and she was the one I first heard this from. I think it was one of the first trainings I had with her where she differentiated the difference between personal and private. That’s something I’ve held since I met her almost nine years ago is some things are just private, and they’re not for public consumption, but I’m gonna share things that are personal, and I’m gonna do that, and what’s the place I’m gonna share that from? In this very public world, this very consumer consuming versus creating, where we consume more than we create, that is such a powerful differentiation, and it always circles back to our values. Speaking of vulnerability, art in itself is very vulnerable to share, and you do it for a living and for your self-care. So any other key learnings that sharing this work publicly has taught you?
Sacha Mardou: That it can’t be the only work I do, and it isn't. I‘m also working on a graphic novel, and it’s such a different thing. It’s fictional characters. I’m having so much fun with it. We have to do stuff for fun as well for yourself. So yeah, that’s one takeaway from it. It can't just be healing. It’s kind of funny because while I was in therapy for, like, three years, all I read -- I was so fascinated by therapists, and I wanted to know all the things my therapist knew.
I just kind of fell in love with therapy, and so, he would suggest books for me to read, and I read Virginia Satir. I’m rereading her ‘cause she’s so fantastic.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, she’s amazing.
Sacha Mardou: She is, and you can really see this foundation of IFS in her work, you know? She talks about family systems, and Dick just took it inside. Dick Scwartz just took all that and did it in the inner world as well. It’s so incredible.
Rebecca Ching: It was a pioneer.
Sacha Mardou: She was.
Rebecca Ching: She hung out with all these dudes, all these white dudes, and she hung out with these folks who were pioneering systems and family therapy, and I have great respect for her and love that Dick Schwartz --
Sacha Mardou: I love her so much. I wish she was a best-seller. I want the world to rediscover Virginia Satir. But anyway, my point was, I spent three years just reading therapy books, and when I was kind of coming to the end of that journey with my therapist, I decided maybe I should read other things, like, maybe I should read some funny stuff, but I started getting from the library just autobiography after autobiography of comedians. I thought that would be a really nice change of pace, right, but it turned out every autobiography by a comedian I would read, they would have these hugely traumatic childhoods, and that was what prompted them to laugh and pursue comedy.
John Cleese’s biography, he actually married a therapist. [Laughs] It’s like I can’t get away from this. This is just my destiny. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Oh, you had me when reading autobiographies of comedians. I’m like oh. [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Did you experience any other kind of therapy before IFS? Did you go to a traditional talk-therapy therapist before?
Sacha Mardou: Oh, the therapist I draw mostly -- I had two therapists. Yeah, I started off with a guy (who I call Frank in the comics), and he does IFS but he also has many hats. He does talk therapy mainly, but he has a bunch of different skills. He’s very well versed in family therapy and we’d have good conversations about Virginia Satir and things like solution-focused therapy and NLP.
He would bring all these things in there, and he felt like a wizard to me. I would ask him, “How did you know to ask that,” and he would tell me, “Oh, it’s from solution-focused therapy,” and I would go and Google it. [Laughs]
So yeah, having talk therapy was super important as well.
Rebecca Ching: How do you differentiate traditional talk therapy from IFS in your experience? I know people would love to hear that.
Sacha Mardou: It’s kind of hard to say in a way, because I feel like, with my therapist, Frank, he would do talk therapy, but he would use parts language in that talk therapy, so it’s possible I’ve never had an experience of talk therapy that was completely divorced from IFS, like, parts work was always kind of in there. He would get me to speak for a part, you know, rather than from a part. Even in talk therapy, he would say, “You seem very blended with the part now.” So it’s like you're right, I need to kind of unblend from that and give myself a little space. So IFS was always kind of part of that talk therapy. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: What a powerful first experience --
Sacha Mardou: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: -- with therapy, and I love it.
Sacha Mardou: I’m so lucky. I’d got a great therapist the first time around.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] I want to focus on a comic that you wrote back in February of 2020. [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: Okay.
Rebecca Ching: Right before our world shifted. [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It was how the small stuff really triggered anger in you, and, especially for you, the trailhead was around your mom.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: That just really caught my eye because I hear that from so many people I work with, both clinically and in my leadership clients: “Why do these little things bug me,” and they get irritated at themselves, and so, I think many people can relate to being bothered that they're bothered [Laughs] by certain things
Sacha Mardou: Right. Right.
Rebecca Ching: Can you walk us through what happened with your mom in that episode -- in that episode, in that comic strip? [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: The comic I’m thinking about, is it the one where we’re in the supermarket together, and she’s overriding --
Rebecca Ching: You’re shopping.
Sacha Mardou: Okay, so it’s a comic about me and my daughter and my mom, and we’re in the supermarket together.
So I call her mom but she’s my mum because I’m British, but anyway, I’ve been in America too long. So anyway, my mother and I and my daughter who was, I think, nine at the time, we’re in the supermarket, and my daughter’s grabbing all the candy, and my mum is allowing it. She’s like, “I’ll buy you this, and I’ll get you this big bag of candy,” and completely overriding my parental limits, right? And so, I can feel myself getting really annoyed at my mum. She’s not respecting my parental limits. Because it’s not okay to be annoyed with her, I kind of find myself turning into this kind of cold, non-reactive version of myself where it’s like I’m not bothered by anything. I’m just cold and kind of calm and shut down, but I’m the grown-up in the room. This feeling follows me all the way through checking out the groceries.
Back in the car, I’m sat in the car with my daughter, and my mum is taking the shopping cart back to the corral, and i’m just talking to myself. I can feel myself getting really annoyed, and then I feel myself getting really cold and shut down with her, and I don't want to be like this. I want to have access to my heart and to be able to speak freely, and so, I just did a little bit of work with that cold, computing part of myself. Like, could you please step back? That part said, “I can't because your anger is like a bottomless pit.” It was like oh, is that how I really feel, because I don't think it’s true. I don't think my anger is this bottomless pit; I think I’m just a bit pissed off, a bit annoyed. That is the case. The better part of me, I want to protect my kid, and my mum’s trying to be a generous grandmother, and as soon as I could recognize it’s okay, it’s just these parts of me that have taken over, I don't have to identify with the story they're telling me -- once I could do that, it’s like I can breathe again, you know? It’s like okay, I’ve recognized the story I’m telling myself, and I’m just dropping it.
I think at the end of that comic I quote Pema Shödrön, who’s another amazing teacher. “To feel the feelings and drop the story,” I think is the quote. Yeah, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Exactly. Thank you for sharing that. In that process, though, is work. It’s sometimes some heavy lifting there, and you noted in the little highlight of the comic, “I get so tired of these internal battles,” like another part of you is like, “Ugh, another internal battle!” I think that’s also something I commonly hear from people, too.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: Can you talk a little bit more about your rumble with internal battles and how you’ve come to peace with looking in versus ugh, something else that’s noisy within?
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, I can pick an example of that.
Rebecca Ching: Great.
Sacha Mardou: It’s kind of a dark example, but I think it’s worth talking about because I think it’s kind of a gender thing as well. So, I mean, it’s circling back to anger and how I grew up with my mom, and she’s a Jehovah’s Witness, so she’s a very strict Christian, and in her world view, it’s not okay to be angry. And so, I grew up in a house where no one would ever yell at each other, but there were all these feelings under the surface, you know? People would get annoyed at each other all the time, but we can’t ever express it, you know?
And so, when I started my second therapist -- I call her Sally in the work that I do. I went to a female IFS therapist after about 18 months into the process, and we did purely IFS together for, like, nine months. I kind of told her that I had a dream about my mum and I was just so angry at her, like, furious like I’ve never been in my real life. She was like, “Oh, that’s great! Let’s work with this.” And so, we did a lot of work about anger together, and I kind of Googled anger because I didn't really understand it. All the resources I would get -- like, anger in therapy is how not to be angry. I was like well, no, how do you get angry when you never let yourself feel it, when it’s not okay to be angry?
And so, I actually ended up accessing my anger in therapy, and it was such a powerful protective, cleansing force. This is nothing to be scared of; this is a natural part of me that kind of protects me from danger.
And so I’d, for years, thought of anger as, like, just it’s not okay to be angry, not realizing that anger serves a purpose in emergencies. No one ever taught me that, you know, how to go to therapy to work that out. So yeah, yeah --
Rebecca Ching: I think the topic -- go ahead.
Sacha Mardou: A misunderstood emotion that I was never educated in, you know?
Rebecca Ching: It is, and it’s, I think particularly for women, whether it's, it’s not okay to be angry, and if you show it -- what were the fears that you had if anger came up? What were the fears according to this rule that you were living by that if you did show it, what was at stake? If you did show your anger, what did you, at least, believe was at stake?
Sacha Mardou: I’m not even sure I got that far. With anger, I was scared that it was a bottomless pit, so if I let myself get angry, there’d be no end to it. So that was one fear.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, and then, you know, not knowing where it would lead, and then I had this big fear of ruining everything, you know? Especially with my mother. She lives in England. I live in America. I have not seen throughout the pandemic, and when we did get to see each other, it was these two-week vacations, and I feel like if I let myself get angry, I’m just gonna ruin the whole vacation. That’s her airfare wasted. This is unlimited time together, wasted. So, you know, you push your anger away, and what do you have? It’s like you have I’m not gonna be real with anybody instead. And so, it’s not really a great trade off.
If I could just, you know, acknowledge my anger. I don't have to go with it. I don't have to yell at anyone, I just need to sort of get quiet for a minute. It’s like okay, I feel really annoyed. I can be with it, and that’s okay. Then when I come back out it’s like okay, it’s anger acknowledged, but I’ve not lashed out to anybody. I’ve not smacked anybody. Everything’s fine, but, you know, just acknowledging the truth, it’s like that situation made me feel a bit angry, you know? It’s okay.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and I think we still have a lot of polarities around anger too, like, don't be too angry, you know, and don't show it, especially around gender too.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Especially presenting as female it’s, you know, don’t, that’s not okay. Then we let a lot pass for those who present as male, but that energy is a little bit more -- there’s more permission around that, and so, so many women that I’ve worked with over the years have just suppressed that anger and kept that small.
Sacha Mardou: Mm, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It’s taken a toll on their health, their physical health, their emotional health, and their relational health.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So, for you, when anger shows up, it is just a bit of a Y-O-U turn, the YOU turn, and acknowledging it. What happens to the anger when you acknowledge it?
Sacha Mardou: What happens to my anger when I acknowledge it? You know, I feel kind of present with myself. It’s like it’s okay. That was a situation that not everything was correct in it. Again, I mean, I have a story that I actually had in comics that does get very dark, and if you're comfortable with sharing it, I can --
Rebecca Ching: Oh, yes.
Sacha Mardou: Okay, so when I finally let myself get angry in therapy -- I wasn't angry at my therapist, just the anger was present and we worked with it together through IFS, and it actually involves my mother. When my mother was 13 she was sexually attacked by a family member, and when I was 13 in real life, my mother kind of stopped parenting me, that’s how it felt, you know? She stopped doing my laundry. She stopped making meals for me. I had to really look after myself, and she was out at work working really long hours. I felt, as a 13-year-old, that she didn't really want to be around me, and that came up in therapy. It was very difficult, but I really felt so much anger towards my mother’s attacker. I should, right? My mum had told me that she’d been raped, and I’d used, as a way to understand her, like oh, well that’s why she’s so religious, right? That’s why she became a Christian when she was a teenager. I’d never actually let myself engage with it and feel the feelings surrounding that. Like, how did it feel that that happened to my mother?
I was the mother of a daughter at this point, and I was just so furious and so angry at her abuser. That anger was so good to feel, it was so right to feel, and it was very healing, you know, because that guy who did that to her, he didn't just hurt her, he hurt her daughter, he hurt me as well. And so, it was this legacy bird, and a couple of things were happening. It was me acknowledging my anger towards my mother that went back to when I was a teenager, right, because I felt like she neglected me, but then it went so much deeper because there was a story behind it. It’s a really heavy thing to share, and thank you for letting me share it. It’s something I write about in my comics, and this kind of thing happens in our world so much, and these legacy burdens are kicked down the road.
Part of the reason I wanted to write about it and part of the reason I got permission from my mum to talk about this stuff and to write about this stuff is because it’s surrounded in some shame that we never do talk about it, and these traumatic experiences that just get kicked on down the road to the next generation and the next, you know? Until we can talk about it, we won’t be able to heal it, you know? It’s like if you can’t say what hurts, you can’t heal it, right? So I was finally able to say what hurt, and there was a lot of healing to be had there, and it’s changed everything. It’s changed my relationship to my mother. We have such a great relationship now. We’re such different people, but we’re also so similar in so many ways, and it’s such a generous thing that she’s letting me share this very personal private thing of hers, but what a healing thing. What a gift, you know?
Unfortunately, one in three women is gonna be, at some point in their life, a victim of sexual violence, you know? This happens in our world, and it really is a taboo I want to break because healing is possible, and I found it, and that’s why I kind of make this work, you know?
There’s a bigger impetus to it. I want people to know that there is another side to it, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that, and even modeling that you got permission to share the story, from your mom’s part of the story. I think it’s so important -- and a lot of leaders sometimes are like oh, that’s too much, that’s not professional, that’s not about work, but circling back even to the anger, when we’re dealing with our own anger even in our work zone, or the anger of others, it’s rooted to something, and if we don't have compassion and respect for righteous anger --
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: Right?
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Even though it might be connected to things and we label it as unprofessional or not mature or not emotionally mature and all these different labels that we pathologize or shame, we can have compassion. It doesn't mean we don't have boundaries around these things.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm. Right.
Rebecca Ching: But we can, then, hold space for hard conversations, for boundaries to be set, and on a personal and professional level but mostly personal level, to be healed. Like you said, if we can't speak the shame, it can’t be healed. It just can’t.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm. Right.
Rebecca Ching: And so, the stigma around this, I’m with you, because my 18 years of clinical work focused on trauma has shown me this.
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: People spending so much time trying to show the world “I’m fine,” --
Sacha Mardou: Right, right.
Rebecca Ching: -- but slowly dying inside, and so this -- go ahead.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, and we also keep having these public reckonings. The Me Too movement was a public reckoning. Really triggering for me, it kind of brought a lot of stuff up for me. It brought things up for my coworkers at the time, and, you know, the people who are not trauma informed and not sensitive would have opinions about Christine Blasey Ford, and for somebody who’s been through that themselves, hearing just some guy up the street give their opinion on this woman being a liar, I wanted to say to him, “How does that feel,” you know?
So because we keep having these public reckonings, I think it’s really important that we sort of start to have a language to talk about these things. You know, IFS is such an incredible gift because you can really start to sort of speak for those parts of you without being completely enmeshed in the feelings, you know? It’s such a wonderful tool, and something that people really need because these public reckonings are gonna keep happening, you know? They’re not going anywhere.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, someone I work with is based in Minneapolis which is where I grew up, actually, and in the recording of this just this week, we had the verdict on the murder of George Floyd. What this person shared is their boss let them end work a couple hours early so they could, collectively at work, watch the verdict and connect with each other and go home if they needed to or just have space to connect. I thought that is such a beautiful example of trauma-informed leadership, right?
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: It wasn't about unpacking this -- obviously, they're at the epicenter, and the energy back home in my home state was palpable. It was across the country, but at the epicenter of this horrible crime, and just to see that that was given the space and that offered more connection and community instead of just brushing by saying that’s not a work thing.
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And so, as these public reckonings, like you’d so wisely said, will continue to happen, how do we want to handle -- and if we’re not comfortable with anger or any other emotions that we’ve deemed difficult or bad, it’s only gonna further cause pain towards ourselves and those in our personal and professional lives. So thank you for sharing that.
Sacha Mardou: Well, thank you. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: You know, I’m curious for you, how does working through your emotions through your art help you better lead yourself?
Sacha Mardou: It is an amazing organizational tool.
Now, I used to work in libraries, and so, I’m an organized person by nature, but when it came to my emotions, they felt like such a tangle, you know? Until I found therapy and IFS where I’d actually be able to start naming some of this stuff and seeing them as parts of myself. Such a helpful way of organizing what’s going on inside when it feels like a mess. Similarly, when I draw, it kind of untangles me, you know? It’s a very calming thing to do, for one. You’re connecting your hand and your eye and your heart, you know?
Brené Brown has this great thing about you know all this work we do? How do we make it real? How do we bring it down to our hearts? She said through creativity. I think she’s spot on. Yeah, it’s a meditative thing, drawing, and when that can sort of represent what’s going on inside me, suddenly, I look back and it’s like oh, I’ve got a map of where I’ve been, and when I look back at my body of work it’s like I do, I have a map of all the work I’ve done. I’ve had points where I felt really low and I’ve just looked back at some of my old comics, and they’ve really given me a boost like I needed to read that for myself today, I needed to remember that, you know?
It’s an incredible tool, and I feel like when I’ve drawn something, I really understand it then. Like, it really makes sense to me, you know?
Rebecca Ching: I love that quote you reference from Brené Brown. “We have to move through things from our head to our heart to our hands.” The energy has to move out, and for you, it’s through comics. For others it may be drawing or journaling, music, and sometimes it’s just moving their bodies. It could be through dance or, for me, it’s often just a good workout.
Sacha Mardou: Right, right.
Rebecca Ching: I have to just go into a really hard -- but there’s something to be said about using our hands in a different way, a non-verbal way that is really deeply connected to how we can best lead ourselves and to healing.
Sacha Mardou: It also connected to childhood as well. I mean, you know, all children draw. I think, about the age of eight we stop drawing because we’re told by teachers, “You can draw, and you're not very good,” you know?
And so, it’s something that a lot of people let go of, and I’m fortunate that I never let go of that, you know? I’ve always kept drawing, and it really does. It connects you -- I mean, if you look at picture books, you know? It’s how we make sense of the world at a very early age. Comics are not so different to that, you know? I just make work for grown-ups, not for children ‘cause I’m making work for myself, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it is amazing how much we have had creativity shut down.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: It’s like there’s these rules that that’s a kid thing and that’s a grown-up thing, versus, we’ve really lost touch with play and creativity for sure, and we need to reclaim that for our own health and leadership.
Sacha Mardou: Definitely. Though, for those people listening to this that are on Facebook, there is actually an IFS Parts group, Parts Arts group, so it’s for people who want to draw or represent their parts somehow, and it’s not just drawing. There’s people making things out of sculpture and clay and all kinds of visual representations of their inner systems, and it’s such an incredible group. It’s very worth checking out.
Rebecca Ching: I’m gonna make sure to put that in the show notes. I just heard about that the other day. I’m like no way!
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, I was there right at the beginning. Now, it’s, like, over a thousand people so it’s really a vibrant group. It’s wonderful.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, so that’s powerful. So were you part of one of the founders of this group?
Sacha Mardou: I think I was just an early invitee.
Rebecca Ching: An early doctor.
Sacha Mardou: I know Seth Kopald who kind of founded it. He’s a good friend now through IFS, so yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Such a big part of IFS, too, is creativity. It’s one of the attributes of self-leadership.
Sacha Mardou: Right, right.
Rebecca Ching: That creativity isn't just external expression, sometimes it’s just being creative how we connect with our system, and sometimes using art or some aspect of creativity is essential.
Sacha Mardou: That’s a really good point, and I often kind of overlook that C of -- you know, I’m trying to remember the eight C’s for myself. Creativity is always the one I could never remember.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: [Laughs] It’s like what’s the last one? Oh, it’s creativity! Yeah, that’s right. I am so connected to creativity when I draw and make comics about my work. I feel like it is getting more self-managing to my system so yeah, I’m very fortunate.
Rebecca Ching: It’s definitely grounding. Neuroscience and so much studies have shown that head, heart, hand integration is really powerful just to being present. It’s hard to be present these days, and there’s a lot going on.
You mentioned earlier that you’re not from The States. You're from The UK, and you now live in the Midwest or the South. I guess it depends on who you talk to. In Minnesota we considered Missouri the Midwest, but I guess Missouri considers it the South.
Sacha Mardou: We consider ourselves the Midwest, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, just checking. I’d love for you to share what it’s been like for you living in The U.S. as we navigate so much culturally and politically.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm. That’s a good question. One thing about living in The U.S. is that it kind of makes me see my own culture differently. Having that space kind of makes me -- especially because my husband’s American, and we watch a lot of British shows together, and it’s like trying to understand my country from a distance in order to sort of tell him about it. It’s funny because America quite loves British culture and likes to watch The Crown. I had everybody asking me did I watch The Crown. It’s like, no, and then I finally did watch it and I could see what everyone was so obsessed by. It’s like oh, this is really good.
You know, the way Meghan Markle was treated by the American press and how she is treated by the British press back home, that raised a lot of trailheads for me just as a random example about how women are treated, even princesses, right? But if you try and define your own role, you're gonna get slapped down publicly. I was like oh, wow, that’s something I’ve internalized, you know? I’m starting to be successful with my comics, and I’m kind of waiting for this little cosmic slapdown or public slapdown that hasn’t come yet, but, you know, it happened to Meghan Markle, it happened to Princess Di. It’s gonna come for me soon, and it’s like wow, I’ve really internalized that, and I had no idea.
It was only living in America that I’ve seen the difference between how two countries respond to somebody. It’s shown me things like that. So it teaches me things about myself.
More broadly speaking, living in America has made me -- it’s really made me face some things that I thought were not my problem right? That’s been quite the trailhead. One of the things I’ve been looking at is my family history. I had an aunt who died a couple of years ago, and she was very much into genealogy, and she’d give me lots of birth certificates and documentation about our family. She kind of passed it on to me, you know? This connects, I promise.
So thinking about how right now we’re really having a public discourse about Black Lives Matter. I’ve been reading Resmaa Menakem My Grandmother’s Hands, and I’ve been reading it really slowly because there’s exercises to work through.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, you need to.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, and so, one of the exercises he asks white people to do in that book is to actually look at your own ancestry and sort of see what kind of white legacy burdens you’re kind of bringing. It was really interesting. When I sat with this exercise, I kind of had this realization that my great-great-grandfather, he worked in a textile factory in Wakefield in Yorkshire. And so, dealing with cotton from America and jute from India. So, you know, globalization, even in the end of the 1800s, right? There are photographs of the factory he worked in online, and the photographs from Wakefield Museum, they show lots of child laborers working alongside fully-grown men, so boys of eight, and I began to realize well, this is my grandfather, too, and my great-great-grandfather, too. Why would he be the exception? Of course, he was a child laborer as well. He was from a poor family.
And so, this is in my history. The fact that I came from a society that would put eight-year-olds to work in textile factories.
We all know that’s not right, and I’m sure my grandfather knew that was not right, but it was how the world was. Right now, we’re dealing with this legacy of slavery. It’s the same. It was so connected. I can’t help but see the connection of the oppressed white people who were living under this system that would put children to work. Of course, that same system would enslave Black people. It didn't care. The system didn't care, and it really is the intersection of class and race, and it’s alive in me. I’ve got Black friends who are dealing with the legacy of slavery. It’s very complicated, and it’s also alive in all of us. We’re all dealing with these legacy burdens. I think Resmaa Menakem is so wise to get people to recognize their European roots of being kind of oppressed people and also oppressors because people would migrate over here and stand by and let lynchings happen, that kind of thing. This is all in our history, and it all really needs reckoning with, you know? It needs acknowledging.
Rebecca Ching: I think that’s really powerful, ‘cause one of the common deflections of a protective response is often said, “Well, that was then. I’m didn't do that back then, so I’m not responsible today so don't hold me responsible,” but this piece of legacy burdens that we do carry on, these generational burdens, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re carrying that in our stories and in our lives, in our bodies, and that impacts how we show up in our families, in our work, it impacts what we value, it impacts how we do or don’t humanize people.
Sacha Mardou: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Even history.
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: What you said stood out to me. I lived overseas for about four years, and dang, that was -- one of the biggest takeaways of that time -- obviously, an exciting time learning about other cultures and being immersed in another culture -- I lived in Switzerland, so it was amazing -- but also was seeing my country in a way that I never had before too.
To have that perspective and go oh, and to see how the world saw my country and my culture.
Sacha Mardou: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And to reckon with that was hard and important and has impacted me immensely. So getting out of our culture offers such an important perspective for sure.
Sacha Mardou: Yeah, it’s like you probably weren’t seen as an American until you moved to Switzerland, and I wasn't really seen as a British person until I moved to America, you know? You kind of become that a little bit.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and the assumptions folks had about what I believed and what I valued and what they valued about my culture. It was interesting. It was so -- and this is such a big country.
Sacha Mardou: Right, right.
Rebecca Ching: There are so many nuances to The States, but it was important. It was an important lesson and rumble for me at that season of my life, so I’m grateful to have had it. I appreciate you bringing that up. To have that perspective on our history, on our story that, maybe, sometimes we don't have that unless we step out of it and look in. It’s important.
Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and follow your work? How can people find you and connect?
Sacha Mardou: I have a website which is www.ifscomics.com. That’s H-T-T-P-S I-F-S comics dot com. I’m on social media. I’m on Instagram and Facebook. I think it’s @mardoudraws on Instagram and @sachamardou on Facebook. You can just Google me as well, Mardou Comics. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Sacha Mardou: Plenty will come up.
Rebecca Ching: Wonderful. We’ll make sure to have all of that in the show notes. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for showing up, not just here today, but the way that you do online. The world is a little braver, a little more calm, and a little more connected because of you daring to show up and share your heart and your journey, so thank you very much.
Sacha Mardou: Oh, that’s such a lovely thing to say. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Rebecca Ching: Identifying and expressing righteous anger offers us powerful data. Now, when it goes undetected and unexpressed it turns toxic, making us sick, physically, emotionally, relationally. Now, this is true for most of our difficult emotional experiences, but anger is particularly tricky. Owning and expressing our anger has been weighed down by systems and messaging that have complicated how we show up in our work and life and also how we heal. We want to bypass it, stop it, deny it, which only fuels our anger more.
Sacha walked us through a comic she drew demonstrating how she uses IFS to identify and befriend her anger. She shows us how we can witness our pain, inner conflicts, and process healing in a way that destigmatizes anger and other struggles with emotions, yet impact our mental wellbeing. The common humanity around what Sacha illustrated gives courage to us all.
Now, what’s your relationship with the emotion of anger, and how do you feel about showing your anger? What messages and experiences keep you from befriending your anger and instead hiding it or denying it? Now, remember, anger is not your enemy. It’s a relationship and response to it that can take us out. Do the work to befriend and lead your anger, and notice the impact you have on your own personal wellbeing along with those around you.
Leading is hard, and leading is also controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries, especially when anger shows up. Now, navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence and clarity and calm. You do not mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex, polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.
Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned.
When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources along with ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com. If this episode was impactful to you, please leave a review and share it with someone who you think will benefit from it. Thank you so much.