Learning to Understand Anger
The philosopher Socrates suggested that an un-examined life is not worth living; I agree. Without introspection, without challenging your own beliefs in the face of contradicting evidence, you are trapped into living an unconscious existence, victim to your own interpretations, based on limited information.
The Risks of Avoiding the Signals of Anger
So from one who has had the privilege of “contemplating my own navel” with the help of some good professionals through the years, I understand where my fear of anger comes from. It was clearly defined from when I was five years old. My parents fought a great deal, and my mother “threw my father out.” So I somehow took in the message that if I or she were angry, she would throw me out as well. I strove to be the perfect daughter and never allowed myself to feel anything but loving.
This is where my lifelong addiction to empathy was born. I rationalized the reasons people might have done things that were hurtful or wrong, so that I could continue to love them and not be upset. This led to horrible choices of people I loved in my life – always excusing their behaviors because I understood where they came from. Not smart. Not healthy.
My son was a little boy when his father – from whom I was divorced – once chastised him for being angry. My son was charged with writing one hundred times, “I will never be angry. I will never be angry.” Do you really think that worked for him? It didn’t. His suppressed anger to please his father was unhealthy.
A Startling Discovery for Me
When I finally came face to face with allowing myself the feeling of anger (someone was being physically violent to me), I went to see my former therapist. He was pleased that the violence provoked anger in me. He said it was healthy when something in my gut signaled me that I needed to protect myself. I told him I’d rather feel the spiritual peace of loving everyone – all the time. He emphasized that was not healthy for me or for the other person. He said I had a responsibility to honor myself while the other person needed to be taught to respect boundaries. When some awareness went off inside me, I needed to say “That’s not okay. I deserve better.” Honoring myself might also serve as something helpful for the person to think about. My silence through the years was actually a form of collusion with the perpetrator of the nasty words or deeds.
I still struggle with not rationalizing away someone’s behavior, and at the same time, I do stand up for myself. I do it lovingly, knowing that I have no way of knowing how someone else really feels, nor their hurts and wounds from their own life that have caused them to react the way they have.
Being self respecting and being respectful of someone else’s reactions allows for healthy interchange. I tell my therapy clients “Come from your heart with your truth.” If you do, most reasonable people will listen and perhaps think things over from a different perspective.
Styles of Anger
People who rage react with a violent attack – physically or with ugly words. Perhaps they grew up in a home where that is what they lived. Then there are those who stuff their feelings and stonewall, withdrawing from the other person and not giving the other person any possibility for connection or opportunity to be heard about how they feel about the issue. Silence is deadly painful, leaving the other person lonely and feeling controlled. The passive/aggressive style of anger is to be mean in an indirect way – withholding affection, sabotaging something important to the other person.
People who had no outlet to express themselves as kids often have not mastered a way to express themselves effectively as adults. Children who were victims and have deeply internalized their anger, often live with shame, blaming themselves and then projecting their self-hate onto others. There is a price to pay when we are not respectfully heard and when we do not offer the same to others.
Our Bodies Suffer
Everything we do has an effect on our bodies. Freud prophesied, one day we would recognize the mind and the body as interactive. We have embraced that theory today. Brain science demonstrates a clear correlation. So, when one is full of rage, adrenaline, cortisol, chemicals flood the body (so that one can fight, or flee, or remain frozen.) Our hearts pump faster, arteries are flooded, etc. Unexpressed anger, stuffing your feelings, can lead to depression and anxiety which can contribute to heart disease. It’s worth a look at the literature to see what we do to our bodies when we live without opportunity or choice of expression.
Understanding your style of coping with anger can empower you with ways to address your right to your feelings, so that you canforge a path to mutual respect and mutual understanding. There is nothing wrong with ultimately agreeing to disagree when people’s personal identity is left intact. Everyone benefits by being heard.
Discover your issues around the subject of anger. Define your anger style and then alter it in a way that will serve as protection to your own body as well as your integrity. Then learn ways to express yourself so that you preserve the other person’s dignity and right to their feelings and thoughts.
As a clinician, I see the damage that both expressed and unexpressed anger can cause to people, their relationships with partners, children, family, friends, co-workers… Once you have given yourself permission and accept the privilege that Socrates suggested, speak with someone to help you sort out your anger style, do the core work to diminish the stored anger over the years, and learn alternative ways of responding. You will open your life to more peace – and your body to homeostasis. You will be promoting a healthy body and enhancing the quality of all your relationships. Healthy anger is a good thing.
Stay tuned for Part 2