A ‘bad’ emotion
Of all the emotions branded as ‘negative’ in our society, anger probably occupies the position of chief villain. It should be banished, silenced, banned, locked behind the bars. Being angry is equal to being ‘bad.’ If your child shouts in anger in a public place, you freeze in fear that people may think you are a bad parent because your child cannot behave. Then, to shift that sense of blame and shame, you tell your child that he or she is a ‘bad boy’ or ‘bad girl.’ And thus the vicious circle goes on.
From early on we are taught to ‘behave,’ to be ‘proper’ in order to be socially acceptable and to fit into society – at all levels (family, school, work place, etc). As children we are usually reprimanded for expressing anger by being told off or punished in some way. Our parents’ facial expression changes and they speak in a harsh tone of voice. The message we take in is that our parents will withdraw their love when we are angry. So we learn to associate being angry with being bad or unlovable.
The fear of anger
Intense anger if unleashed can be very destructive, and we have an instinctive fear of its annihilating potential. Young children feel threatened on a visceral level when they are shouted at or hear their parents having a loud, angry argument. People who grew up with violent parents often develop deep-seated fear of anger, not only when coming from others, but also from within themselves. They suppress their feelings of anger and do everything to avoid provoking angry responses. As a result they run the risk of becoming ‘people-pleasers’ and subject to abusive relationships.
The problem with anger though is that it is a highly charged emotion that cannot be easily subdued. When we bottle it up, it continues seeking its way out, disrupting our life and wellbeing. It may seep out in small doses in the form of constant nagging, complaining, or being grumpy and unhappy about everything. Or, if denied this outlet, it will sooner or later explode (turning against others) or implode (turning against one’s self) causing great harm and grief.
Fear is the attitude that governs our relationship with anger. Fear, however, is not a wise advisor as it prevents us from attempting to understand the thing or person we fear. And it is through understanding, I believe, that we can transform our relationships from destructive into constructive and productive.
So today I would like to invite you to suspend your judgment and together, from a safe distance, take a fresh look at anger and the ways of engaging with it.
Anger is a secondary emotion
What I discovered from working with anger in myself and in other people is that anger is a secondary emotion. Secondary in the sense that it always arises in response to some other emotion, usually some kind of hurt or distress. I had a long conversation about it with one of my clients and, as she told me later, she went home after the session determined to find an example of anger not arising from a hurt. I always appreciate when my clients challenge me and test my propositions against their own experiences. If a hypothesis survives this scrutiny we may consider it as a valid working hypothesis until proved otherwise. In this case my client turned over in her head a whole throng of instances when she felt angry and found behind each of them an underlying sense of hurt or distress.
What is useful about this realization and how it can help you deal with your anger without lashing out at others or at yourself?
As you probably know from your own experience, anger is quite a troublesome emotion. It throbs, burns and pokes us from inside. Now, instead of trying to suppress it, listen to what it is trying to tell you. Consider it as a herald clamoring for attention and demanding justice. We have been wronged! And our hurt needs to be acknowledged. You may be surprised, but as soon as the hurt is acknowledged the herald of anger lowers its blazing trumpet as it knows that we are dealing with the wrong.
Don’t believe it? Try it for yourself! Take a mundane example and think about what may be the underlying distress causing your anger. Let’s say your teenage son keeps throwing his dirty clothes on the floor instead of putting them in the laundry basket. In what way does it upset you? Is it your sense of order that is being offended? Or perhaps you are feeling helpless and out of control? Think about it and you will notice that your anger arises in response to these feelings.
Acknowledging the hurt is the first step in dealing with anger and this will usually help lower its intensity. When we start addressing the hurt on a deeper level and healing the old wounds, our anger subsides even further and eventually transforms – into compassion, a desire to change, and a desire to help others. It becomes a motivational force rather than a disturbing and destructive force.
Anger is a power
Contrary to the commonly-held perception of anger as negative, I believe that anger is neither good nor bad. It is a power, a super-charged energy. Similar to nuclear energy. Can we say that nuclear energy is bad? No, it all depends on how we use it and to what end.
Slavery wouldn’t have been abolished if people who fought against it hadn’t felt angry, because their sense of justice and fairness had been deeply disturbed. So they used this fuelling energy to address the wounds of the society and change what they felt was wrong.
I also like comparing anger to a genii that for hundreds of years was trapped in a bottle, seething there and vowing to destroy his captors and the whole world together with them if he ever got a chance. Imagine that you now open the bottle and liberate this raging spirit. He has a potential to devastate the world, but if you know how to talk to him it will make your wishes come true!
Learning how to harness the power of anger can transform your life and the lives of others.
And in order to do this we need to remember the following steps:
- Release your fear of anger;
- Acknowledge your anger;
- Acknowledge the underlying hurt behind your anger;
- Address the hurt and heal the wound.
The protective function of anger
Sometimes when I work with people on anger they come to a point when their anger is greatly diminished yet they are not ready to let go of it completely. When we enquire into the reasons for retaining their anger they often say: “I need it as a reminder, to protect me from falling again into the same trap/making the same mistake/getting hurt in a similar way.”
This is perfectly fine. It is not our aim to get rid of anger entirely. What we want to do is to establish a trusting, cooperative relationship with it. If you feel that you need to keep some of your anger to protect you – follow your gut feeling. And when you feel strong and confident enough to go on without his protection, you can thank the genii and release him from his service.