This is How Positive Change Happens…
How do you feel about getting angry? If you’re like many of my clients, you might believe there’s something wrong with you for feeling angry.
You might even think something bad or dangerous will happen if you let yourself acknowledge and experience your anger. I get it. I’ve been there myself.
There’s this common belief that anger is just a “negative” emotion. But I don’t buy it. Anger is one of our primary emotions. It’s impossible to live without feeling anger. A lot of experiences in life naturally evoke anger in us.
Like the rest of our emotions, anger serves a purpose. If we let it, anger can mobilize us to take adaptive action, like standing up for ourselves and for each other.
But when we refuse to acknowledge and experience our anger, then anger cannot do its job.
One client tells me, “I have a hard time standing up for myself and being assertive.”
Another shares, “I’m afraid of my anger.”
You’ve probably noticed that anger gets a bad rap. These inner struggles with anger are painful, burdensome, and destructive. It’s the emotion we freak out about most.
When we feel anger coming up, we tend to unconsciously fire a bunch of “defenses” rather than being honest about feeling angry. “Defenses” are therapy-talk for things like:
• Getting anxious or afraid when we’re not in objective danger
• Going into a depressed state by turning our anger inwards
• Defending against our anger by putting up a wall, distancing ourselves, shutting down, pretending we don’t feel angry
• Judging ourselves mercilessly, criticizing and attacking ourselves
• Numbing out
• Intellectualizing, getting theoretical and abstract
Just like other emotions, anger is triggered by some experience we’re having in the present and/or remembering about our past. It rises up like waves in the ocean, just another emotion like sadness or love.
Yet, we make such a big deal about anger. Here’s some of what I hear people say just because they might be feeling angry:
“I shouldn’t feel angry about this.”
“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be more calm?”
“I need to just let go of my anger.”
“I feel angry towards _____________. I know I should be more compassionate towards them. They’ve had a hard life. I should be more grateful for all they’ve done for me.”
“I don’t feel angry … just a little irritated or annoyed.”
“It’s unreasonable for me to feel angry about that.”
“I just need some strategies to manage my anger.”
“I’m really just angry at myself.”
“I don’t want to feel angry. I want to be happy.”
Do you see what a hard time we give ourselves just because we feel anger? We have little tolerance for anger. We often don’t even let ourselves feel it. Instead, we suppress it and judge it or lash out at someone to try to get rid of it quickly.
This is our great loss, because when we meet our anger with intolerance, we cannot use it to improve our lives. Suppressed anger can’t perform its vital function of mobilizing us to assert ourselves.
Anger itself is not a destructive force. What is destructive is anger that has been suppressed or discharged quickly and aggressively because of this lack of tolerance. This is an important difference.
I’ll say it again: our anger helps us to assert ourselves and our healthy boundaries. It helps us raise our hand and say “Stop” or “No” or “That’s enough.”
A client once said to me, “ I get it, I’ve been trying to set healthy boundaries without feeling my anger.” They realized their anger had been trying to help all long. No need to work so hard. Their anger was already providing the solution to a painful interaction: “Stop. Enough. That’s not okay with me.” No big analysis or discussion required.
It turns out that anger doesn’t require any special treatment or protocol.
As ISTDP (Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy, an evidence-based therapy) couples therapist Marvin Skorman puts it:
After all, emotions are how we connect with one another. Emotional intimacy is simply being aware of and being able to put into words what you are thinking and feeling. Anger should not be the exception. It is just as intimate to say, “I am angry at you,” as it is to say, “I love you.”
Once we recognize that anger itself is not the problem, we can choose to work on the real problem: giving ourselves, and each other, such a hard time when we feel anger that we prevent it from doing its job.
And, what is anger’s job? To move us to make positive changes in our lives.
Day to day, this can be as simple as giving ourselves permission to express our true emotions to our loved ones, for example:
“I feel mad when you [show up late, or other specific behaviour].”
Life becomes easier when we let ourselves feel our anger.
Let me repeat this unfamiliar message:
The direct expression of our anger is not destructive. Suppression is. Lashing out is.
Sharing our anger directly is another powerful way we can use our anger to improve our lives because it brings us closer.
In response to someone courageously and intimately expressing their anger, we can say,
“It makes sense that makes you feel mad. Thank you for telling me.”
A couple I worked with recently allowed themselves to have an experience like this. It was truly beautiful to witness. Because they shared their anger directly and received it openly, they softened and slowed down. They joined hands and tears filled their eyes. They felt closer, they felt love.
I believe we’re all capable of this.
I’m going home to my partner today determined to share my love when I feel love and my anger when I feel anger. It’s damn hard sometimes. Most of the time. And it’s so worth it. Because intimacy is what I long for.
Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) Immersive Training, August 2017 with Dr. Thomas Brod and Dr. Nat Kuhn.
Thank you to Marial Shea for helping me write this article.
* this article originally appeared in HuffPost: