“I have as much rage as you have
I have as much pain as you do
I’ve lived as much hell as you have
and I’ve kept mine bubbling under for you”
– Alanis Morissette
Anger is an emotion just like any other e.g. fear (worry, anxiety), sadness, joy, or disgust. We should therefore be entitled to feel and express our anger just like we would express our fears or our happiness. But take a moment to think about your experiences with anger.
How do you feel about your anger? How do you express anger? Have there been times when you’ve wanted to express anger but felt stifled? Or has someone actually explicitly told you that expressing anger is wrong?
When I work with parents using the Circle of Security method I ask them to write down these five emotions: curiosity, joy, sadness, fear, anger, and shame. Then I ask them to draw a circle like what you see below. I ask them to place each emotion outside or inside the circle depending on whether their parents or caregivers were able to tolerate, accept and be with these emotions when they expressed them. I teach them the concept of being with which is a term used to describe what psychologists refer to as attunement.
Attunement is achieved when a parent is able to tune into the emotions of the child and stays with the child’s experience without pushing the child to feel differently.
What’s interesting about this exercise is that every parent responds differently. Some had parents who were amazingly accepting of their sadness and shame but struggled with their fear; while others were great with joy and curiosity but could not tolerate or sooth the sadness and shame. Interestingly, the one emotion that 9 out of 10 people’s families struggled with is anger.
I think we struggle with anger because we are afraid of the behavioural manifestations of anger. There is a big difference between a parent who does not allow actual violence and a parent who responds to a child’s anger as though it is violent. Parents need to have firm boundaries and it makes a child feel safe to have limits set on their unacceptable behaviour. The problem comes in when the parent limits the child’s expression of feelings.
Feelings that are not thought about and accepted could become shameful and go underground (repressed or split off from conscious awareness). Children who were not allowed to express anger become adults who either have excessive anger or anger that gets expressed passively through manipulation, obsessive behaviour or self blame. Anger that is intolerable and get’s cordoned off from awareness becomes shameful.
There is also a lot of pressure in society to be nice. I am actually opposed to niceness if it is an act of self-distortion. I see a lot of people who are trapped behind a mask of niceness but underneath they feel so much pain and anger that they never let anyone see. It takes an awful amount of psychological energy to keep that mask on and all those unexpressed feelings collect underneath the surface in a toxic cocktail that poisons one from the inside.
So I am all for losing the mask and for showing up fully. The problem is that this requires the safety of a secure relationship. Perhaps you’ve already realised that you get angriest or allow your most shameful feelings out with those you’re closest to? That’s no coincidence and it’s also not because you’re a sadist. We feel most free to express ourselves with those who are most likely to stick around and accept us nonetheless.
So how about re-framing this for yourself? Instead of feeling out-of-control and shaming yourself for your anger, how about you make a conscious effort to be with your anger and allow the expression of it just like you would any other emotion. And while you’re at it, how about allowing others to express their anger too. Can you sit with your anger and can you love yourself and each other through it all? Remember, I am not talking about physical acts of aggression or name-calling or anything abusive. I’m talking about the emotion and the expression of that emotion in a safe, contained environment.
If you’re not sure if you have such a space or such a relationship then I suggest you find a therapist or at the very least find a gym with a punching bag. You can also find another way of channelling your anger, maybe through writing or another creative medium but please can we put anger back in our collective repertoire! I think that at this time in our history there is a lot to feel angry about and perhaps we will feel more entitled to our agency as individuals and citizens when we allow ourselves to get in touch with and express our anger.
Then, possibly most importantly, you need to figure out the source of your anger and you need to protect yourself accordingly. If you can, that is. Some things we have no control over: the death of someone we love, traffic, inept politicians. But if you can establish a clear reason for your anger and you know you can make another choice that will reduce your anger then it is your responsibility to shift your relationship to that object/person/event so that you are feeling less anger. Being stuck in a habitual pattern of anger is something that you should address, probably with a trained professional.
The other thing I want to say about anger, is that most of the time it is a secondary emotion. I like to think of anger as a crust that surrounds the vulnerability of sadness. When we allow ourselves to feel our anger, we give ourselves the chance to feel that sadness and the vulnerability that comes with that. One of the most profound aspects of psychotherapy is the process of having someone sit with your anger and actually see the pain and vulnerability beneath the surface. Whether you are in therapy or not, I urge you to try to feel that kind of empathy for yourself.
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