When I was growing up I knew how to cry. Boy did I ever (especially in middle school)! I expressed anger with even more tears or an angry drawing slipped under a door. But any “show” of anger other than tears was quickly met with an even louder voice. Adults are bigger and stronger and I was easily intimidated. With no blame at all to my caregivers, and, in large part, due to my nature and what we as humans have come to work out collectively, I stuffed my anger.
Therapy isn’t about blame. It’s about observing how we got created with the understanding that our caregivers did the best that they could. They repeated what they saw modeled. As a culture, by and large, we don’t know how to “do” anger – or, for that matter, emotions – well.
Can anger even be done healthily? Yes! It is not a “bad” emotion.Feelings – as we heal through trauma – become less intense and more like indicators, signals…and we can sit with them and let them move through us like a storm, but it doesn’t have to affect others in a way that frightens them or sucks them under.
THE NEGATIVE CYCLE
This is the cycle that happens to most of us: We stuff anger until we snap and it comes out at the wrong time, in the wrong place, often directed at the wrong people with way too much force. Feelings store up like the water at a wave pool, and when too much pressure builds, watch out! Shame and guilt sweeps in in the aftermath of the explosion, and then the out of control behavior becomes associated with anger. Thus, people think anger is “bad.” To stuff anger even farther back, people develop addictions like overeating or over working, numbing out with pot, drinking, smoking – you name it! Addictions create shame as well, and shame helps to stuff the anger. But what follows then is physical maladies and unexplained pain. People go to doctors for the pain instead of dealing with the source (emotions), and this is how and why we have such a “sick” country. Doctors prescribe meds leading to more numb-out (or possibly addiction) and, finally, the anger just becomes a resigned, numb apathy.
But it doesn’t have to be like that! At all. You can learn to navigate emotions and live a more fulfilling and vital life.
BEEN THERE DONE THAT
I teach people how to regulate emotions – particularly anger – having been-there-done-that, because when I finally expressed my anger in my 20’s, it was particularly volatile. When I went to counseling, diffused my anger and learned that there was another way to handle and express it, I followed with the reparative work with the people that my anger had affected.
I’m am focused on anger in this post, but sadness is no different. Often anger is repressed in women and sadness is repressed in men, but, many times, the pressure that builds comes out as anger for both.
WHAT TO DO
Ideally, you are working with a healing professional who has helped you to discover and resolve triggers. And the counselor has also helped you to identify your inner critic (the internal bitch voice) – the vicious monkey on your back. If you are still fused with that voice, it’s pretty hard to accept self-compassion.
How critical you are of others is in direct correlation to how hard you are on yourself.
BUT ISN’T THAT YOUR CONSCIENCE?
Let me clear up one thing. I promise that if you back up your bitch voice (referred to from here on out as BV) you are not suddenly going to be some irresponsible fool without a conscience. On the contrary, as you develop more compassion for yourself, you begin to tap into an essential self who knows how to take better care of you and, as a result, those around you. But, beware: BV will convince you that you can’t live without him/her (usually the same gender as that with which you identify). BV thinks she is protecting you because other people are risky and dangerous. BV will shame you and punish you because he wants to be in control. BV’s goal is NOT to help you to connect and heal!
Anger’s gift, as Karla McLaren explains so beautifully in one of my all-time favorite books, Language of Emotions, is knowing how and when to draw healthy boundaries. Many of us have poor boundaries (saying “yes” too often to look like a good person) and, subconsciously, it is taking a huge toll because it keeps you sucked into above cycle. The metaphor I use is that you don’t have to burn down the house – you can learn to hold a torch and when you bring it too close to your body, you feel the heat and you move it back.
THE LOVING VOICE
What does anger feel like in your body? Or better stated: What does your body feel like when you are angry? Begin to notice the earliest signs – the nuances of tension. Journal about how it was expressed in your family when you were a child (and likely you will remember some pretty mean things said to one another). Begin to practice drawing healthy boundaries for yourself. Invite a loving, wise mother or beloved grandfather part who will step in to protect you – the loving voice (LV). LV will say:
It’s okay for you to say no to taking on that other project at work that will prevent you from going to your favorite Zumba class (that keeps you feeling happy and well balanced).
It’s okay not to host Thanksgiving every year.
It’s okay to limit your time with people who drain your energy.
It’s okay for you not to attend the family event while you are healing from early trauma.
As you begin to draw healthy boundaries and take better care of yourself, you will have more to give to others.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
So if anger doesn’t look like an explosion or storm or burning down the house, what DOES it look like? Assuming you have worked out your childhood issues and you are not easily triggered, anger can feel like strength in the body. You can express it without yelling. If you yell and scream, that becomes the focus, and not the issue at hand, and so nothing gets resolved. The key is to calmly express your concern or remove yourself if you feel you are going to explode and find time to talk and resolve the issue calmly. I can tell you that when I’ve had the experience to express anger firmly but calmly, it has felt great! Conflict done well results in vulnerable connection and meaningful companionship.
It doesn’t work if people have not worked out their childhood issues, because triggers light up your body like a Christmas tree… each bulb being each time you felt “less than” or “a failure” or “undesirable” or “unlovable.” In those instances, it’s pretty hard to hear the other person and stay calm. It’s almost impossible from a physiological standpoint to be in the present moment, because your primal brain drags you back into fight mode.
Navigating emotion is a process that can be learned. There is a healthy way to communicate and express anger that is not stuffing it, walking on eggshells or exploding. There are many books on the topic. The most powerful book I have found for women is called The Anger Workbook for Women: How to Keep Your Anger from Undermining Your Self-Esteem, Your Emotional Balance, and Your Relationships by Dr. Laura J. Petracek