When I first met Sally, who came to therapy for depression, I couldn’t help to notice that she seemed meek and small despite her tall stature. She claimed people walked all over her. And she was scared to say “No!” for fear others would get angry. As she shared her stories, she wilted like a flower in need of water. When I asked if she had feelings about what she was sharing, she said, “This is just the way it is,” and then let out a big sigh. I was struck by her passivity. As I listened to stories of friends and family who grossly took advantage of her kindness, I felt my blood boil. My anger got me curious about hers… where was it?
Anger is a core emotion, one of the seven pre-wired emotions all of us have from birth to death.
Anger is important for survival. How else would we know to protect and defend ourselves? It is the emotion of anger that cues us that something is not right and needs to change. It is anger that protects us from being violated.
Almost everyone I work with hates their anger. They fear what their anger will do to others. They don’t like the feeling it creates inside. They don’t know how to channel anger’s energy and impulses. Why would they? We don’t learn about emotions in high school biology, but we should!
I love teaching people about anger; how to notice it, how to sit with it, and how to listen to it.
These are entirely internal experiences. Knowing your anger intimately has nothing to do with expressing it. In fact, most people I know confuse anger itself with “acting out” anger at someone or something else. I am not talking about accessing anger and then immediately discharging it with insults, shouting, threats, or any other action meant to intimidate or frighten someone else. This is about learning NOT to react with action. Ultimately, we can be thoughtful and decide how to express our anger in a constructive manner. I teach people how to better channel the energy it generates. How to let it go or how to use it for the better to bring about positive change with effective communication.
Sally now has an intimate relationship with her anger.
She recognizes the feeling in her gut the moment it arises, remembering to breathe or take a break if she needs some time to calm down. That little pause makes all the difference in how we react. Now Sally can think about what she wants to say and how to say it. Moving the anger to her backbone, she questions others about their intent. She communicates her wants and needs firmly but kindly using the strength and force of assertion, not aggression. Her tone of voice, posture and facial expressions all work together to convey, “I mean what I say!”
Sally is not depressed any longer. She is not meek. Only one friend couldn’t deal with her newfound assertiveness and that friend we decided was no friend so the loss was tolerable. We can change our relationship to anger. We can master its forceful and self-protective energy.
Befriending anger isn’t always easy but it is always worth the effort.
(Note: Name and details have been changed to protect the patient’s identity)