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What do I do with all this anger...

Anger has been on my mind recently.

Anger is a funny emotion. So many people want to avoid it. I have many clients who tell me, “I just don’t want to get angry anymore.” I laugh. (Not at them - but, at the concept). Anger is a prime emotion. What I mean, it’s instinctual. And, being as it is instinctual, it’s important.

What happens when we get angry? Well – our adrenaline starts pumping; our perception narrows; our heart pumps faster. Anger is preparing us for an attack! It’s what allows us to run as fast as we can away from an attacker. It’s what allows us to fight back. It’s what allows us to see an attacker before it even sees us, and to be so still that they pass us by. Alright – so “freezing” may not be as effective for us as it is for rabbits, but it is still an instinctual reaction.

But, when we consider that this is the purpose that anger serves, we can see that anger isn’t scary. Anger is a protector. Anger keeps us safe. Anger is the Pappa Bear of emotions.

When I was considering this the other day, I started to realize that part of the problem I ran into (and why I initially went to therapy myself) was because anger had built up in me for years and years, but I wasn’t able/allowed to express it. I wanted to go to therapy because I was getting angry all the time, and not understanding where it was coming from. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was residual. It was anger that had built up over time and had no outlet. I’m grateful to it because it started my journey down the road I’m on; but at the time I was terrified by it.

Anger in my house growing up was dangerous. It was definitely something to be avoided, as once anger was present, scary things would happen. I am guessing that is true for many people, as I know many people who are terrified by anger. When I was young, there was no room for my emotions, especially not anger. Also, I had seen that anger was absolutely something to be avoided. I thought, if I simply ignored it, it would go away.

That is not true, of course. Anger sticks around until we deal with it properly. It can be responsible for other things such as frustration, resentment, bitterness and violence. The reality is that I cannot stop myself (or anyone else) from getting angry. As a therapist, I concern myself more with what you do with the anger. Even residual anger needs to be dealt with, otherwise it often comes back sideways.

But, when we start to understand that anger is really just a protector, it makes dealing with it easier. It’s funny. I remember when I was a young whipper-snapper of a therapist, I worked in an agency that worked with homeless individuals. It was a fabulous place to work, because we had an array of services, including medical, dental, psychiatric, addiction, mental health and housing. Thus I was exposed to a lot in a short amount of time. At any rate, one day one of the psychiatrists came to talk with me. He asked if I could see a particular client, because the man was scaring all the nurses. Even at the time, I was slightly amused by this. You see, I am not exactly a pillar of physical strength. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a weakling, and I can hold my own, but I’m not some prize fighter. But, what I found, it didn’t

matter. It became clear that this man had significant mental health challenges. But, more importantly, he had suffered extreme abuse when he was a child. Those were defense mechanisms in the room with us. However, as long as I respected him, and tread carefully in asking questions, he was more than happy to be perfectly calm and respectful back. Underneath that hostile exterior was a scared, hurt little kid.

As I have grown in my own therapy business (and in my personal therapy), I’ve started to really appreciate anger. As a therapist, anger alerts me to a history that is worth exploring. Generally, underneath all that anger, there are much more tender and vulnerable emotions. 99% of the time when anger shows up in the room, it isn’t about me at all. (I have found this is also helpful to understand in dealing with my partner).

Moreover, I have found with anger, that if I approach it understanding that it is protecting the person underneath, it makes dealing with it (or with people who are angry) much more tolerable. I have a disclaimer here. Anger can turn to violence. People often confuse the two, but anger is an emotion, and violence is a reaction. Anger is important and it protects us. Violence is often an unhealthy reaction to anger. So, I am not suggesting that in a couple we tolerate violence in an effort to understand anger. Absolutely not! One’s personal safety and security is fundamental in (and out of) a relationship. I do, however, believe strongly that if a person wants to change their own way of coping with anger, they absolutely can. It takes effort and desire (and usually some attention to the underlying reasons for the anger), but it can be accomplished. I’ve seen that occur.

So, next time you find yourself getting angry, stop and breathe. Ask yourself, what am I protecting against? Sometimes it’s a perceived threat. Sometimes it’s an actual threat. Sometimes it’s a threat we experienced long ago – and we may need to go hang out with that kid, or that teenager, or that college student or that young adult. Next time you see your partner getting upset, take a minute to think about the idea that they are protecting. What are they protecting against? If they are angry at you, maybe that provides some insight into why they might be perceiving our actions as a threat, and (potentially) what a “safer” means of approaching an issue might be (i.e., how do we approach something such that the other person feels safe).

If you find yourself getting angry at small things, it may be time to explore that a bit more. I know it’s scary! I’ve been there myself. Also, don’t feel like you must do that on your own. There are amazing therapists out there. One of the most helpful things I found about therapy was that because I grew up the way I did (in the environment I did; with the family I did), I took for granted many assumptions I made about people’s actions, reactions and the possibilities. A therapist can help you view some of that with a different lens. In that way, if you do choose that route, make sure that you can talk to the person and share what needs to be shared, and that you have trust in their skills (or, at least can build trust). Going to therapy and not sharing is a little silly, unless you are merely building up to sharing. In the field, I often suggest people give it five sessions with a therapist before you decide (you may know sooner – but, often it’s the act of sharing feelings that we aren’t used to, not the ineptitude of the therapist). If you feel that this person doesn’t get it, then find a different therapist. There are lots of therapists out there, making sure that the therapist and the therapist’s approach resonates with you is important.

Don’t forget – the emotion isn’t bad. It’s simply an emotion. What do you do with that anger? Finding ways to work through the anger, to express ourselves and to move to the other side are all important. And, if all else fails, go diving. (this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course. Diving can absolutely help us calm our nerves. It can also provide space to think, and maybe work-through anger on our own. But, without more, diving is simply an avoidance technique. Not bad, but ultimately it won’t make things better without more).

Have you found any helpful ways to work through and/or express your own anger?

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Sep 16, 2023
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Amazing. This hit home. To deflect my own challenges with anger, I joke that im an anger enthusi-ist. By now that I see the same tendency is my son as a way to cope and protect himself from all the suck, I know I must do a better job at modeling better actions. Thank you!

Sep 16, 2023
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Oh - I really like this insight. Yes - we tend to repeat what we see, at least until we learn other ways (that work for us). Anger is super important. It's good to pay attention to it, but maybe visit the emotions underneath. Good luck! I know it's hard... but, no worries! Most of us had pretty terrible role models when it comes to dealing with emotions. Anger is a tough one for a lot of people. You aren't alone.

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