Thursday, April 11, 2013

Anger, The Misunderstood Emotion

Anger, The Misunderstood Emotion
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC

A long time ago, I read an article called "Anger Is Your Friend." I thought the author was daft. How could an emotion as scary and taboo as anger be your friend?! I don't remember the actual article, but it started me thinking about anger. And my fascination with the subject spurred my own healing of this misunderstood emotion. Of all the emotions, anger is the one that many people fear and avoid the most.
What is anger? Anger is just one emotion in the full spectrum of emotions, just as blue is one color in the full spectrum of colors. And just as there are many shades of blue, there are many shades of anger, from mildly irritated to violently rageful.
Anger is usually a defense reaction to situations in which our "self" feels threatened. It is a natural, healthy emotion; we are born with it. When we were babies, if someone took our rattle, we got angry. We would scream in order to get our rattle back. When our rattle was returned to us, we learned that anger is useful and productive.
When expressed in appropriate ways, anger can be very constructive. By listening to our anger we can learn about ourselves. Anger tells us how we want to be treated and when we feel mistreated. It tells us about our boundaries and our limits. It can help us enhance our sense of self, and help us to know ourselves better. Resolving anger can help us to change negative patterns and to feel in charge of our lives.
Here's an example of a situation in which anger is expressed in a healthy way. Something happens that makes someone angry. The ones involved (and only those involved) express their anger in a way that says "I am angry at something you did. Here's what I want to happen. What do you need in order to help me make this happen?" The issue is then discussed until a mutual feeling of compromise has been reached. Both parties in the issue come out ahead; its a win-win situation. Through this interaction, anger is seen as something positive that helps resolve problems.
But anger can be uncomfortable and scary. First, society discourages us from expressing anger. If we get angry, we are thought of as crazy or out of control. Women are especially discouraged from expressing anger. When women get angry they are labeled as a "bitch" or "hormonal" and weak.
Secondly, many of us fear anger because of family patterns that taught us that anger is frightening, destructive or even dangerous.
In the first case, families avoid anger like the plague. Any hint of anger may have been met with "Don't you raise your voice to me, young lady!" or some other message that said that anger was not OK. In response we learned to rationalize our anger away. "They didn't really mean it......I shouldn't feel angry." In our attempt to talk ourselves out of being angry, we created a conflict inside ourselves. "I shouldn't feel angry, but I do feel angry. Therefore there must be something wrong with me." We spend a lot of time and energy avoiding anger. We ask ourselves "Do I have a right to be angry?" This would be like asking yourself "Do I have a right to see the color blue?"
When we suppress or rationalize our anger, we fail to learn an important lesson: anger can change and to resolve problems which gives us a feeling of personal power and control in our lives.
In the second case, all anger is expressed in an explosive and destructive way. In some families, any minor offense was met with name calling, shaming, screaming and yelling, or worse, hitting and physical abuse. While anger was expressed more freely than in the anger-phobic family not only was it much more destructive and scary, the family members also never learn how to resolve conflicts.
The first step to healthy expression of anger is to learn to stop avoiding it. When we stuff our anger it builds up. Pent-up anger is hard to control and we often will blow up inappropriately. Pent-up anger also builds up until it turns into rage. It is safer if we vent our anger when it is petty irritations. When we take care of our anger as soon as we realize we feel it, it will not build up.
Sometimes in a relationship, we find ourselves repeating unhealthy patterns. It is easy for us to see what how others make us mad. But it is hard for us to see what we are doing that keeps the pattern going. In her book The Dance of Anger Harriet Lerner describes relationships as circular dances. Each person's dance steps perpetuates and reinforce the other person's dance steps. We do not have control over other people, we cannot change other people, but we can change our own behavior.
If we were dancing the polka with another person, we would both be contributing to the dance. We would only be able to continue to dance as long as both dancers danced. If one of us were to change to a tango, the dancing would change, the polka stops.
Similarly, in a relationship, patterns can go on only as long as both parties continue it. If either person changes anything about the pattern, something would change. It is very empowering, especially for women, to see that they actually can make positive changes occur in their lives just by changing their own behavior.
Many people find that taking a class in Assertiveness Training very helpful to learn what to say to facilitate these positive changes.
But if your fear of anger is paralyzing, short term individual therapy focusing on this problem can quickly get to the root of your anger-phobia. Then you can be "friends" with your anger.
Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC is the Director and Founder of The Awakening Center. She works with clients individually and in groups to establish balance, cooperation and harmony among their "parts"; and a feeling of calmness, compassion and inner strength from their core "self". She specializes in women's issues especially: eating disorders and body image problems; anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem; couples communication and parenting skills; spiritual and personal growth. Sliding fee/Insurance Available. 

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