Anger is a poison you drink hoping the other person will die. Unattributed
It’s everywhere! Part of it is the political season, but lately it just seems that anger is the emotion du jour.
Anger, by itself, isn’t really a bad thing. It helps you express your opinion and your frustration, often loudly and forcefully. But the whole thing about anger is that you are supposed to speak your peace and then be done…let go…get over whatever happened and get back to normal, which for most people means getting back to contentment and maybe even happiness.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for everyone. Or more accurately, that is not how some people choose to deal with their anger.
I regularly deal with clients who live in a perpetual state of anger, constantly reciting the wrongs done and the righteous indignation that comes from being wronged over and over and over.
I don’t really blame them for their anger. After all, things actually did not go their way and they did get hurt…there are real reasons for their anger.
But why in the world would anyone want to be angry all the time?
There are lots of reasons.
Admit it: there is a certain amount of self-justification and righteous indignation that go with being angry. It is very affirming to know that you are RIGHT when the other party is SO WRONG. And can we admit that being angry is very energizing? I know several women who pour their anger into cleaning frenzies that leave the entire house spotless while leaving them spent, with no energy left to feed their anger. It’s a great way to burn off all the jagged hyperactivity that anger can bring, especially if you want to avoid pouring your anger out all over your kids or your partner. I have indulged myself with more than one cleaning frenzy since I got married and I have warned my husband to never try and stop me because no one should have to deal with me when I’m that angry. Besides, a clean house is a nice thing. So get out my way, don’t talk to me, and LET ME CLEAN!!
There…I feel better now.
Every angry client I see says the same thing: I can’t let it go. What they did was so wrong. I can’t seem to get over it! And I respond the same way every time.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Anger is the human version of a dog growling and baring its teeth…and dogs do that when they are afraid or in pain. Humans become angry to cover three emotions: pain, sorrow, and fear. We use anger to gird ourselves for battle despite our fear and pain, and to cover our grief with energy for action. After all, when we are afraid we want to do whatever we can to eliminate the reason for our fear. When we are filled with grief and sorrow we want to stop whatever caused our grief (thus groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Stand Up 2 Cancer, etc.) When we are in pain, we want to lash out at whatever and whoever is causing our pain. Thus…anger and all the energy it brings.
Anger is a great emotion, created by God to help us take action (when we need to) to get out a bad situation that is causing us fear, pain, or sorrow. Anger is very useful, and the energy that anger brings is often exactly what we need to get through a difficult moment.
However, anger is supposed to be a temporary solution. We aren’t supposed to stay there, lingering in our anger, simmering like a pot constantly on the edge of boiling. We are supposed to use our anger while the threat still exists, and then move on to processing the underlying emotions that fed the anger.
Counselors have a saying about emotions: Feelings are like farts. It’s best if you let them out, even though it will be unpleasant for a while. Suppressing your feelings is as bad for you as trying to hold in your farts: eventually they will come out and it will always be at the wrong time and it will always be messier than you want it to be.
Emotions are also a lot like water: if you give them air, they will eventually evaporate. Unfortunately, anger has to bottle up the fear, pain, and sorrow in order to gain its energy; as long as the anger continues, the fear, pain, and sorrow cannot evaporate at all. The thing is that in order for the anger to stop, you have to choose to open up that bottle and pour it out, and most folks don’t want to do that. And who would blame them? Fear, pain, and sorrow is that they are really unpleasant emotions. Even worse, when you are dealing with fear, pain, or sorrow it can feel as if you will always feel this badly, that you will always be stuck in this agony, unable to move forward.
Of course, that is a lie. For some reason we are deeply aware that happiness and joy are fragile, passing emotions that can be swept away from us by circumstance. Despite this awareness, we often act as though our pain, fear, and sorrow can trap us, keeping us locked in misery for the rest of our lives.
Maybe we believe this because we’ve seen people who seemed to live in perpetual misery. Dealing with them is another blog post entirely, but for now let’s just say that anyone who lives in perpetual misery has allowed a single emotion to become their identity…but they CHOSE to have that emotion become their identity. It didn’t happen by accident. They invested in keeping that particular emotion alive. Thus the person you know who is always angry for one reason or another: they have chosen to let anger become their identity.
So what does this have to do with you?
When you find yourself stewing over something, constantly mulling it over and replaying the argument or the situation, take some steps to kill your anger. Remember, you have to choose to open the anger bottle and pour it out. Here are a few techniques to help you:
- Is there some action I need to take? Realistically, is there anything I need to DO before I let this go? Do not include things like giving someone a piece of your mind, or giving them a taste of their own medicine in this list. Valid actions would be having an honest discussion with the other person, or looking up the relevant rules and laws surrounding the situation. In other words, angry actions do not belong on this list. Pick actions that could potentially create a solution to the situation.
- What am I feeling besides anger? Am I afraid of something bad happening? Am I hurt or embarrassed and therefore lashing out? Does this situation make me deeply sad? What ELSE am I feeling? This one could take some time because often we go straight to anger without really giving ourselves time to feel the fear, sorrow, or pain that started up our angry reaction in the first place. This is an exercise in getting in touch with your own self and your own needs. It can be difficult, so be prepared to journal, to give yourself time in silence, to pray, and to talk with a friend (not about your anger!) to clarify your feelings. Ask yourself: what am I afraid of in this situation? What do I stand to lose? (grief/sorrow) What does this situation mean about me? (pain)
- Take a moment to honestly assess what could go wrong if you don’t stay angry. What do you stand to lose? For instance, if staying angry means that you stand up to someone who is trying to take illegal action, then stay angry for a while and go back to #1 and decide what you need to do. And let me be clear: letting go of your anger doesn’t mean that what the other person did or said is okay. Letting go of your anger has nothing to do with the other person at all. Your emotions are your own and no one else is feeling them. They may know that you’re angry and it might even matter to them, but you staying angry doesn’t make them decide that they were wrong. Your anger isn’t a punishment to anyone, but if you hold onto it long enough it will become a punishment to you.
Most important to remember is that most human beings don’t do what they do in order to hurt you, scare you, or make you sad. If you have people in your life who actually do things just to make you hurt or be frightened…leave them! Leave them now! That kind of behavior is sick and disordered and you need to remember that is not just my opinion; I’m a counselor and I’m telling you that people who hurt you and scare you on purpose are disordered and sick. Normal behavior is mostly self-focused, and when the average person behaves they are simply meeting their own needs even when the behavior seems directed at YOU. Personalizing someone else’s behavior or words makes about as much sense as believing that guy who lives across the street brushes his teeth in the morning to make fun of you. Stupid, isn’t it? Yep…so stop believing that your partner leaves their shoes and clothing all over the house because they don’t care about you, or believing that the guy in the next cube turns his music up too loud because he’s trying to piss you off. No…they are simply choosing not to perceive how their behavior impacts others, which isn’t great, but it still isn’t behavior done on purpose to hurt you or make you angry.
Do yourself a favor: don’t drink the poison.