- Jason McCarty
Anger is an interesting emotion. I would say it is widely experienced and seldom understood. Anger is often vilified by our society, especially the mental health community. We have programs for “anger management”, like it’s some out of control toddler we have to manage and not some aspect of ourselves. Anger management courses often don’t even really get down to helping people work with their anger, they just help people manage their behavior: so really, they should be called Behavior Management courses. Many people are afraid of their anger and don’t know what to do with it when it arrives. Some explode, some run, some freeze, some internalize, some drink or use drugs, some withdraw, and others feel it and don’t let it consume them. Anger is powerful which is why it needs our ability to live with it more respectfully instead of the more dismissive stance we use with behavior management.
What is anger for? Ultimately it is for protection. In most courses or groups on anger you will probably hear the concept that anger is a secondary emotion. What this means is that some other emotion has been felt that triggers a need to protect, whether defensively or offensively. For example, if someone calls me a derogatory name and hurts my feelings, I will most likely become angry so that I may do what is necessary to protect myself. Some will use their angry energy to be assertive and draw an appropriate boundary, others will not say anything and walk away (passive), stuffing their anger down, and yet others will just fall prey to the primal aspect of anger and attack the other person (aggressive). In all instances the person is trying to protect him or her self.
When I say anger is for protection I do not just mean physical protection. We are often not just protecting our bodies but the very sense of who we are – our Self. If we believe someone is threatening who we are at the core, we can get pretty mad. I will speak to the problem this can cause in just a minute, but what is so helpful about anger here is that it is telling you that something is wrong. It is telling you that you need to do something to protect yourself right now. Some examples would be: someone taking advantage of my time and I don’t say anything my partner (or anyone really) dismissing my need for appreciation/affection/love/courtesy/etc feeling out of control in a situation someone cutting me off in traffic. Anger is ultimately there to protect and will arrive anytime you believe that your Self might be compromised, threatened, or possibly annihilated. The fear of annihilation does not just have to be physical but the more you are dismissed in your life and do not do anything about it, the more your inner sense of being believes it is being annihilated. That might seem extreme for some people but it is what is going on at the base of our existence as human beings.
So here’s where anger can become problematic. Since there is an aspect of our organism interpreting events through our own lens that leads to feeling anger, we can sometimes overreact or not assess the situation appropriately. We bring with us our backgrounds, experiences, histories with relationships/people, etc: we’ll call it baggage. The more baggage we are carrying around without taking any of it out of the bag and looking at it, the more we will be dictated by some of that baggage. If I have been hurt a lot in my past, I am going to be sensitive to similar things occurring. My organism is now on the lookout for similar things happening which can sometimes distort reality. Because of this sensitivity, a “normal” experience needing a boundary now feels really big and hurtful, requiring a big reaction. The baggage I carry around unconsciously continuously keeps old wounds from healing and leaves me quite sensitive in certain areas. When I think someone is getting close to those areas, even slightly, I will overreact. This happens in relationships all the time – partners reacting to their partners’ actions in ways that are mixed up with past experiences and not just the situation at hand. All of this is here to protect my Self. So when I start listening to my anger more, I will be able to assess what is really going on. I will be able to start making some realizations about what is triggering me. This will help someone know if they are reacting appropriately to the situation or to the past.
As children we cannot necessarily protect ourselves so the anger we might express that isn’t heard or respected will get stuffed down, hidden away from our conscious minds. It can also become internalized where anger and hatred are turned toward the Self. When we grow up we can actually protect ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally, but we must work through the impact of the repressed emotion – otherwise it will convolute our current experiences and leave us dictated by our past experiences. This is why the concept of anger being a secondary emotion can be so helpful. When we are really angry in similar situations, we can ask ourselves, “what am I really feeling?” You are not just angry or frustrated – stopping there will not help you. Something else has threatened your sense of Self. A sensitive spot is being touched and your organism is reacting.
One of the most interesting things about anger is that the more we blame someone or something else for our anger, the angrier we become. Why is this? Because anger is there to tell YOU to do something. It is our responsibility to listen to our anger and see what we need to do. The more you think someone else is responsible for making you angry, the more you are ignoring anger’s actual purpose – the more you are ignoring YOU. So when you get angry for someone crossing your boundary and you did not say anything, you will stay angry because YOU did not draw a healthy and respectful boundary. Had you drawn a healthy and assertive boundary, your anger would have subsided. It is no longer needed.
Lastly, it is really important to learn how to feel and stay with one’s anger. This is also another problem with “anger management” courses. It seems as though the purpose is to make anger go away which seems so counterproductive and hurtful to someone I’m not sure why it continues. We all need to learn how to live with and feel our anger, making healthy choices in response to its need. We cannot skip the step of listening to it. What CAN BE helpful about “time-outs” is that it gives us an opportunity to explore our anger but if we just use time-outs to cool down, never exploring our anger, we are just managing it again, not living WITH it.