Check any listing of self-help groups, books or websites, and Anger management is likely to be given top billing. It has a bad smell, and it is frowned upon indiscriminately. Yet anger is one of our fundamental emotions, and it has a purpose and value. The survival and utility value of anger has been buried under a mountain of tips and strategies for controlling and suppressing anger.
It is important to make a distinction between healthy anger that propels you to action for your safety and promotes growth, and the anger that is gratuitously destructive and stifles development. When anger is used to feel powerful, to control and to humiliate just so you can feel superior, that is neither useful or satisfying for very long. Anger is useful if it comes as a signal to alert you that you are being used, taken advantage of, scapegoated or being given a role that is not your responsibility. It is especially valuable when you feel you are being dehumanized and manipulated. Anger control programs are essential for the former. Anger expression programs are vital for the latter. Those using anger to get high on control and domination, need to find other ways of feeling good about themselves. Those who are taken advantage of at an early age can rarely take the risk of showing anger, so they lock it up. As adults they may feel safer in allowing the anger out, but are unable to make the distinction between those who are the true source of the anger and others who may be irritating.
Jennifer found herself getting furious when family and friends expected her to do things for them and never considered her feelings. Her rage would be out of proportion to the trigger that sparked it. She ended up scaring those around her, hated herself and tried to numb her shame by binge eating. As a child Jennifer had protected siblings from her mother’s anger. Over the years she became resentful that she had to take on a parenting role, but never expressed it, even to herself. As an adult when friends and relatives asked things of her, the pent up resentment was sparked like a powder keg and she blew up. She wasn’t reacting to the person in real time asking something very simple of her, but to the years of having to be a care taker when it wasn’t her job or responsibility.
Jennifer’s anger is natural, legitimate and healthy. It is the anger of protest that she was robbed of her childhood and appropriate parenting. Feeling it and expressing it towards the source of her resentment is appropriate and therapeutic. Shooting the anger bullets at those who remind her of her of the time when she couldn’t speak up is unlikely to reduce the fury nor create a fertile ground for adult relationships. It keep her stuck in the past and unable to release herself from the ties with her prior experiences.
Recognizing Healthy Anger
* You find yourself swallowing your feelings when a loved one, or one in authority imposes their views and demands on you.
* When you hear ‘ no need to bite my head off, I was just asking…’
* When you find yourself having a dialogue in your head with the person or situation that annoyed you, but cannot do so in reality.
*You get sick and tired of giving priority to the needs and wants of someone else, in the vain hope that they will reciprocate.
Recognizing Unhealthy Anger
* You feel big and strong when you shut someone down
* You enjoy seeing someone else try to appease and placate you
* You are quick to feel enraged when you don’t get heard and attended to right away
* When fear of your anger is the only thing that keeps someone toeing your line
Giving yourself permission to be angry and then to express it is a big step for those who have delegated this emotion to the box labeled ‘immature.’ Once you begin to feel your legitimate anger, you can experiment with expressing it in small doses, build your emotional muscles and honor yourself. In my next article on this topic I will address ways in which you can be angry without damaging your self-esteem or relationships with significant others.
Copyright Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.