Anger is extremely useful. It tells us what we don’t like, what is threatening us, what we want to get rid of and be careful about. And it gives us the energy we need to address things we don’t like and want to get rid of or protect ourselves against. But how we use it makes a big difference. O.J. Simpson used his anger in a way that ruined his life. Martin Luther King used his anger to fuel leadership of a non-violent civil rights movement that essentially wiped out blatant and legally protected racial segregation in this country. When I write this, it makes it sound easy. You just have to use your anger in a smart and benevolent way. But, of course, it isn’t easy at all. It’s very difficult and complicated. One of the things that makes it difficult is that, when we are in the grip of the first rush of anger, when we’re in the “throws” of it, we can’t think very well. We can’t use our rational faculty. Somehow, Martin Luther King was able to step back from the emotional rush of the anger, to get enough distance from that rush of adrenalin so that he could put his rational faculty to work in building an effective non-violent movement for social change. O.J. Simpson was unable to engage his rational faculty. What he did was totally irrational. After all, he threw away a life that was the envy of a nation of men. How can we understand and use this difference?
One way is to recognize that, in many cases, anger sits on top of three other emotions – shame, hurt and fear. If we can stop long enough to ask ourselves, “What is underneath this anger?” and get in touch with the shame, hurt and fear, we may be able to gain the space we need to engage our rational faculty.
I learned this lesson one day playing basketball. It was shortly after my therapist had pointed out this relationship between anger and the hurt, fear and shame that is sometimes underneath it. I had just gone up to block a shot; one of my teammates said “that looked like a foul” so I gave the other team the ball but as I was doing that I said to the man I was guarding, “I don’t think I fouled him.” He looked at me and said, “We don’t talk here; we play.” My immediate impulse was to blow up and tell him to go you know where – which would have ended the game one way or another. But I caught myself and realized that he had shamed me. So I kept quiet and let the shame sink in as I played. I began to think, “Maybe I do talk too much; maybe it would work better if I just shut up and played.” At the end of the game, my opponent and I shook hands and we eventually became pretty good friends.
When it is bottled up and not expressed, anger is a killer. It makes people sick and it makes them crazy. This is because there is lots of energy in anger. If that energy isn’t expressed, it goes inside and wreaks havoc. I have treated numerous patients who suffer from fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is the latest diagnosis that is given to people who are troubled by constant pain and weakness but whose lab reports and x-rays come up negative. All of these patients have trouble expressing anger. They are nice people, reasonable and understanding. They don’t want to rock the boat or cause problems. They don’t want other people to see them as troublemakers or ingrates. They don’t know how to be mean and assertive. They aren’t comfortable being clear about what they want and going after it with a vengeance. They haven’t learned how to use their anger.
Interestingly, many of these patients had trouble with their mothers. Here are three brief profiles. Roberta’s mother was an alcoholic. Like most children of alcoholics, Roberta had to take care of her mother. At the age of 10, she became a caregiver for her mother, having to take responsibility for herself and her mother and having to spend lots of energy covering it all up. As she entered her early 20’s, her relationship with her mother began to change. They became closer and more friendly and supportive of each other. Just as they were beginning to heal some of their wounds, her mother committed suicide.
Isabel came to me because she had a history of sabotaging herself. She would take a job or begin studying and perform so well that she was a star. Then, all of a sudden and inexplicably, she would stop going to class, get into trouble with co-workers, make inexplicable mistakes, quit or get fired. She grew up in a household in which her father absolutely doted on her. She was the “apple of his eye.” He paid lots of attention to her and helped her grow into a very talented young woman. At the same time, her mother was being neglected. Resentful and angry and either unable or unwilling to confront her husband, she took it out on her daughter, constantly criticizing, nagging, berating. No matter how hard she tried, there was nothing Isabel could do to please her mother.
Margie’s mother was a businesswoman, a firm taskmaster. Margie could never do anything well enough to please her mother. Her mother would ask her to clean the living room, check on it, say “Oh, this will never do” and get her older sister to finish it up. One evening at the dinner table, Margie mildly suggested that her mother might not have worked very hard that day, a transgression that earned her a beating from her father and icy disdain from her mother. In her 40’s Margie was still obsessed with pleasing her mother.
None of these women had learned to express the anger towards her mother and all were suffering from it. After all, it’s not easy to be angry with our parents. They have given us the gift of life and sacrificed on our behalf. Somewhere deep inside, we know they have done the best they could, have had to deal with their own demons and live their own lives. In many cases, they have let us know that it’s not OK to be angry with them. The great psychoanalyst Alice Miller found after working for years as a therapist that there was a simple formula for making people mentally ill. All you had to do was not let them be who they were and, when they got angry about it, not let them be angry. That’s a good description of what goes on in many households today and of how the public schools treat their students. So here’s the dilemma. We need to acknowledge our anger towards our parents and find ways of expressing it even though we know they aren’t to blame, they didn’t want to hurt us and they were being driven by their own relentless, demanding needs. Following are three options for dealing with this dilemma:
§ Find a psychotherapist who understands the importance of this process and will help you go through it;
§ Write about your anger towards your parents. Don’t edit what you write. Just write it in a kind of automatic writing in which you are letting the words flow out of your mind;
§ Use the chair technique described below on page 137 to verbally express your anger towards your parents.
One of the benefits of doing this work is that, after you express your anger towards your parents, you’ll find it much easier to forgive them and love them for what they have given you. But the greatest benefit is that you will find ways of using the energy in your anger to create, build, develop and contribute to other people instead of leaving the energy trapped inside, sapping your vitality and making you sick.
Anger can also be useful in helping us become more considerate of other people. When I get angry at someone else’s behavior, it tells me what makes other people angry, an insight I can use to be more considerate of others. I, for example, become angry when drivers pull in front of me making me stop or slow down. This has taught me to be more careful about pulling out in front of other drivers.
This excerpt is taken from pages 21-25 of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side. To buy the book click here.