Anger: Our Most Misunderstood Emotion
In my last post I described how devastating chronic misattunement is to a growing child. I described how the child learns to live with a level of emotional deprivation that persists into adulthood and then as adults they help everyone else and put themselves last. It’s like encasing our needs and desired and our very heart in concrete. But that’s not the whole story.
An even bigger question from my perspective is what does that young child do with all of that unexpressed frustration she feels when she lives with chronically unmet needs? The simple answer is that she has to stuff it. And this becomes a lifetime pattern. Beneath the nice girl and good boy often lurks immense buried resentment.
Ever consider where road rage comes from? Sure, no one likes getting cut off in traffic, but is the magnitude of our reaction greater than the situation calls for? Why do we explode when a total stranger cuts us off? Who are we really angry at?
Ever wonder why you suddenly can’t stand the color of the shirt your partner is wearing or the tone of their voice when they just said “good morning” to you? Maybe in these situations you’re angry about something else and you haven’t let yourself acknowledge what’s going on at a deeper level.
I’ve just described some ways that we act out buried anger & frustration on others without realizing it. Acting out is one way of managing all of that stuffed rage. But there’s another way. We act in. We attack ourselves instead of attacking others. We truly become our own worst enemy. We treat ourselves with a brutality we would never act out on others. Ouch! Why does this happen? You weren’t born hating yourself, right? Nope. That’s something you learned somewhere along the way.
Dr. Laurence Heller, creator of the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) says that the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us always arises in relation to somebody else. It does not arise in a vacuum. When a child grows up in an environment where their early protest was ignored, dismissed or punished (i.e. chronic misattunement), as a result of how they are treated, the child comes to believe their needs and feelings are bad and that they are bad for having them. Such children then carry that sense of bad into adulthood.
To summarize, when children experience chronic misattunement, they manage the resulting anger by stuffing it and then acting it out as reactivity and unhealthy aggression and/or acting it in as self-criticism and self-hatred. These patterns persist into our adult lives causing all kinds of difficulties. The good news is that we can do something about this.
So what other options do we have when we feel angry besides acting it out and acting it in? Dr. Heller explains that all emotions are a communication to our environment. Emotions have an intention. When we feel angry, it generally means we need to say “stop” and/or “no” in some way. When we get present with and tolerate our anger, own it and listen to its message, there’s no need to act it out or act it in. Instead we connect with what’s true for us. When we live disconnected from our anger, we don’t let ourselves say “no” when we need to. As much as we don’t like feeling angry, we have to be able to access healthy protest. Consider this. Is it really possible to live a lifetime in a human body without encountering a true need to protest, to say with conviction “I don’t like that. Stop.”
In my opinion when we can’t say “no,” we also can’t say a fully committed “yes” to our heart’s deepest desires. We get buried in the quicksand of ambivalence rather than the clarity of clear our clear yes and no. We feel stuck and trapped rather than clear and free. Dr. Heller says that expressing healthy anger really matters because when we say no/stop, we take our own side and have our own back rather than turning on or giving up on ourselves.
So how good are your boundaries? Is it easy or stressful for you to say “stop” when someone touches you in a way you don’t like or makes a snarky comment that you find hurtful? Or how about when someone makes a decision that really affects you but doesn’t consult you first? Do you take your own side or do you frequently put up with stuff you don’t like?
Dr. Heller said recently “If there’s no room for healthy self-expression, including some appropriate aggression or protest when necessary in a relationship, then you don’t really have a relationship.” Wow, that’s a strong statement and very, very true from my perspective. We have to have a healthy relationship with anger, our own and others’, in order to have the fulfilling relationships with other people that we crave.
“But there was so much violence growing up that I don’t want to be just like them.” I often hear this from people renegotiating their relationship to anger. I want you to know that there is an enormous difference between anger and violence. Between feeling & owning our anger versus exploding angrily and hurting someone verbally or physically. We get them mixed up. When we feel and own our anger and its intention, then we can choose what, if any, action we want to take. By owning our anger, we become far less reactive. With this awareness we will not become our violent mothers & fathers. We will instead be a role model for healthy anger.
I faced that choice often in my own healing journey. While addressing my own abuse history, I often felt rage towards my parents who were quite elderly at the time. Did I express that anger towards them directly? No. That would been abusive and disrespectful. But by owning my long-buried anger and the intention underneath that anger (“Stop hurting me”), I could experience the completion of that anger without interacting with them directly about it. Our relationship improved because I felt more at ease around them since I was carrying far less old resentment. In my opinion doing our own personal growth work is the most important way we can improve our relationships with others.
So why is anger so important? We are wired to protest that which hurts, that which violates, that which we don’t like. When we make friends with anger, we develop a spectrum of responses inside ourselves, a palette we can choose from in response to how others treat us. We also feel less thrown by others’ anger so we can truly be present with them in a way that deepens love and connection. We also reduce our self-criticism because we no longer turn that unexpressed anger inward on ourselves.
So how do we begin making friends with anger? Start by considering if you often react to small things. This can be a sign that anger is leaking out from something deeper. Then rewind your experience and see if you can figure out where your reaction began and what the anger is actually about. Often, when we rewind, we find something we didn’t expect, maybe a “no” or a need we didn’t express. We connect more deeply with our true needs and feelings. Taking the time to connect with ourselves in this way helps us free our hearts from that old concrete case. The more we connect with our hearts, the more we feel free and alive. Isn’t that what we all most want?