Coping With Anger
by Chas (Chip) August
Anger is OK. What a thought! Like all our emotions, anger is a natural, normal, healthy part of being a human. And, as we often do with our emotions, instead of welcoming and honoring anger, instead of listening to anger, often we push it away, suppress it, deny it, use it to hurt ourselves, or express it inappropriately.
Its not surprising that we are uncomfortable with anger, given our intensive conditioning that anger is wrong or bad or sinful. From our earliest experiences with anger we have been shushed, shamed, separated, shut away from others, and often slapped or threatened. Don’t you talk to me in that tone of voice! I’ll give you something to be mad about [SLAP]! You re so cranky, it must be bedtime. Don’t talk back to me. Not in here, take that out to the athletic field. Our childhood is filled with parental, teacher, and other authoritarian messages that our anger is intolerable, unacceptable and unnecessary. Perhaps these well meaning adults were making a distinction between feeling and behavior, but such a distinction is virtually impossible for most children to understand.
By internalizing those messages about anger, deep within us we become afraid to feel what we feel. We create fantasies that if we let our anger out we might hurt or kill someone, or the building will explode, or we will be shunned and shamed and have to go away, etc. But wanting our anger to disappear doesn’t actually work. Instead, often it leaks out. Perhaps when were driving the car…in traffic…when someone else’s driving upsets you. You probably know the feeling, someone cuts you off and you want revenge, maybe you even want to kill them. The sign says the lane up ahead is closing. You dutifully merge right. Then you watch as several cars go zipping ahead in the now empty left lane. You blow your horn, curse, become infuriated, lose your cool.
Or maybe your anger leaks on your loved ones. You’re on a short fuse. You snap at your friends and family. Your wit is sarcastic and biting. The slightest provocation sends you to tears or rage or both. You’re quick to slap. You find yourself sounding just like your own parents (and you vowed you’d never treat your kids the way you were treated). Perhaps your therapist or doctor or minister or friend has suggested you are depressed (that you are angry at yourself).
Or you let your anger out, you yell, you argue. You tell whoever, in no uncertain terms, that you are boiling mad. And it doesn’t make anything better. In fact, now everything feels a little worse. And there seems no clear way to repair the damage.
Having read the above you may be thinking, Anger may be OK, or at least unavoidable, but how can I make it less devastating? How can I cope with my anger? How can I cope with your anger? How can I cope with your anger when you direct it at me?
Coping with anger is simple…but not necessarily easy. Like most things, it takes trust, some practice, as well as some learning. And, the better you get at coping with your anger, the more space you create to give and receive love.
The first thing to understand is that our feelings are rarely one emotion or another. Rather, feelings cluster and combine. We usually speak of feeling angry when we are also feeling frightened and ashamed and hurt. When I became a certified Parent Effectiveness Trainer (PET) through the Gordon Training Institute, I was taught a wonderful metaphor for our feelings. We talked of the feelings iceberg. Remember that only 10% of an iceberg shows above the oceans surface, 90% lies submerged and hiding. Just so with our anger. While anger may show on the surface, beneath the surface can be sadness, fear, shame, hurt, and more.
Physiologically, the part of our brain that is responsible for feeling, the brain stem, only experiences pleasure or pain. That’s it, just pleasure or pain. It doesn’t make any further distinctions. Then the thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, analyzes, distorts, deletes, generalizes, compares, judges, categorizes the feeling into anger or fear or whatever. Then we apply language to the thought and get more specific. So, when we angrily tell someone we are angry we may never realize all the other ways we are feeling pain. And when were done yelling or screaming or righteously lecturing, we don’t feel better, the relationship isn’t better, nothing seems better. We decide that expressing anger doesn’t work. We exposed 10% of the iceberg and ignored the other 90%, letting the submerged part crash into us and sink our relation-ship!
A key strategy for coping with anger, yours or anyone else’s, is to look at the entire iceberg, to find out what is under the anger. The nature of feelings is that, once acknowledged they transform. Saying sentences that begin I’m frightened that… I’m hurt that… I’m sad that… I’m ashamed that…, we begin to understand more of what is sourcing our pain and begin to free our feelings to change. When someone is blasting you with their anger, ask them to also tell you about their other feelings. As we acknowledge all the iceberg, it melts.
Within the myriad feelings associated with anger usually there is an unexpressed want or need. Discovering that want or need lets your anger become a tool which helps you achieve your wants and meet your needs. Often our wants are contradictory, and this confuses us. Another coping skill is to allow yourself to want what you want, without regard to practicality or logic. In the moment of anger you may want to hurt someone else. As you accept this want, you realize you just want to go away. Accepting this allows you to realize you want to cry. And on and on it goes, each want revealing another want, while also gently leading you out of your anger. Often, expressing the want is more important than any way we might act on the want.
Perhaps the most common source of anger is our own inability to love ourselves, our self-hate. Most of us have a deep self-hatred that we created in childhood. We use much of our adult energy trying to run from or hide from or cover over these feeling of low self-esteem or low self-worth. The source of this self- hate is easy to find. Sometime in our early childhood we had a need that didn’t get met by our parents. Because we were very young, we believed in the omnipotence and omniscience of our parents, they seemed all-powerful and all-knowing. We took on the idea; If these god-like beings aren’t meeting my need, then I must, in some way, be broken or damaged.
We grow up knowing that we are flawed, unlovable, insupportable. To counteract this we decide to be perfect, that is to say, to be who others want (I just wont need anything. I’ll do everything right. I shouldn’t be afraid.) We have the experience of feeling terminally unique, thinking we are the only one who feels this bad, and we could die from this feeling. Believing that the only way we will ever have our needs met is to hide this flaw, we become angry whenever anything feels like it may potentially expose us. So the deeper we go into relationship with others, the more angry we are likely to act towards our beloveds. This gives rise to lots of confusion and hurt feelings (as well as some good Country & Western song lyrics).
Obviously, the path out of self-hatred, the path out of anger, is to love yourself. Cheryl Huber, in her book There is Nothing Wrong With You describes the journey out of self-hate. First we try using our self- hating behaviors to be a good person. We value others over our self. We deny our self unnecessarily. We use our ideals against our self. We suffer. We try everything to make our self-hate conditioning work, but we cant. At some point, if we are fortunate, we begin to look within, to challenge the idea that there is something wrong with our self. We find some form or practice of self-awareness or self-love through meditation, church, therapy, anger workshops, life. We find compassion and self acceptance. The child within us is reborn.
As everyone who has ever attended a twelve-step meeting already knows, maybe the best path out of anger, the path out of suffering, is expressed in the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Chip August, is a workshop leader with the Human Awareness Institute, a certified Parent Effectiveness Trainer (PET), and a personal growth coach. Chip offers individuals, couples, and families help transforming our relationship with each other and with our own thoughts and feelings. If you would like to learn more about anger, grief, shame, passion, please join me at one of my day- long Passion workshops or call me for private sessions.