Two Approaches to Anger

Anger is a complicated emotion most often triggered by feeling unfairly treated.   I don’t know that the exact recipe for anger can be arrived at, since it is a protean emotion that comes in many distasteful flavors.   A feeling of aggravating powerlessness is probably always present, as is fear and the associated fight or flight chemicals — and feeling hurt.   Having unfair things done to you that increase your feeling of powerlessness, of being disrespected, will almost certainly make you angry.

I knew a couple who rage at each other constantly.   When their children were young the man agonized about the damage they were doing to their growing kids by openly warring in front of them all the time.   Apparently they couldn’t help it, when the rage built to a certain point they simply had to start screaming at each other.    Unfortunately, this kind of thing sometimes happens in families.   I saw a lot of rage in my childhood home and, in spite of a lot of hard, conscious work, I am still not entirely healed from it.   I am 62, by the way, and have come to understand there is no complete healing possible, if you’ve been scarred enough by violence. You might learn to do much better, but that’s the best you can do.  The damage is always there too.

There are two common approaches to anger.   One involves feeling and expressing it and the other’s main concern is repressing it.   Anger is a supremely threatening emotion, and either way, express or repress, there is a cost.  

The only productive use for expressing anger in a relationship, it seems to me, is to let someone know (and this only works if the person cares about your feelings and is not enraged themself) why you got angry.   If you can make the reason you’re hurt clear, there is a chance the other person, being aware of your sensitivity, will do better to avoid doing the specific thing that hurts you and makes you angry.    That is the best case scenario.   It is hard to do, and is only effective if you can express what you need without anger.   That’s another good reason to calm yourself before attempting to talk to someone who has made you mad.   Feeling anger and being able to calm yourself enough to talk about the underlying issues is hard to do, hard to learn, takes a lot of practice.

I understand that this path requires sitting with a painful emotion, deep thought, difficult introspection, digesting how much of the anger-producing situation might be your own doing, figuring out what you could have done differently, better.  It means engaging with an extremely unpleasant emotion.   The upside is that if you can express your needs clearly and sensibly, and the other person is mature and not a jerk, things might be better in your relationships.  

The way of repression, suppression, denial is a lifelong trap, it seems to me.  When my warring friends make up they scrupulously pretend that everything is fine, speaking softly, walking delicately on yer proverbial eggshells.  The underlying things each does to provoke the other to rage are waiting, poised, sly, opportunistic, always at the ready.   They leap out at each other with teeth bared, ready to fight to the metaphorical death.   This couple has learned nothing about their mutual rage over the course of many years, except that pretending everything is fine is preferable to looking directly at the monstrous emotions that make them want to kill each other.  Until those emotions take over again and they are screaming at each other while their now adult children wince.

If you become adept at suppressing anger you inevitably suppress other emotions that make us human.   If you don’t allow yourself to feel the common human emotion of anger, something each of us has to struggle with, you also deny yourself the mercy to forgive, to fully and freely feel the many changing emotions that are part of life.  You must be eternally vigilant against anger, clamp down on every other strong emotion in the interest of repressing anger.

The most positive, grateful, peaceful person in the world will, from time to time, encounter aggravating and frustrating situations and people.    You don’t have to always express anger, it’s better to remain mild, sure, but you really do have to feel anger to learn to deal with it better.   Training yourself not to feel anger no matter what will make you a kind of monster.   That is because the anger is actually impossible not to feel once provoked and the feeling has to go somewhere.   If you suppress it, the anger can only go inside.   Anger turned inward produces depression, anxiety, self-justifying assholishness of every kind.

I knew a guy whose best friend in college, a writer he looked up to in the writing program they were in, was screwing the guy’s longtime girlfriend on the sly.   Apparently turned to him in a bar one night, smiled and sang “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” to him before he quietly went off and seduced the young woman.   This guy wrote a reality-based novel about his college days, and his narrator agonizes for chapter after chapter about why his girl has suddenly, unaccountably given him the cold shoulder.   After page after page of self-torment it turns out the novel’s charismatic protagonist, the writer friend, had turned her into a party girl.    She was no longer interested in the bookish sidekick, she moved on while this guy wrote a doorstop of an unpublished novel about it.  

I asked the guy why his doppelganger in the memoir-based novel wasn’t at all angry when he found out the reason for his months of unbearable misery, the double betrayal by his best friend and his lover.   He told me he simply wasn’t mad, that’s what actually happened.  Not very satisfying from a narrative point of view, I told him.  But it’s exactly what happened in his life, he said, defending his choice to write an accurate, if thinly fictionalized, account of what actually took place.  Forty years later, he’s still good friends with the now professional writer, though he himself no longer writes.

This same guy suffers frequently from a particularly active case of Tension Myoneural Syndrome.   That is crippling pain, usually in the spine, that is (according to Dr. John Sarno, this man’s guru)  the body’s dramatic attempt to distract the consciousness of the sufferer from crippling, terrifying rage.   My insistence on talking about anger, and working on reducing its power over my life, has made this man decide to write me off as a person not worth knowing.    I have to laugh, though it’s not a pleasant laugh.   Fuck the guy’s wife, you’re cool.   Engage the subject of the anger that torments most of us, that actually physically cripples him regularly, and you are fucking out of bounds, sir, completely fucking out of bounds!

Oh.  So sorry!

Another sad illustration of one the many ways undigested anger can fuck you up.  

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