Let’s Think About Anger

Culturally we seem to be avoidant regarding anger as a natural human emotion. We have some sense that, when we have feelings we do not want to have, we have somehow done something wrong. If we were managing ourselves right, we would never feel sad, or disappointed, or frightened, but most of all, we would never feel angry. Feeling angry with another person makes us feel like we are bad persons. We do not grow up learning how to be angry with people we care for without becoming destructive.

Anger, like all the emotions on our human smorgasbord, is a natural aspect of our response to the world. When we are unfairly harmed, purposely thwarted, or used without regard for our well-being, we have a natural response of anger. But it gets educated out of us until we often don’t even know we are feeling it, much less are we able to express it. Not only are we challenged in expressing anger, we are challenged in receiving the expression of anger from someone else. It is so complex, so unpleasant, and so potentially harmful, that for the most part we try to avoid it altogether.

How can we retain a feeling of connection, safety, and engagement with another person when one or the other of us is feeling anger in the relationship? How can we respect our own experience without sacrificing the depth of our relationships? Is there a conflict between affiliation and anger?

Hmmm. Those are big questions. Here are some beginnings of ideas: First of all, it is important to distinguish between the natural emotion of anger and a motive for destruction or harm, which is a form of rage, whether it is expressed as anger or not. In other words, genuine anger is specific, it is proportional, and it responds to a dialogue. If we excise our natural emotions, we will lose the ones we want as well as the ones we don’t want. If we anesthetize ourselves against anger, we will also be numb to joy.

Another perspective is the significance of being able to be angry without fear of abandonment or retaliation. In this scenario, anger is actually a tool toward greater intimacy because it is a genuine, deep expression of our inner life. It is a sharing of ourselves with the purpose of expression, not with the purpose of revenge. Anger is about being hurt, and protesting that hurt.

It is dicey territory to be sure. First of all, people can claim to be hurt by us as a way of making us feel bad–in other words in the service of a destructive motive. People can express anger in destructive ways, and sometimes the only person who can gauge this is the person on the receiving end. Anger can be unjustified, implacable, and irrational. But it can also be real, meaningful, and vulnerable. There is no simple way to tell the difference. But it matters.

Sometimes when I am hurt, and then angry, the other person has unnecessarily harmed me, either inadvertently or purposely. People do make mistakes. But sometimes when I am hurt, the other person is innocent and I have either on the one hand unwittingly manipulated or interpreted the situation to feel hurtful to me or on the other hand expected or demanded that the other person do, feel, say, or act in the way I want them to. And then expressing anger is a destructive act.

Anger is difficult. And complicated. And it can devolve into destructiveness. But it can be a signal of a need to share our experiences and see what happened. It can be freeing to be able to express genuine, strong anger without fear of repercussions. It is very much a matter of our deeper motives and our freedom of mind. The thing is, we cannot be authentic human beings if we cannot respect all of our experiences in the world and our responses to them.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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