Anger: powerful, frightening, driving, intimidating. Anger is something we have been taught since childhood to fear and despise. We are angrily told not to get angry, our arguments or value discarded whenever we allow ourselves to become angry. Some amongst us are so afraid of this emotion that they will forbid themselves from feeling it at all, thinking they are better for never getting angry or frustrated. But anger is not just punching walls and terrifying people, it can also be a driving force that pushes us onwards, that forces us to pull ourselves together when we have been pushed down one too many times.
Anger is just an emotion. It is not dark, or light. It is how we use it, how we harness it that will decide whether it is an emotion that will destroy us and those around us or whether it will allow us to achieve what we may have thought was beyond our capacities.
The first question we were asked on the day was a simple one.
‘Do I get angry?’
The unanimous answer was ‘yes’, with a few slightly self-conscious laughs. But it isn’t always that simple. I have met, and know, people who never get angry. No matter what happens to them, they seem unable to get angry. Whereas I can’t help it. I will burn with anger on a regular enough basis to have become well acquainted with the emotion. What makes me angry were things echoed around the room: injustice, frustration, my self-esteem being attacked, or my physical safety being threatened.
Those four things are the key causes of anger. To any of these things happening, the natural reaction is anger. It is a defence mechanism as reliable as the flight or fight instinct. It tells us we, or others, are under attack and that it’s not right. It is an inner warning mechanism that we need to act, even if we might need to calm long enough to make sure we are acting in the correct way first.
Of course, sometimes we overreact to small things, we are only human after all. Who hasn’t flown off in a rage at spilling a drink or messing up something or at something that suddenly wasn’t working properly? (Not just me, I imagine). But as with legitimate anger, the true test isn’t in the scale of our anger, but in how we act upon it.
The anger paradigm tells us that there are three common ways in which people deal with anger. Firstly, anger can be stored. By this I mean that we internally put it in a box, lock the box, and throw the key to the bottom of the ocean. Stored anger is present in those people who never seem to get angry, and those who disapprove of anger: they have taken their own anger and buried it so deep that they can no longer connect with it and therefore judge any anger as lowly. But stored anger is not healthy, and it takes its toll on the person’s body. After all anger is a powerful emotion, and keeping a lid on it is pretty much like placing the lid on the pressure-cooker and not taking it off no matter what. Eventually, something is going to give. Depression, physical illnesses (ulcers, etc…), substance abuse, and so on can all be side effects of stifled anger.
Anger comes from pain, emotional, mental, or physical. And when it is supressed and stored, that pain is stuffed out of the way with it. Therefore, body, mind, and soul are left with no way to cope with what has happened and instead seek ways to deaden and divert the pain.
The second way to deal with anger is to express it. But there isn’t just one way to express anger. Instead the expression of anger falls into two categories: destructive and constructive. Destructive anger can be very visible through direct (aimed at the cause of the anger) or displaced (aimed at a substitute for the cause of the anger) hostility. Some people will also emanate what is referred to as free floating hostility: we have all seen them at some point, men primarily (but women can also demonstrate this) who seem to be angry at the world permanently, who you would cross the road to avoid passing because you feel you never know what might make them snap. Finally, apathy, or self-directed hostility is another way destructive anger can manifest. This type of expressed anger can turn us into bullies and abusers. Often people are so afraid of their anger that they have no way to reign it in when it shows up and so they are swallowed whole by it, acting completely inappropriately as a result.
Finally there is the constructive way of expressing anger. Here, instead of being overwhelmed by the feeling we allow ourselves to feel it. We have realised that anger is not something to fear or run away from and so when it washes over us we are entirely in control even as we allow ourselves to just feel however we feel. Once we have let the initial surge of it pass we can then think (about why we are angry? What caused it, and whether our anger is justified), talk (discussion and confrontation if possible with the source of the anger), and act (seek resolution or redirect our energy towards moving forward, protecting ourselves if the resolution is not possible), using the initial and underlying anger to build on whatever caused it. This is the way in which anger can drive us. It is the anger that makes us stand up for ourselves and others, helps us make the decisions that will change our lives, helps us survive. Without this anger, there is a lot in the world that would not come to pass, and this is the same in our lives.
Sometimes this pattern of constructive anger will lead to forgiveness, but we’ll talk about this in a moment.
Dealing with other people’s anger can be just as difficult. If the anger is unjustified or has been re-directed at us from another target, it can be even harder. We are likely to get angry back, throwing up a shield of our own anger to protect ourselves. This happens because anger can be intimidating and as such by becoming angry ourselves we are putting ourselves on what seems to be an even level with the angry person. The other, very unhelpful way, of dealing with someone’s anger can be to belittle their anger, tell them it is unjustified and that it won’t help, that they shouldn’t be angry. Policing another person’s emotions has never been helpful, neither is dismissing their emotions going to allow them the space to calm down.
The correct way to deal with someone’s anger, is to first and foremost try to empathise with them. Really trying to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes can go a long way to explaining why they are so angry. Validating their feelings, letting them know that we understand, even if we were the source of the anger (which can make this difficult as we will have to overcome our own reactions to do this), can go a long way to helping them. After that, anything from apologising to asking for clarification to offering a compromise can help resolve the argument. Keeping calm is an important tool as long as we don’t use that to become patronising or condescending of their anger.
The goal is to find a solution, not to win the argument (ideally arguments can be avoided if we are listening properly), and to leave the angry person feeling valued and listened to. If their anger was an overreaction there will be time for them to apologise later, and if it was justified, they will feel validated and more able to channel it to better, more constructive things. Of course, angry confrontations put the self-esteem of both parties at risk: but lying, bluffing, become over-defensive, or dismissive of the other person will not help keep anyone’s self-esteem intact. Instead, staying calm in the face of anger and offering empathy and validation will do more for the self-esteem of both parties than anything else.
One of the most important thing about dealing with anger is to remember to speak in ‘I’ language, by which I mean that you should never assume you know exactly what the other person is feeling unless they have explicitly told you. Do not, ever, tell another person how they should, or shouldn’t, feel about something, and remember that we are all responsible only for our own behaviour and that we must all take responsibility for it and not blame it on anyone else.
Anger can take a very physical toll on our bodies and it is something that needs to be remembered when we deal with clients. Those who have repressed anger will show many signs of this, from avoiding eye contact, to recurring illness, to defending the people that have hurt them. These people will minimise the impact of everything on their lives, be tired and moreover they will be devoured by a feeling of guilt. As guilt and anger cannot cohabit one becomes a deterrent for the other and as we are taught that anger is bad, guilt becomes the immediate response to feeling angry. There is a hopelessness to those who lock up their anger: they have robbed themselves of a very real driving force in their lives.
Good techniques to help those people may be a questionnaire about anger, the use of the stones to see where they position themselves compared to everyone else in their lives, the timeline to see where the anger or repression of anger began, the Gestalt techniques of roleplay, letter writing, and of course working with them through the anger paradigm. Of course, each client will be different and will need to be helped through all these things at their own pace. Our goal is to find the original pain that is causing the overwhelming anger and find a way to heal it.
After anger, we discussed forgiveness. The first question here was also simple:
‘Do we always need to forgive?’
Here, again, the answer was unanimously ‘no’. There are simply some things that cannot be forgiven, perhaps even that should not be forgiven. Often, however, it is worth noting that we do not seek to forgive for the good of the one that has hurt us. True forgiveness will never be for another person, only for ourselves, coming when our anger and hurt has finally ran its course. Of course, this might not require forgiving the person that hurt us, it might simply require that we let go. Instead of carrying this suitcase of our anger and pain, we may simply at last place it down and move on, lighter, without it, without ever having needed to forgive.
We live in a society where forgiveness is held up as this thing that we must all reach and achieve, forgiving the worst criminals for the worst of deeds. Abused children are asked to forgive their parents, battered spouses to forgive their partners, victims to forgive the criminals, as though forgiveness was a saintly hallow we should all aspire to. But I think it is less forgiveness that we should aspire too, and instead the feeling of ‘letting go’ that is what we need to strive for. When we become capable to put down our baggage and demand nothing in return, then we are freer then if we force ourselves to forgive the unforgivable. Of course, some people will want to forgive and will be able to work their way to such a thing, but it should only ever be done because they want to and never because they feel they have to. Forgiveness is not owed to anyone, nor deserved by anyone.
We often see forgiveness as the true goal of the healing process, but the truth is that the letting go, the becoming freed and in control of our past hurt is the true endgame. Forgiveness comes as an added part for those who wish to give it. Others may simply choose to cut ties or simply to let go but never forgive, simply holding that person slightly more at arm’s length than they might have once done. As with everything, what is most important, is to respect what our client is wanting to achieve and give them the tools to do so in the best possible way for them. There is not just one right way to deal with anger and forgiveness, and perhaps that is what can make it so difficult to tackle from person to person.
I do believe, however, that the day we all learn that anger is an emotion that should not be feared, then we will all have taken a massive step towards being more able to express ourselves and control ourselves when anger presents itself.