Anger is the Costume that Hurt Wears
Why are we so resistant to feeling anger? I often hear clients describe anger as a “useless” or “destructive” emotion. As a result, they do anything to avoid or distract themselves from what can be a very healthy and telling emotion. Unfortunately, American culture exhibits a clear bias towards positive thinking: to be happy, we must never engage our negative thoughts and feelings. To do so would be pointless and would only take up the space where happiness is supposed to reside, right?
Yet, anger is vital to survival. When we perceive a threat to ourselves or our loved ones, we respond in one of three ways: flight, fight, or freeze. Anger is an expression of the fight response, stimulating adrenaline and readying us to fight when we detect danger. How is this relevant in our more day-to day lives? Anger acts as an internal alarm system that tells us when something is wrong. Once we hear the alarm bells, it is up to us to figure out what triggered them. Anger helps shape our moral compass and helps us stand up for our values. It helps us create, communicate, and hold to healthy boundaries. Consider a woman who is regularly mistreated by her boss at work. His frequent put-downs, interruptions, and condescension brewed an anger in her that moved her to stand up for herself and insist on better treatment.
Avoiding anger altogether can be just as disruptive as expressing it ineffectively. Often anger can make us feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. It can even spark our impulsive selves, pushing us to act out before we really know why we feel the way we do. When we try to deny an emotion, it throws us off balance, and blocks us from understanding the root of what is bothering us. As a result, we may act out, lash out, or allow our fears to block us from moving forward. However, when we ask ourselves, “Am I really angry, and if so why?,” and “Is there anything underneath this anger?” We can begin to understand what the anger is communicating to us and what we need to do in order to grow and heal.
More often than not, anger is the costume that hurt wears. It feels less threatening and vulnerable to show anger rather than the hurt that is fueling it. If a husband becomes angry after his wife returns home from work several hours late multiple times in a week, we have to ask is this really anger? Or is he feeling hurt that her schedule interrupts their time together to connect? Similarly, when two partners break up, often one or both of them will begin to demonize their ex because it is more tolerable to feel anger and hostility than it is to feel sorrow and rejection. In this last example, the anger prevents us from moving
through the necessary understanding and closure of the relationship that, in a way, will help us in our next one.
Get to the heart of your anger! When you’re feeling anger, instead of ignoring it or dismissing it, try asking yourself if there is anything underneath it such as fear (of a perceived threat) or hurt? Remember, you have to feel it to heal it. Find a safe space and way to let your emotions flow through you. Maybe you need to scream into a pillow, punch your bed or go for a run. Maybe you need to sit with the sadness underneath and sob until you feel your body start to calm and settle. Perhaps it’s time to call your therapist.
When we start to accept and welcome anger into our emotional vocabulary, we open up more possibility for knowing what is really going on within ourselves and what we need to do in order to heal and grow.