In Therapy, I Have Learnt My Anger is Healthy
Recently, a very dear friend of mine sadly passed away after living with cancer for five years. When we lose someone unexpectedly, we are assailed by feelings of grief and also of anger. These emotions can be very hard to express, for fear of upsetting other people, or making them feel that they somehow have to find a solution to our sadness.
Our reticence to give voice to our anger in particular reflects the influence of some of the societal expectations that can govern how we express this emotion. Many of these expectations relate to gender. Recent research has shown that people of all genders experience anger to similar degrees, perhaps belying the stereotype that men can be angrier than women. In fact, what this stereotype may actually express is a sense that men are more aggressive than women. This relates to the ways in which each gender tends to express their anger, on which socialisation - i.e. the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society - has had a significant impact. Anger and its bedfellow aggression are often perceived and then labelled as masculine. Men are more prone to physical expressions of anger, and also to impulsive behaviour. Whereas prevalent social norms can stigmatise men who show sadness or fear, women are more likely to face stigma when they express their anger.
Of course, many people reject or are able to break free from these social norms, mainstream culture has changed and continues to do so, and there are many people for whom alternative cultural reference points offer other models for emotional interaction and responses. Nonetheless, research shows that overall both men and women manage their anger in line with the lessons taught them by gender socialisation. From an early age, men have been encouraged to be open about their anger. In the school playground, if boys enter into conflict with each other they tend to resolve it with their fists. Girls on the other hand are taught to suppress their anger. This can lead to their anger being re- and misdirected into more passive-aggressive behaviours such as sulking or gossiping. Research also shows that women are more likely to turn their anger on themselves. Without an outlet for her anger and frustration, a woman may engage in self-criticism and other masochistic behaviours. Over time, this can lead to low self-esteem or even to self-hatred. This type of behaviour can also be at the root of a decision to self-harm.
Personally, I have always been afraid of anger. I did not realise this until my therapist identified my reluctance to express or even admit to any kind of angry feelings. There was a lot of anger around in my childhood. I think what was almost worse than the anger was the threat of it. Something would upset the balance in the family home, and we would then all play a collective waiting game: would the emotions dissipate, or would they erupt into something much more terrible and destructive? Anger always lay at the origin of these explosions of emotion, and much time and thought therefore needed to be dedicated to its avoidance. Most often on the receiving end of my parents’ anger, I failed to recognise my own, and certainly did not express it. Rather, I subconsciously repackaged it as sadness or self-loathing and turned it inwards.
Over my years in therapy I have come to understand that anger can be expressed and that in fact it often needs to be. At the beginning of her book The Dance of Anger, Dr Harriet Lerner says that anger is a signal that we should listen to. Feelings of anger might mean that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs are not being met adequately, or that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives. From my own point of view, the first step was acknowledging and accepting that anger was an emotion I could actually feel. In discussions with my therapist, I would often talk about being upset, stressed, or in a state of panic. Frequently, she would reflect these emotional experiences back to me as an expression of my anger, which she always said she could hear in my voice, even if I was unaware of it. Through our sessions, it became clear that I had come to see anger as a purely negative emotion and one that was to be avoided, largely due to the sense of threat I associated with it in my childhood, Over time, I have come to understand, as is the case with many emotions, that anger in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Rather, the consequences of anger depend on how a person responds to their emotions.
Anger can be perceived as a negative emotion due to the nature of the external factors that may trigger it, such as bullying, humiliation or loss. Anger can also be caused by internal factors such as frustration or failure. An outburst of anger may be preceded by negative thought patterns, which can further cement our perception of anger as negative or harmful, and which also illustrate how anger is often less to do with an event and more to do with our personal response to it. Anger may result from a process of blaming someone else for negative events or emotions. An individual may seek to attribute blame in order to avoid personal responsibility or a sense of shame, and anger displaces those feelings onto another person. Anger may follow a psychological process of generalisation. In moments of stress in particular, we can have a tendency to see things in black and white. We use words like ‘always’ or ‘never’ to describe a situation, with the result of making it seem worse than it actually is, and making our emotional reaction to it more extreme. In other situations, we may keep a mental tally of perceived injustices, which build until we add the final straw. We then erupt in anger that may be experienced by others as an overreaction. If we want to engage with our anger but also manage it and make it more proportionate to events, we need to challenge these negative thought processes.
This can be easier said that done, not least when our feelings of anger are so powerful that it is difficult to consider them rationally. When my therapist first helped me identify my anger, I felt a loss of emotional control. My interactions with people around me - in particular my family - were often governed by the anger that I suddenly realised I felt, whether or not it related to the moment I was in. Having acknowledged my anger, I was overwhelmed by it. While over time my ability to manage my anger has improved, this remains one of the reasons I find anger such a difficult emotion. I still feel that there is a floodgate holding back a whole tidal wave of feeling. Expressing my anger is a huge risk, since the anger of the moment may be overtaken by the anger I have held at bay on countless previous occasions. It is often difficult to identify the precise origins of my feelings of anger in any one moment, and in that scenario I feel that both I and my interlocutor are at risk from my emotions.
The more I am able to acknowledge and reflect on my anger, the more I am able to find safe ways to express it. However, it is still extremely difficult not to turn my anger inwards. In particular, I have a tendency to do this when I think about how dissatisfied I am with my life. Rationally, I can see that angrily blaming myself for poor choices I may have made is self-destructive; angrily blaming a vague notion of Fate or chance creates a sense of hopelessness, which can also lead to self-destructive impulses. Acknowledging my anger as an indication that something needs to change, and seeing it as a positive signal that will hopefully enable me to feel a sense of agency in that process of change – I can do things differently – helps me to see anger in a different light. I recognise that as an emotion it can be as helpful a signpost to me as other, more conventionally positive, feelings. There is still some way to go before I can be completely open with myself and others about the anger that I feel. However, therapy has given me the opportunity to acknowledge and express my anger in a safe place. I am more honest with myself about my anger. Above all I have realised, as far as our own anger is concerned, the most important thing is not to shy away from it.