By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Anger is the natural emotion that the body uses to protect itself. It is actually part of the immune system. It is an automatic response to being threatened or hurt. If someone elbowed you in the face on the subway what would you feel? Pain. And also anger. But it was an accident? It doesn't matter. Anytime someone harms you, you automatically will be angry. You may not be aware of that anger, but it’s there and will affect you.
Dealing with anger in healthy ways means that you must recognize that anyone who has suffered any mistreatment at the hands of others during any stage of is life is most likely harboring angry feelings.
It's what he does with those feelings that counts.
All the research now shows that being chronically angry causes all kind of horrible health problems such as heart disease cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and many others. Not to mention being often angry is a miserable way to live and generates great interpersonal conflict.
So how do we deal with our anger in healthy ways?
The answer is we need to understand where it’s coming from. As I said above, it comes from being harmed by others. Now who are the absolute most important people in any person’s life? That is, who has affected your life the most? Your parents. A person's parents are completely responsible for the entire creation of their child's personality and life. I’m sure your parents loved you very much and did the best they could for you. However, all parents, even loving, well-intentioned ones, make mistakes in raising their children. Those mistakes hurt their children to a certain extent, in some cases less, in some cases more. However, to the extent that those parents did hurt their children, even accidentally, we know that those children must be angry! That’s the simple truth.
The vast majority of anger that people feel is regarding their parents!
Parents have such a huge responsibility towards their children, that their mistakes have huge ramifications. Even in cases where people suffered abuse by people other than their parents, their parents are usually part of the cause of that abuse. Let’s say a woman married a man who abused her terribly for many years. Some of her anger will be directed towards that abusive husband of course, but her parents played a big role. It was their job to see to it that their daughter married a good husband, and they failed her. Even if she chose to marry him herself, it is her parents who set her up to make that terrible decision! Therefore deep down inside that woman must be very angry at her parents! It goes without saying that people whose parents divorced or separated during their childhood, or those who grew up with only on parent, or suffered real mistreatment by either parent, will be harboring huge anger towards them.
Anger is often repressed!
What do most people do with their anger towards their parents or early caregivers? One unhealthy response is to repress it, block it and prevent it from flowing. Such people may be totally unaware that they are angry. Repressed anger generates a whole host of illnesses including anxiety, depression, ADHD autoimmune disease, cancer and others.
Why did they repress it? Many children who were mistreated or whose parents made mistakes and experienced immediate anger were unable to express it in the moment, because it would have been too dangerous. To express their anger towards their parents for mistreating them would threaten their secure attachment to them, which they absolutely depended on as a matter of life and death. Children are extremely fragile, sensitive, vulnerable and dependent. Being mistreated in any way by parent totally terrifies them. They're automatically afraid that expressing the resulting anger towards their parent will only intensify the mistreatment. Would a 7-year old feel safe saying to his parents, “You are mistreating and neglecting me! You are being a terrible parent right now and are causing me lifelong emotional problems and that makes me furious! I insist you stop right away!” How would the average parent respond to that? What young child has the wisdom and maturity to say such a statement?
Therefore as a matter of survival, most children need to repress their anger.
They are overwhelmed by angry feelings, but their fear of rebuke for expressing them is stronger and they therefore learn it is much safer to repress them! This becomes a lifelong habit. Whenever they may be mistreated by boss, friends or family members they respond by repressing their feelings. If anger from their childhood pops into consciousness, they repress it. Repression is a very common unhealthy way of dealing with anger. Such a person may not be aware he’s angry, but the anger is very much there and alive, simmering just below consciousness, where it causes all kinds of mental and physical health problems. Such repressed anger is a constant strain on him and to a large extent it defines his life.
Expressing anger toward the wrong person!
However there's another unhealthy way to deal with anger, to express it toward someone besides the person who actually hurt you. Once again the child is too terrified of losing his parental attachment to express his anger towards his parents for hurting him. A child needs for his survival to idealize his parents, and admitting that they are harming him is too dangerous. So instead he expresses that anger towards other children, siblings or especially himself. That becomes a lifelong habit of expressing rage which really should be directed towards his parents, towards his spouse, family members, co-workers, friends or many other innocent members of society, or especially himself. Indeed low self-esteem is an important manifestation of anger expressed towards the self. Such “Anger Management” people rage endlessly at many individuals, but the anger never seems to subside or be resolved. This is because he is not directing it at the ones who hurt him.
Now expressing anger towards the ones that indeed did hurt him, in a controlled and responsible manner, is dealing with anger in a healthy way!
It serves to protect him from future mistreatment, as the aggressor will fear his angry response and may refrain. In addition, expressing anger towards the perpetrator gives the victim a sense of justice, especially if his grievance is heard and accepted. There is truth when the anger comes home to roost in the lap of the aggressor and this is healing. Furthermore, the expression of anger may trigger remorse and regret in the aggressor or even an apology or begging for forgiveness and this will also be immensely healing for the victim. However when the anger is mistakenly directed at someone other than the perpetrator of the mistreatment none of the above benefits come in to play. A person can rage all day at his wife, children boss, friends, family, God and society but it is all in vain. He knows deep down inside that they're not the ones who hurt him, therefore it brings no resolution. He can rage endlessly against everyone but will never deplete or resolve the reservoir of rage he feels against his parents. Such unhealthy expression of anger leads to heart disease and stroke and tremendously anti-social behavior. The anger is often directed at the self, leading to depression and a whole host of mental illnesses. Such people are often totally unaware of who they are truly angry at, because of an archaic childhood need to idealize their parents, even when they mistreated them.
So what is the path towards dealing with anger in healthy ways?
The answer is we must not repress or forbid it, nor express it towards the wrong people. We must fully recognize, validate accept and truly feel our anger, including an intense awareness of who it is truly directed towards. It’s called being honest with our feelings! Even children who were abused by strangers are truly angry at their parents because it was them who were responsible for neglecting their job of protecting them. We must become consciously aware of the fact that we are angry at our parents. We must gain a detailed understanding of all the mistakes they made and how they hurt us. We must recognize the monstrosity in the gravity of those errors and their far-reaching effects upon us. I know a patient who was verbally abused by his mother, and after coming to therapy spend 3 months of 30 minutes a day raging, crying and screaming into his pillow his anger towards his mother. After that the relief he felt was incredible! It sounds controversial but we must fantasize about justice being meted out towards our parents for their mistakes. This will help us truly recognize how much we were hurt.
Seeking an admission from our parents
Then after processing all this anger in therapy significantly for a period of time until it is no longer fresh, we must approach our parents in a wise fashion. We must explain to them that we love them very much and would like to have a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with them, however we are having some mental health problems that need to be sorted out. We then ask them if they would be willing to help us heal our emotional health. Most parents when approached in such a respectful fashion would be willing to help. We then tell them that we recognize that although they loved us very much and did the best they could in raising us, they unfortunately made certain mistakes that affected us, and it would be immensely helpful and healing to our emotional health if they would recognize their mistakes and even apologize. Such a recognition would be immensely healing to our emotional health and will completely defuse and resolve our angry feelings. One patient I know had the above conversation with his mother who admitted, “I'm sorry about the way I raised you, I'm sorry I hurt you. I just didn't know anything about parenting. I hope you get better.” Just hearing those words once caused years of anger to melt away, and resulted in an amazingly beneficial relationship with that parent!
Why is such an admission so important?
We must understand that parents, even of adult children, possess incredible power to influence the psychological reality and beliefs of their children. If a parent denies he ever hurt his child, the child will tend to deny it too, and this will prevent him from recognizing his anger, processing it and healing. He will always have this nagging thought in the back of his mind, “Maybe they’re right that they didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe I have no right to be angry.” Therefore his anger will remain repressed and unresolved. But and admission from the parents shatters those lies and promotes tremendous healing. If the parent is no longer alive or unwilling to admit mistakes, then he much fantasize about such an admission.
In order to learn about dealing with anger in healthy ways, the above work needs to be done under the guidance of a wise and empathetic psychotherapist.
Never despair of finding a resolution. Many people have persisted in this great work and found great healing.
For my specialty page on Anger Management Counseling, click here.