Everyone experiences anger at one time or another. It’s not just human, it’s mammal — if you own a pet dog or cat or horse you’ve likely seen your pet get angry (at you or at another animal or, perhaps, at a visit to the vet). Even though anger is a natural, normal emotional experience, most people have been taught that anger is wrong, bad, sinful, not acceptable. Most of us are frightened of angry men. We only have one word for an angry woman, and that word is definitely not a complement.
Its not surprising that we are uncomfortable with anger, given our intensive conditioning that anger is wrong or bad or sinful. From our earliest experiences with anger we have been shushed, shamed, separated, shut away from others, and often slapped or threatened. “Dont you talk to me in that tone of voice!” “I’ll give you something to be mad about [SLAP]!” “ You’re so cranky, it must be bedtime.” “Dont talk back to me.” “Not in here, take that out to the athletic field.” Our childhood is filled with parental, teacher, and other authoritarian messages that our anger is intolerable, unacceptable and unnecessary. Perhaps these well meaning adults were making a distinction between feeling and behavior, but such a distinction is virtually impossible for most children to understand.
By internalizing those messages about anger, deep within us we become afraid to feel what we feel. We create fantasies that if we let our anger out we might hurt or kill someone, or that the building will explode, or that we will be shunned and shamed and have to go away, etc. But wanting, wishing and hoping our anger will disappear doesnt actually work. Instead, often our anger leaks out onto your partner, lover, significant other. Your wit is sarcastic and biting. The slightest provocation sends you to tears or rage or both. You find yourself sounding just like your own parents (and you vowed you’d never treat your partner the way your parents treated each other).
Or, you let your anger out, you yell, you argue. You’re on a short fuse. You snap at your spouse. You tell your beloved, in no uncertain terms, that you are boiling mad. And it doesnt make anything better. In fact, now everything feels a little worse. And there seems no clear way to repair the damage.
In other words, when we feel angry, most of us either attack the person who “made you angry” (spray it), and/or attack ourselves for being angry (eat it). So the problem isn’t your anger. The problem is what we do with our anger, how we eat it or spray it.
When we spray our anger all over our partner, we turn our relationship into a garbage dump. There we are, with a full load of what is, essentially, garbage. There is our partner, trying to make a point, get heard, reason with us. So we raise the lift gate and dump our garbage on our partner. We blame, shame, bring up the past, name-call, put down, and try to “get even”. But all we accomplish is to corrode the emotional connection at the core of our hope for relationship.
When we eat our anger we blame and shame ourselves. Freud once said that he believed that “depression” was anger turned inward. We don’t communicate all our feelings. Each withheld feeling is like a brick we place in the wall we build between us. Often we feel “stuck” in our anger or hurt or shame. We feel separate, distant, alone. Our relationship becomes a lonely prison.
Here’s a radical notion: What if we could just feel it? What if we could actually embrace the feeling? What if we could accept the feeling? Start by writing the words “I’m angry that…” on a piece of paper or a new WORD page. Now write the end of the sentence – the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m angry that you never put the toilet seat down.” “I’m angry that you leave your underwear hanging all over the shower.” Write “I’m angry that…” again. Now finish the sentence. Keep repeating this until you can’t think of one more thing you are angry about.
Now take a deep breath and notice what else you feel. Sadness? Pain? Fear? Shame? And notice, are you clearer about what you are feeling? Do you think you might be capable of telling your loved one what you see about your anger?