Anger…Suppress or Express?
Anger is something that everyone experiences, at one level or another, and it needs to be expressed to maintain emotional health and intimacy. Most people have a murky relationship with anger and how to express it in a way that isn’t hurtful to oneself or others.
When we don’t learn that anger is a natural human experience we will pretend we don’t feel what we feel and that ultimately turns us further away from ourselves…and then others.
If we grow up watching anger occur unskillfully we learn to mistrust it, fear it, suppress it or explode with no sense of control. Sometimes it seems to be an easier strategy to be angry at ourselves rather than at a source outside of us. But this has its consequences too.
Anger Responds to Violation & Unmet Needs:
Anger is often a result of a perceived violation or unmet need. For example, when I was growing up there was someone in my life that didn’t honor my need for boundaries. They would invade my space and violate my basic sense of safety. In this case the behavior was a perceived threat to me and because this person played a key role in my life and I didn’t feel safe to be angry for fear I would lose connection with the aspects of the relationship that I really needed.
As children we have a basic sense of what’s okay and what’s not. We know we deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. In our process of development we may ignore when someone overrides our boundaries. We may create strategies to avoid feeling our basic need to be seen, loved and feel connected especially if it isn’t available or consistent.
It can be confusing when we experience someone who is quiet and then suddenly explodes by slamming doors. Or someone who has a short fuse continually erupting at the smallest incidents. We learn to stay small and quiet to avoid these kinds of confusing signals or to avoid feeling blamed as the source of the outburst.
Anger can arise when basic needs are not met like. For example, do you know the shrilling sound of a very hungry infant? Their cry can sound angry and sharp. They are trying to get their caregivers attention. It’s a form of communication indicating something is needed. They follow the impulse of the moment and let it go when it’s done. As adults it becomes more complicated for a number of reasons.
What is our relationship to accepting the natural impulse to be angry? What did we learn as a child about anger and how is that informing our current relationship to anger, unmet needs and the violation of our own boundaries and safety?
Our Culture’s Relationship to Anger:
Our culture doesn’t frequently speak about or welcome anger. Anger runs on a continuum and there is an extreme of anger that is violent and life threatening. I’m referring to the range that is a natural response to a boundary being crossed or the experience of an unmet need. Many people learn, or misunderstand, from their spiritual path that an enlightened or good person doesn’t get angry. This represses the natural emotional response to a perceived loss or violation.
I remember being in the middle of a child custody process with my parents from the age of 7-9 and having no sense that I had the right to be angry. I just felt like I had done something wrong for them to still be fighting and so the anger turned in towards myself. This kind of anger turns to shame and self-judgment. My older brother, on the other hand, didn’t hide his anger and exploded often because he didn’t know what to do with all of the pain either. I punished myself and others punished him.
The Impact of Anger on Our Health and Body:
When we don’t feel safe to have or express our anger we start to contain this life force and eventually may experience exhaustion and even health related issues. If showing anger as a child was met with disapproval, or love was withheld, or violent anger was returned towards us then we learn to suppress it, turn it inwards or explode outwards and experience more punishment.
When something is repressed it will come out sideways and create pain in another way often exaggerating the experience of not feeling connected, being seen for who we are, valued for being our unique self and trusting our experience. This is painful.
Unexpressed anger creates more disconnection, self-judgment, suppresses our life force and depletes our energy resources. Other experiences such as depression, disengaging, checking-out, complaining, guilt or crying to mask the anger may occur.
Our physical body stores the energy that is not released and we may experience physical pain, headaches, addictions, substance use, clenched jaw, tension in the arms and digestive issues.
Courage to Cultivate a Healthy Relationship With Anger:
Authentic and connected anger begins inside. This can be a scary place to go alone because we fear that if we open the door to this fierce place we’ll explode, hurt ourselves or someone else. It’s helpful to have a guide who will support us to study our beliefs and how we navigate in our daily life related to anger.
- Are we unaware anger is present until we explode?
- Do we experience a lot of shame and self-judgment that masks as unexpressed anger?
- Do we experience repeating cycles where we innocently feel the target of other people’s rage?
- Do we tend to feel stepped on by others asserting their needs and minimizing our own?
Working with anger doesn’t require us to go back to our childhood to repair it, although that may be a perfect gateway. We can meet how anger arises in our daily life as an adult through what’s alive today and simultaneously repair the experiences when we felt the initial wound and created our strategy to deal with anger. I create a safe container for clients to investigate their relationship and behaviors related to anger. This allows the body to release the unexpressed energy and make room for more life force and vitality back into the system.
From my view anger is welcome. It is an important key to heal our heartbreaks, feel our strength and experience our desire to live with more peace and harmony. It takes a lot of courage to turn toward these scary places rather than away from them. After years of being in this process personally I have found that I have much more energy and trust when anger arises. I see it as an important radar system indicating that something is not clear or aligned and I need to investigate.