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Angry or sad

Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with anger: we flip between occasionally or often blowing our top or being scared of our own anger and trying our best to suppress or avoid it. I call this Anger (capital 'A'), it either blows outward in 'hot rage' or goes deep inward, buried as 'cold rage'. We may not even be aware of it; tending to pride ourselves on our ability to stay calm and be quite a placid type of person. But the symptoms may speak to us.

Symptoms of repressed/unexpressed anger

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • digestive disorders
  • headaches
  • insomnia
  • compulsive eating
  • anxiety
  • procrastination
  • sarcasm
  • bitterness and resentment
  • craving a drink … to name but a few

Anger is one of the strongest emotions in our repertoire and carries with it the greatest potential for us to do harm to ourselves or others, and the greatest potential to be a force for change in our life. However, in order for it to be a positive force we have to move to letting go of the stuckness that we carry with anger so that we have a healthy relationship with it.

Resolving Anger – Understanding the Past

In my seven years of working one to one with people from all walks of life, ages, cultures it is clear that the past affects our relationship with anger in different ways. Often people are brought up to fear, feel guilt or shame about anger. For example, if a father was emotionally unstable and would lose his temper, the child will be fearful of the unpredictability of anger and may decide not to do anger because he or she makes a judgement about it. Or a child may have been overtly or covertly 'punished' for getting angry, thereby given a clear message of it being wrong or bad to get angry; or sometimes they are laughed at or ridiculed.

Think about the things that make toddlers angry: not getting an ice cream, not being understood (a little girl being called a boy, for instance), having a toy taken off them and given to a sibling, not getting the attention they crave. A young child's anger is pure, animal-like, and if parents have got their own anger issues, it can be hard for them to understand or deal with a child's rage, so instead of helping the child reason and understand what they are feeling and experiencing, the adult puts their own shadow onto the child, often giving them clear messages that this is not ok (the child's unconscious mind only has one way to take this, 'if this is how I am feeling, I must not be ok, I am not ok, I am bad, worthless, unloveable' etc). Thus stuckness around anger, 99 per cent of the time in over 600 client hours psychotherapy, resides in the years 2 to 5 years old.

Anger: the emotions beneath it

What causes us to get angry? if you look closely it is being or feeling unjustly hurt or losing something (a physical thing or love or a loss of self, i.e. being misunderstood). So close on the heels of anger is sadness. Watch a toddler cry angry tears and you will see this. Then, if we are not given permission to feel what we feel, we learn to put a layer of emotion on top of that. We may feel guilt or shame about getting angry, we may feel afraid of our own anger. So the unhealthy relationship has layer on top of layer. Which is why most people bury it so deeply. It seems like a Pandora's box to them, they dare not open it for fear of what they might find.

Anger and Rage – losing it

When we do let Anger out, it is often not in our control, we lose it. And we are usually aware, on some level, that our reaction was out of proportion to the triggering event (something that was said or done to us etc). We are aware that we have over reacted, which puts layers of shame and guilt on top again. And we are right about this over reaction. In such moments, we are not experiencing anger, we are overtaken by Anger which is chained all the back to the past, through all the other angry events all linked through this one to the very first event at which Anger got attached. So the Anger in the moment, is not a pure present anger from the moment, but carries the force of all the other Anger all the way back years into the past. Which is why it feels so overwhelming.

Anger at the root of depression

Likewise I have seen many people get sad instead of angry. Little girls are often taught that it is not ok to get angry (little girls are all sugar and spice and nice), so they are given more 'permission' to get sad and cry, and this is what they do, displacing their anger into sadness (reaction formation as a defence mechanism). Conversely, it is more ok for little boys to get angry than cry (little boys don't cry), so they don't cry, they do anger instead (grumpy old man syndrome, anyone?).

For both sexes, repression of Anger through denial, projection, avoidance, makes anger go underground. It turns inward on us. And we hold or repress these negative emotions in the body – so we develop physical illnesses related to heart or gut. Over time, that powerful build up of Anger, chained all the way to the past, becomes 'cold rage' and is the root of a lot of depression.

I always tell my psychotherapy clients that anger is a healthy human emotion and can be a positive force for change. When we are hurt unjustly by another, or lose something of ourself or something we own we can use anger (lower case 'a') to rally action: assertiveness, take action, speak up for ourselves. Then the emotion of anger is fleeting and used in a proactive way. But to get to this point requires that we deal with unresolved issues around anger first.

Dealing with unresolved anger

  1. Encourage a healthy expression – For many people, especially women, I have to start with helping them become more comfortable with anger by encouraging a healthy expression of the emotion. Many have not felt the emotion for many years, having spent a lot of unconscious energy suppressing it. We work with gentle, mutually agreeable exercises that the person can practice at home. This often brings a tremendous feeling of relief.
  2. Identify the first memory/event – Once the client feels safe enough, we identify the earliest event where anger was experienced in an unresolved way. This may need to be patient work, dealing with great resistance by the unconscious mind, but is always an amazing experience for the client, with a tremendous sense of relief and freedom. Often this work goes back to the age of 2-5 years old.
  3. Work with the higher rational mind to have learnings – This event is brought into focus by the higher corticol mind so that the adult client can take insights and learnings from it that the child wasn't able to experience. This 'bigger picture' might include why people behaved the way they did, why the child behaved that way – this gives a sense of acceptance. Once these insights and higher learnings are taken, the Anger is resolved and let go of and replaced by other, more neutral or even positive emotions.
  4. Break the chain of Anger – the chain is already broken once we do this initial work, and then I work with the client to help them take these learnings into other events where they got angry during their life and resolve them too.
  5. Understand the gifts – As part of the process, I make sure that the client understands and appreciates the 'gifts' that have come from this event, perhaps it enabled a strong, rebellious side of them to be born (protecting them from being engulfed in others' expectations), perhaps it was the root of their 'please others' pattern which has won them popularity and friends. It is important for the client to understand these gifts as strengths, which can be used with more choice and awareness, and if over-used, have become part of the problems in their life. So now they have far more choice.
  6. Allow sadness, guilt, shame – A final part of the process is to deal with any underlying negative emotions that were wrapped up in Anger, which usually now present themselves.

On some level, most of us want a happy, peaceful life, with vitality and wellbeing and fulfilling relationships. Unresolved Anger can get in the way of this, causing conflict and illness and troubled relationships. We are the only person who can take responsibility for the living the life we want to live and working on resolving Anger is a big step in that direction.