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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008

Anger Is Your Friend

Five reasons to listen to your anger and take it seriously.

By Bina Breitner

People have many good reasons not to dwell on anger. Letting off steam is one thing ("Did you see what that driver did?!" "I'm furious with my boyfriend. . .!"), but serious anger can be scary.

"Intense anger upsets everyone," my clients protest, "including me. It's bad for my health — I grind my teeth, it stresses my heart, it ruins my sleep and my digestion. Anger doesn't change anything, so what's the point of spending time on it? I just tell myself to get off my pity-pot. Nobody wants to be around me when I'm angry.

"Besides, look what happens to angry people. They lose their relationships. They lose their jobs. Nobody wants to hear about my anger. It wrecks everything."

They're right — anger is inconvenient. If they acknowledge deep resentment toward an important person like a parent or a spouse, for example, they could upset the status quo of their entire family. Or, if they're mad at themselves because they know they could have done more with their lives, why dwell on that? It hurts too much. Or if they've been sexually abused and still feel hatred toward any hint of sexuality, they probably don't want to spend time on those painful memories and feelings. If the anger is masking another feeling (fear, grief, helplessness, disappointment), why would they want to peek behind the anger and find feelings they haven't been able to deal with?

I know it isn't prudent or easy for them to explore their anger, or to do anything about it. But where does that leave them? Stuck.

So I ask a different kind of question: "What is your relationship to anger? Are you friends, or do you hide when it rings your doorbell?"

What if anger is a first cousin to pain, like the "ouch" of touching a hot stove? You'd never downplay the pain response; you'd move your hand away from the burning heat. Anger is like that pain. It's trying to communicate something to you. The stronger or more frequent the anger, the more important the content. When people avoid their anger (for all those good reasons), they're avoiding crucial wisdom and internal guidance.

Here are some of the benefits of listening to anger and taking it seriously:

  1. You do yourself justice. You get mad only when something isn't right. The anger is telling you to pay attention to the way things are supposed to be (for you). It's on your side, and it's one of your best friends in the whole world. If you listen well, it will help you honor feelings and issues you've previously ignored.

  2. You learn more about what you need. If you listen with respect and real curiosity (the way you'd listen to any good friend), you can figure out a lot about what you should be doing for yourself. Then you can shift your perspective and actions accordingly. (By the way, finding out what you need and deciding what to do about it are two different processes. Listening to your anger is not a prescription for action, just for understanding. Figuring out what actions to take, if any, comes later.)

  3. You save energy. Attending to your anger means you won't have to wear yourself out trying not to feel it (stuffing that energy into the nearest overflowing emotional closet and holding the door closed). The dyspepsia, backache, elevated blood pressure and gnashing of teeth are the body's struggle to accommodate and control the energy in unresolved anger. If you admit you're angry and start respecting the reasons, you don't have to send that energy into your body for uncomfortable storage.

  4. You feel less angry. Anger, like any other feeling, calms down when it feels heard. The more you listen to it and try to understand what's going on, the less it has to scream and kick to get your attention.

  5. You become kinder. When you listen respectfully to your anger, you're more open to yourself, and that always means you can be more compassionate and open to others — in sum, you can be happier.

When clients are persuaded to talk about anger at all, they usually start by judging it ("It's bad to be angry"), minimizing its power ("I wasn't really that upset"), talking themselves out of it ("It didn't really matter"), distracting themselves from it ("But the important thing was. . ."), and strategizing about handling it better ("I have to realize she didn't mean to hurt me, and rise above it"). All of these ways of relating to anger ignore the fact that anger has its own goals. What does the anger want? Why is it there at all? When did it start? Why won't it go away? What is it trying to tell them?

Invariably, when they settle down to having a good relationship with their anger, they discover that it's self-protective. Maybe the anger has become indirect or convoluted, because direct expression was blocked, but it's still trying, in some way, to keep them in balance.

Of course, it's hard to work through anger. It's a "negative" emotion, so it doesn't feel good. It disturbs the equilibrium people have spent years establishing. The power of it scares people; anger can make them do or say things they later regret. It reduces their ability to think clearly. It makes them feel temporarily out of control, which is irrational (and therefore "bad"). It's unpredictable, so it's unsafe. Anger carries destruction within it — in its most extreme expression, it leads to murder. Most disturbing of all, anger tells some essential truth: It can be convoluted, but it can't lie. Anger doesn't care if people like what it has to say, so when they listen, they have to face painful realities they'd rather avoid.

Add to these deterrents the fact that most people don't know how to talk about anger, and you see why they'd rather not deal with it at all. It doesn't help that English offers such a limited vocabulary about anger. You wouldn't know about its complexity from our language: Maybe we feel "irritated" or "frustrated," "put out" or just plain "mad" (and all the slang phrases and expletives, of course). There are degrees, rising from "irked" to "furious." But our words don't acknowledge the varieties of energy encompassed by anger.

There's the quick, adrenaline-rich surge that flares up at short-term insult; the long-term, despairing resentment of being caught in a family pattern; the impatient, frustrated scolding we give ourselves when we aren't living up to our potential; the ongoing stream of disdain and rage we feel toward people or circumstances repeatedly disrespecting us; the self-perpetuating anger that deliberately keeps us caught in earlier, unresolved parts of our lives; and so forth.

But we have to try to understand the subtleties of anger, because otherwise we're ignorant of important information about our well-being. The angry feelings stay in our body, and problems don't get resolved. (You're a lot less likely to commit that murder if you give your anger another, more constructive outlet.) If only as a practical matter — to respect ourselves, to work through stuck relationships, and to walk into the world every day carrying less distress — we're better off if we engage in a conversation with our anger.

In reality, once we get past our prejudice against it, we realize we should be grateful to anger. It's our true friend, whose messages are essential to our health and happiness.

Bina Breitner, MA, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at 808 W. 8th St. in Silver City. She can be reached at 538-4380 or binasun@yahoo.com

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