Some Thoughts on Anger

September 24th, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately. Not because I’ve been angry–I’m not an angry person by nature. Irritable and cranky, yes (just ask my kids). But not angry. We all have our go-to emotions and mine tends to be self-flagellation.

Still, anger’s on my mind these days. Looking around, I keep seeing people choosing to be angry in reaction to painful situations, and it’s made me start formulating a theory about how anger is just an easier emotion to live with than sorrow, grief, guilt, or shame.

You can see it on the smallest scale: you knock over a glass of water, feel a momentary sense of frustration and embarrassment, and suddenly you’re shouting, “Who the hell left that there?” It feels so good to get angry at that moment! So cleansing and absolving. So much more pleasurable than feeling like a dolt.

And I’ve noticed that anger’s the go-to emotion for people dealing with a break-up. It sucks to feel hurt and sad and maybe even a little guilty. If you can just blame the other person for the whole thing–if it can be his or her fault that things didn’t work out–then suddenly rage burns out all that wounded stuff and gives you a feeling of power over something that was making you feel completely powerless a second ago.  Now that you’re mad, you can yell and swear and make that other person cringe–and look! You are an Avenging Angel, not some sad little lonely person!

I think men are even more likely to go to the anger place than women. I’ve known a couple of truly terrific kids–smart, sensitive, caring–who would fly into inexplicable rages once in a while. Except that they weren’t really inexplicable: usually there was some instigating factor, some unfairness or cruelty or embarrassment that preceded the rage. They’d already learned that if you’re a boy in our society and you show fear or shame or sadness, you’re teased for being a wimp. So they learned to turn all those other emotions into anger. Because it’s okay for Real Men to be angry. That just means they’re active and tough. Those other emotions are for GIRLS.

I wish we could find a way to teach all our kids to sit with their emotions and let them just be what they are. I wish we, as adults, could do that. In my work with autism, I’ve seen far too many parents who are frustrated and scared and uncertain, and who turn to anger as a relief from all those other uncomfortable feelings. Sitting at home alone with a child who can’t talk to you can be challenging, and teaching that child to communicate can be hard work–it’s so much easier to go on a crusade against the forces of evil, to convince yourself that this whole thing is the fault of the medical establishment and its many venal conspiracies. Feel that anger course through you! It blows everything else out of its path, doesn’t it? You have a clear mission: expose the enemy! Rout the evil! Fight the man! There’s no time to sit and let everything sink in. Anger doesn’t want you to think–anger wants you to ACT.

I’m not saying all anger is unjustified or wrong. There are times when you should get angry. Getting angry at a situation can give you the kick in the butt you need to get active about fixing it. And sometimes people really do screw you over and need to know you won’t stand for that.

But before you get angry at someone or some conspiracy, stop and think about what other emotions you may be trying to avoid. Is there sadness in your life? Are you feeling loss? Have you regretted something you’ve done or do you feel guilty about something you didn’t do? Do you have a wound that hasn’t healed? Have you inflicted a wound and wished you hadn’t? Are you anxious and worried and not sure you know how to deal with a problem at hand?  Probe at yourself. If there’s pain there, be open to it. Let it come through.  It may not feel good or uncomfortable, but it’s yours and you need to own it. And I honestly believe that if you can open yourself to feeling the bad stuff, if you can sit with it and claim it as your own, you won’t need to get so angry at other people.

Letting herself be sad . . .

Letting herself be sad . . .

Although . . .  you may still feel a little cranky and irritable when they leave their dirty dishes all over the house for the ants to find and enjoy.

I’m just guessing on that last one.