If I am being wholly honest with myself, I have not escaped thinking of the emotion of anger for years. I began graduate school to study Clinical Mental Health Counseling in the fall of 2012; a short time after, I had started therapy with a new counselor who told me, point blank, that I held a lot of anger inside of me. What this anger had to do with is not important, so much as the power she believed this anger to have over me…the power to stop me dead in my tracks and keep me stuck, with no ability to move forward in my work or my personal life.
I, of course, being the stubborn know-it-all that I believed I was (and clung to, like a suit of armor to protect my fragile sense of self at the time), told her she was wrong about me…I then stopped putting so much effort into therapy, and eventually went to see her less and less. What left my life was the guide to becoming a happier, whole person, free of my anger issues. What stayed in my life was the anger itself—that visceral, primal angst and pain that I always believed someone else was responsible for. It was always about a relationship spat, or that bad driver who cut me off on the way to work, or that person who refused to see my side of an (insignificant) argument…it was always about someone else. “If you could just admit you were wrong, this could all be over. If you would just stop being so inflexible, we could just move on. You should just change the way you treat me, and I would not feel this way.” YOU could. YOU would. YOU should.
Does anyone see what is wrong with the above picture? (Don’t be upset if you don’t—I was in training to be a psychotherapist at the time, and I could not see it clearly myself for several months to come). The problem here is actually twofold. The first problem was that I was not accepting any responsibility for my own feelings by constantly blaming them on other people. The second problem was that I was allowing others’ actions (even if they were irksome in a sense,) to dictate my feelings and thoughts. This is the inherent problem with anger as an emotion.
Once I began practicing psychotherapy myself, I often heard colleagues referring to the feeling of anger as “the secondary emotion.” After sitting with this idea for some time and not only living it myself, but seeing it in my clients, I believe this to be very true. Anger itself, when felt as a result of a situation between people that did not go as one planned, is only the tip of the iceberg. Take, for example, something small (as I said earlier, someone cutting you off on the way to work.) You may be angry for a split second, but underneath that anger may have been anxiety, (“Could he have caused an accident?”) frustration, (“I cannot understand how people think driving like that is okay.”) or even annoyance (“Ok—we are all sitting in the same traffic, is it really necessary to drive like that?!”) Anger was not the only emotion at play. But instead of feeling that anxiety, or frustration, or annoyance, we choose to hold onto anger more readily. This point becomes even more evident in more significant interactions between people. I like to think of relationship issues as prime examples here. Any person you talk with has had them at some point: whether it be a hard conversation with a parent, partner, friend, colleague, etc. Someone blows off your plans last minute without calling? Someone you thought you loved betrayed you in a way you never expected? Someone makes an insensitive remark about something or someone you care deeply about? There are a million examples here. The point still stands that you feel hurt. You feel disappointed. But you GET angry. What you often show to the world is the anger. Not the pain, or the anxiety, or the frustration, or any other emotion that is below the surface. The reason for this is that to show our feelings is vulnerable. It is difficult (and no one is denying that). There is always the possibility for more pain when we show and accept our true selves.
The point that I am trying to make, however, is not that anger is not an acceptable emotion; rather, that when we deny ourselves the ability to both feel and accept these other, more difficult emotions, we let the anger take a chokehold of us. We allow it to keep us stuck. We allow it to suffocate us, to never let us go. We feel justified in our anger in many situations. And it is perfectly okay to feel justified in anger. It is just not okay to become stuck by our anger. Because your anger will not hurt (or otherwise affect) the person you are angry with. It will only hurt (and affect) you.
Anger, for a long time, felt powerful to me. It felt comfortable, too. I got angry about the littlest things. (And if I am being honest, I still get angry about little things now and again. I am human, after all). The difference is that it does not happen nearly as often. And when it does, I am now able to ask myself the question of, “what is really underneath this anger?” And the follow-up question of, “can I accept this feeling and allow it space, so that it does not hinder me?” To everyone reading this, please know that the answer to the second question is not a resounding “yes” every time. And that is okay. Because we are all works in progress. The first step is the acknowledgement of one’s feelings. Because without that, you stay lacking insight, lacking awareness, and lacking forward motion. Once the emotions have been identified, you must then allow yourself space to feel and hold those deeper, more vulnerable truths.
It is okay to not feel okay all of the time. Being human is messy. But you and you alone hold the power within yourself to change that cycle of staying stuck in your anger and accepting yourself and all of your messy feelings. Only once you accept can you truly let go.
(And thank you, therapist who held me accountable years ago. I was not ready to admit it then, but you were right.)