Have you ever let out a really good scream? I have. And it’s brilliant! I feel better. When I focus my mind on whatever or whoever is really bothering me before letting rip, it’s like something gets released.
In my experience though, people are reticent to embrace anger. Our culture is all about appearing calm and controlled. There are no plaudits for being ‘over-emotional’ or ‘too expressive’. Instead, straightforward expressions of anger are almost taboo. It’s branded as a negative emotion.
But anger is one of the core emotions. It’s essential to our survival. It gives us the impulse to fight, to act when something is fundamentally not okay. It gives us the energy to protect those we love and can be an essential catalyst for change. Why, then, if it’s so fundamental to us do we choose to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t exist?
There are many reasons.
One is good old shame. Shame is toxic. It’s an identity, not an emotion It’s who I am. It comes with phrases like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m flawed’, ‘everything this I do is wrong’. It’s tightly bound with emotions and sits underneath behaviours that are often less than helpful. People who heard messages like ‘good children don’t have tantrums’, ‘I’ll only listen when you’re calm’, and ‘don’t be disruptive’ when they were young will probably avoid at all costs. These messages are rarely explicit. More commonly they are subtle, almost as if disseminated in the air we breathe. Experience even the merest hint of anger and shame will kick in and shut it down. They might hear an internal voice saying I should have felt angry but more likely there’ll just be a general feeling of unease and a sense that somehow, yet again, they are wrong.
Another is fear. It’s perfectly normal for children to feel and express anger when they are, for example, frustrated or can’t have what they want. They need that anger to be acknowledged and accepted by someone who’s not frightened of it, which is a long way from giving in to it. “I get you want more sweets, and it sucks that I’ve said no but I’m sticking with no.” If, instead, mum or dad says “please don’t get mad” they might feel their anger is too much, that the other person hasn’t got the resources to cope. The child is left with a big emotion and no one to help them manage it, and that can be scary. To avoid feeling like that again they will make sure they never feel angry, whatever the cost.
Fear can act in other ways to make sure people deny their anger. If you’re frightened of someone’s anger or expect a payback if you express your own, you’re going to quickly learn to keep yours locked securely away. Afterall, you won’t want to trigger someone else’s rage if it scares you.
Choice can play a role too. The children of rageful parents often consciously decide to be different. Remembering the fear they felt when mum or dad screamed and shouted they decide that under no circumstances will they lose their temper. Their anger gets disavowed, put in a metaphorical box and locked with chains and padlocks.
The problem is anger doesn’t vanish at will and it takes a lot of energy to keep it under wraps. It’s exhausting and can lead directly to depression. And it can be far too much to contain. The box we bolt it away in starts to overflow and there’s an explosion in response to something seemingly small and insignificant.
So, what’s the solution? Slow down and take a moment. Accept you feel angry and give yourself some space to explore it. Reflect on its purpose. A child’s anger is a means of communication. It’s saying they want food, more playtime, they’re frustrated something’s out of reach or perhaps that they’re just tired and want sleep. Anger in adulthood also has a message. It’s telling us something’s not okay. We might be feeling the effects of injustice or feel hurt that we’ve been ignored. The anger tells us something’s up and gives us the energy and impetus to do something about it. Another option is, without thinking about it too much, just accept and acknowledge we’re angry and give ourselves the time and space to express it and be heard and validated, at the very least, by ourselves.
The key is to acknowledge and express it when it emerges. Then we’re much more likely to only get angry about what’s in the here and now. Instead of screaming at our partner, when they forget the milk, “you never listen to me you *******”, you’re more likely to say “I’m cross you didn’t get the milk – I need you to listen to me”. The second is calm, confident, clear and connected. Exactly how I feel after a good scream in the middle of a field!