What is your response to anger: to fear it, avoid it, or express it in destructive ways that you later come to regret? Let’s face it, few of us have learnt how to have a healthy relationship with anger.
What is anger and its function?
From an evolutionary standpoint, the role of anger was to protect vulnerability and neutralize threat. When there is threat, the primal brain sends us to ‘fight,’ ‘flight,’ or ‘freeze’ mode.
With fight-flight, the body is prepped for mobilization. Hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. In addition, mobilization to fight alters our outward appearance: lowered brows and squarish mouth, rigid body stance, clenched fists, dilated pupils, and a readiness to attack.
While these responses served us well when we were cave dwellers, under constant threat from marauding wild animals or invading warrior tribes, it tends to get in the way modern society which lacks pressing survival-related needs, such as hunger for food or dangerous predators.
Because anger is still “hard-wired” into our brain without a real purpose it can “misfire,” leading us to overreact or rage about things that are inconsequential (not life-threatening).
Many caregivers who are on the adoption or fostering journey agree that anger is the number one emotion (or primitive reflex) that constantly lets them down. For example, children exposed to trauma in their foundational years will do anything to validate their belief that the world is a dangerous place. If that means intentionally provoking or exposing our vulnerabilities, then they will. And if we accept their invitation, we confirm what they already believe to be truth. Anger serves neither party.
But we can do things differently. Here are three ways to update your relationship with your anger.
Don’t justify your feelings
No matter what the situation is, your feelings (particularly anger and resentment) do not need justification.
It is a part of the human design that we suppress anger directed at those we trust and depend on. From childhood, our mind is designed to do this without us even knowing. This is because, from an evolutionary perspective, the bond with our caregivers is a life-or-death matter. The idea that those we rely on can fail, or that we would do something to upset them, is unfathomably frightening.
We know from the work of Janina Fisher, author of Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, that despite growing into adulthood most of us have a “part” stuck in an estranged relationship with anger. We have learned that when anger comes, it is often followed with feelings of guilt and shame, so we suppress it before we it takes hold. We binge eat, we numb ourselves, we get depressed, or we turn aggression towards ourselves.
But sometimes our anger erupts in unexpected ways at unexpected times. In the body, it feels like a simmering volcano has released its energy. It is so intense, it can feel like an out of body experience. When this happens, we feel alarmed by our rage and often find ways to justify or rationalize it away: “I had a bad day,” “I haven’t been feeling that well,” or “I just need a break.”
And so, we go back to suppressing anger. Except that spending so much energy to hide from our anger, we are taking a smaller slice of life and end up feeling half-human.
We can only work with the knowledge, capacity, and resources we have. Inevitably there will still be unmet needs and disappointment. Don’t minimize it. Instead, imagine anger as a kind of universal energy that goes around, and when it enters our system, it needs to be allowed to go through, and then released. Say the words, “I’m disappointed” or “I’m hurt” out loud, then punch a pillow or go for a fast walk.
Know that anger does not equate blame
When anger surges, our mind has a hidden belief: “Someone must have done something wrong.” Following that, it goes: “If it is not others’ fault, then it must be mine.” However, this is not true.
What often bubbles to the surface alongside anger is the weight of baggage we carry for our family of origin. Think about it. You respond with violence when triggered by your child, because this is what your father did. And, perhaps, his father before that. It’s a known fact that caregivers who mistreat their children were likely traumatized by an adult themselves as a child.
Trans-generational trauma is the notion that unhealed trauma can be passed down. According to M. Gerard Fromm, author of Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, trauma experiences that human beings do not (or cannot) process and integrate often get passed onto the next generation. Physically, trauma may be passed on through epigenetics (for example, a mother who experienced sexual abuse may pass on a fear of intimacy to her daughter). Psychologically, parents can pass down trauma through what they say or don’t say (for example, a father maintaining toxic silence about specific issues).
But our history doesn’t define us; it is a separate entity that has been attached to us. By practicing introspection, we can decide what beliefs, behaviours, traits are ours and what is not. Then separate from that which is not ours.
Understand anger never negates love
Relationships are complex. It is rarely just one thing. Love and hate, closeness and distance, hope and despair are not mutually exclusive. Anger is merely part of love. To truly love someone, including ourselves, we must also integrate anger as a part of our whole. Janina Fisher tells us if we go through the process of being curious about the younger child in us who was stuck (“Why does she want to fight? Is it because she was never given a voice?”), we will inevitably get to the next steps of the psychological and spiritual maturation process—grieving and accepting. Grieving is digesting disappointment: “what we needed but didn’t not get”. Accepting just means seeing: “what is.”
If we can accept “what is”, we are released from the tyranny of false expectations. We are triggered less often in our daily life because we stop projecting false expectations and disappointment onto the (present-day) people in our lives. But it goes further than that. Accepting “what is” also helps us to see the person we are angry at with compassion; possibly seeing their own limitations for the first time.
In the long run, recognizing the role of anger in our emotional repertoire will only enhance our capacity for love—for ourselves, those who have hurt us, and those who desperately crave it from us.
Did you know? Caregivers who integrate anger are:
- Calmer when interacting with children
- Better able to promote emotional and relational health
- Less afraid of their children’s anger
- Less need to be as angry
- Less likely to do damage when angry
- Able to better appreciate underlying causes of a child’s or adult’s anger
- Less afraid of their own anger
- Better able to break destructive family legacies around anger
- Feel more in charge and confident.
© Felicia Stewart, 2019