“When I was growing up,” Annette tells me, “girls weren’t supposed to get mad. Just as we were supposed to sit still, and not speak unless spoken to, we were supposed to look pretty and keep a smile on our face. It’s no wonder I had migraines for so many years. And when I did start dealing with it, I had no idea what to do about it.”
“There was something wrong with her, I think,” Anthony told me. “My ex-wife … she never got angry, all time we were married. Not once.” He paused and looked away. Then he added, “She just threw keys on table one day and walked out. I had no idea there was anything wrong.”
“‘Let it all hang out’ was catchword sometime around late 70’s,” says Martha. “After years of being told NOT to express our anger, we were supposed to do so all time. I remember this period of time as very unpleasant. We got it from all sides. It was very, um, noisy.”
“In 80s, they were telling women to stomp around, talk loudly, and assert themselves. We were supposed to ‘get angry’ in order to compete with men in work world,” says Paula.
Anger … how we struggle with this primitive, upsetting emotion. Denied to women, it was at same time “all purpose” emotion for a generation of men – only legitimate way they could express any emotion, since tenderness, grief, shame and sympathy were women’s territory.
We are more accepting now for both genders to have all feelings (like we had a choice), and yet we still don’t know what to do about anger. “Anger kills” and evidence mounts daily how detrimental this emotion, unmanaged, can be to our health -- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Can’t we just do away with this emotion we dislike so much? Reach some state of nirvana where we’re always “happy” and nothing bothers us? Not likely, and if we could, we’d be missing a great source of information.
The key is not to get rid of anger – or any other emotion – but to learn how to deal with it in a manner that’s not harmful to ourselves or to others, and to heed its message.
There have been more “fads” about anger, than fingers on my hands, and I’ve lived through many of them. So how are we dealing with it now? What’s latest?
Let’s get away from “fads” and get to nitty-gritty about this potentially destructive, yet vital, emotion.
WHERE IT COMES FROM
Anger, in its rawest form, comes from primitive, or reptilian brain. While “anger” encompasses many things when we experience it, comes from many causes, and contains many puzzling layers, at bottom it’s aggression.
Emotions from reptilian brain are designed for survival, and are stronger than our thoughts will ever be. If we didn’t pay attention to them, we might come into harm’s way. They’re designed to preclude thinking. When insult comes, or push, or threat, we react … just as if there were a beast in front of us, threatening our life.
Adrenalin starts pumping and we move into fight-or-flight. There’s no time to think, or we’d be dead … at least way emotion was originally designed to operate. The trouble is, today there are few real threats to our existence, but our bodies don’t know difference, and so we react.
CAN WE IGNORE IT?
We ignore it to our peril. We are our emotions, and if we shut down one, we shut them all down. If you aren’t willing to experience “bad” ones, you can’t experience “good” ones, to about same degree.
I’m reminded of a friend who told me in one breath about death of his mother, and birth of his first child, as if he were reporting Dow Jones for day.
His inability to deal with his grief and anger at his mother, rendered him unable to rejoice at birth of his daughter. Foregoing pleasure was price he paid for being numb.
Our emotions are our guides. Anger tells us something is wrong we need to deal with. And even if “you” choose to ignore it, your body isn’t. It will talk to you in migraines, back pain, ulcers, depression, and fibromyalgia.
Anger compromises immune system. Illness ensues. It isn’t a question of whether or not you can ignore it; you can’t. It’s whether you’re mindful of it or not.
It will also talk to you in aborted careers, shattered relationships, and damaged children. “The sins of fathers are visited upon sons,” refers to legacies of dysfunction.
CAN WE ACCEPT IT?
We have a long communal history of judging our anger and finding it “bad”. It’s hard to accept. It makes us somehow “not nice.” The physiological response to it doesn’t feel good, and we wish it would go away. We want to be “calmed down; at least those of us who aren’t so addicted to it we’re living in a state of hostility, on verge of going postal, walking time bombs, coronaries waiting to happen.