Angry Much? Janine Ayling

Angry Much? (Part one)

Anger is one maligned emotion.  It achieves very poor status when held up against other, more acceptable emotions.  In some families it is rejected outright and denied any ‘breathing space’ at all. There are so many spoken and un-spoken rules around anger in families.  Things like:

  • no-one is allowed to be angry in this house (except the person making the rule)
  • never reveal your anger outwardly
  • we never get angry at each other
  • I’m not angry, just frustrated
  • you must never slam the door/stamp your foot/clench your teeth/raise your voice

With such imperatives, we understand what not to do but so many of us have no idea what to do with anger. If I feel it, I must be bad.  If I display it, I’m worse than bad.  The alternative to feeling it is to push anger down, lock it away in the dungeon of our inner world and throw away the key.

There are many lenses through which to view the topic of anger – including one that I read recently (The Anger Fallacy) that much of our anger stems from our ‘shoulds’.

  • That driver should not have crossed into my lane
  • My partner should be helping me more
  • Those parents should get off their phones and pay attention to their kids
  • My son should call me occasionally
  • My mother should call me occasionally
  • This child should know better than to whinge at me when I’m tired
  • The government should listen to the voters
  • People shouldn’t be judgemental
  • The world should be just and fair

The suggestion is made that each of us can consider the ‘shoulds’ that we’ve developed, inherited, learned and hold sacred as just one way of looking at a situation.  If we were looking at the situation from a different perspective, we might not feel our anger fuel-up in quite the same way – or at all.

It is certainly an observable truth that using anger to try to change other people’s behaviour rarely produces the desired effect.  In fact, the opposite usually happens and the behaviours we are desperate to address become more deeply entrenched.  What do we hope our teenager will say after we’ve screamed at him/her to stop being such an ungrateful, lazy child, turn off the phone/TV/computer and feed the dog like they said they would half AN HOUR AGO!!! Perhaps we genuinely expect them to respond with something like…, “Oh, I’m so sorry my dearest, considerate parent who has ever provided so generously for my needs.  Of course I should get up off my ungrateful butt and feed the precious creature that you, to be completely honest, only purchased, (at great expense, I might add) so that one of my keenest desires to cuddle a furry, well-trained friend whenever I feel sad, might be fulfilled.  You are so kind and benevolent and here I sit, sharing memes with friends/watching yet another series of Game of Thrones/adding pictures of crocheted jellyfish to my Pinterest cache, for hours on end, with an intensity that simply embarrasses me now that I see with the clarity that can only come from your benevolent shrieking.”

Are we expecting our (obviously flawed) spouse to patiently listen, while gazing lovingly into our eyes with an obvious up-surge of blood-pumping affection and admiration as we let the lava of our volcanic anger flow over them, at high decibel, calling into question their intelligence, values, quality of parentage and the diminishing likelihood of them even being considered human?

I don’t think that we honestly expect our nearest and dearest (or strangers for that matter) to respond to our angry outbursts with full, immediate, gratitude-soaked change – so what are we actually expecting when we erupt?  Regardless of misguided expectations, we usually get counter-attack, defence, or at the very least, silence and distance. Why are we consistently using anger when it rarely gives us what we want? Is it a useless emotion or does it have purpose?

When I’m feeling angry, I try to do three things.  Firstly, is the actual ‘noticing’.  It’s about paying attention to the anger as soon as I’m aware of it.  To get better at this, I need to begin to soothe myself down even while my brain is trying to whip itself up into an irate, self-righteous storm, preparing me for some kind of action. Secondly, I label it.  “Hello anger. Here you are”. When naming the emotion, I would try to say what’s activated it, like, “Hello Anger.  I notice you’re here because I’m running late for work and I now have to wait for these roadworks.” Or, “I reckon you’ve shown up because that conversation I’ve just been having with my partner made me feel small and stupid”. Thirdly, I get curious.  I wonder what my anger is telling me. Is this my anger or am I getting riled up on someone else’s behalf?

Getting curious about anger, making ‘space’ for it with an enquiring mindset, allows us to open a doorway to the ways in which this particular emotion functions as a valued part of our inner world.  And it’s a little bit wonderful.  More to come….