The ability to separate feelings from action—so fundamental to our well-being—was very underdeveloped in Laura. She disliked anger but also gave herself over to it completely. In this she was like her parents, whose tempers would fly at the least provocation but would berate their chidren for any signs of rebelliousness. Laura had melded these two traits: scolding herself for feeling anger, yet surrendering to it.
Laura needed to step back and permit her angry feelings to percolate until she could figure out what to do. She had no model for this and, at first, could hardly believe it was possible. But once she understood the concept, there was no shortage of opportunities to practice.
Her son was in the habit of demanding that she stay in the bathroom while he took his bath, and she was afraid to say no. She catered to him until she lost her temper, then withdrew violently until guilt made her back down. Rather than become overwhelmed by her feelings, Laura needed to focus on what she could do to change the behavior that frustrated her. I suggested she experiment with disappointing her son at bath time. Much to her surprise, he became upset only briefly before adjusting to her new rules. But as we discovered when Laura became more accepting of her anger, she didn't really think she deserved to get her way. This was due in part to the way she was raised.
Psychoanalysis has a lot to teach us about the healthy development of anger, which helps children emerge with the confidence that they can shape their world. It's important that parents handle their children's rage with the right touch. The British child analyst D.W. Winnicott used to say that the parent's job is simply to survive in the face of a young child's anger: not to retaliate and not to abandon.
If parents retaliate too much, the child's self-assertion goes into hiding. She learns to put herself down just as she felt put down, and her anger survives only as a destructive rage that emerges when all else fails. But if parents simply back away, the child inevitably feels her anger is too powerful. She must have done what she fears the most—driven away those whom she needs. Anger, for such people, seems too dangerous to ever become an ally. Only when parents permit anger without overreacting can children learn to develop this emotion into a potentially useful force.
Anger is a sign that something needs to change. For Laura, that meant her boyfriend's hesitations and her son's sleeping habits. Being firm with her son required her to survive his disappointment, outlast his anger, and tolerate her fears of being as punitive as her parents had been. The first time she walked him back to his bedroom at midnight, she lay awake for much of the night, afraid he would come storming back into her room. He slept much more peacefully in his own bed than she did in hers. When she began to limit her boyfriend's clandestine visits until he worked out his separation from his other girlfriend, she was terrified he would leave altogether. But this strategy was much more effective than losing her temper and then reneging. It took him longer than she would have liked, but he extricated himself from the other relationship in order to be with her.
Learning to use anger is no easy task. Yet the alternative—letting anger use us—makes us prisoners of our own minds. Anger is not the enemy, and we're not helpless in the face of it. It is only an energy—one that, with practice, we can harness for our good.
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