You think anger's dangerous. That you have to keep a lid on it. But it's actually a valuable news flash from your gut.
Laura was angry at her boyfriend, she told me in our first therapy session. While he claimed to love her, he was still living with someone else. He assured her that he no longer had romantic feelings for this other woman, only that their lives remained entangled in ways that made leaving her difficult. Laura had waited patiently for him to move out, understanding his caution, but some new hesitation on his part suddenly seemed too much and Laura let him have it. In a rage, she told him she no longer wanted anything to do with him, and for a day and a half she stuck to what she'd said. Then she felt her resolve slipping away. She relented: She was lonely without him.
On the surface, Laura had a boyfriend problem. But the underlying issue was one that plagues a lot of people: the inability to handle anger effectively.
Sure enough, Laura's difficulties spilled over into other areas of her life. Her 9-year-old son liked to sleep in her room, which made her increasingly uncomfortable. Periodically, she'd make a stab at weaning him from his habit, buying him something special to make his room more enticing or telling him he was too old for this. When neither tactic was effective, she would yell and threaten him. But when he trudged to her room in the middle of the night, she didn't have the heart to send him back to his bed.
Like many of us, Laura would lose her temper to no good end. Pushed to her limit, she made threats she couldn't uphold and lost the respect of those who'd offended her.
In my practice, I've noticed that sometimes our relationship to our own anger is more troubling than our relationships with other people. We might have a fight-or-flight response to feeling irritated. Like a wild animal threatened by a hunter, we're propelled into crisis mode by stirrings of rage. Our angry feelings may be so charged and so forbidden that they have to be quickly repressed or vented—for which we judge ourselves mercilessly.
I explained to Laura that anger might be cause for reflection, not for immediate action—that she could learn to tolerate her feelings long enough to learn from them. "Isn't anger bad?" she wanted to know. But in the next breath, she revealed her confusion. "If I'm so angry, shouldn't I express that?" And then "If only I could stop being so emotional..." Rather than see anger as a valued component of her emotional makeup, she treated it like a waste product and spewed toxic material at those she loved. I sensed this was a sign of a broader fear of conflict and a deeper feeling of helplessness: Laura had no confidence in her ability to sway her boyfriend or set limits for her son.
My work with Laura proceeded on two fronts. First I had to show her that anger, in its essence, was not bad, even though I agreed that the way she sometimes acted was self-destructive. Then I had to help her find ways to put anger to work. "Your feelings aren't the problem," I repeated many times. "The danger comes only from what you do when you are angry. How can you be more effective?"
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.