Anger is a signal and one worth listening to! — Dr. Harriet Lerner
"Do you think you're angry?" she said softly. Confused, I looked at her like she had ten heads.
This statement was coming from the woman whose office I sat in every other week for six years. For all that time, as the deep emotional wounds of my life oozed out, I readily cried many, many tears of sadness.
But anger, me - really?
And this was the first time she asked.
And this was the first time, I thought, "okay maybe".
And then, the dam broke open.
Wide freaking open.
Boy, was I ever wrong, I was livid and with good reason.
Years of feeling powerless had taken a toll.
What I've come to understand and appreciate: Anger is alerting us that something's not right and
needs to change, but we push it down and down. Scared of the repercussions, of disapproval, or of being labeled as a "bitch." (or worse). Our carefully-crafted identities, especially as women, as the big-hearted, peacemakers in our relationships, we're more afraid of it than we want to reveal. We define
ourselves by relationship (I'm a mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, etc), but we often forget, we're human above all. And anger is a normal human emotion, especially when a woman is confronted with a term used by Dr. Harriet Lerner, in her book The Dance of Anger, called "de-selfing." This occurs when too much of our thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions are 'negotiable' under pressures a relationship.
We basically compromise ourselves out of existence. Instead of asking, "What's wrong with this relationship?", we often ask: "What's wrong with me? And in doing this, we create an imbalance of emotional burden. One doing more of the work of relationship than the other. In a healthy relationship, both parties must contribute in equal measure to their own individual work - as well as to the health
of the relationship.
Let's remember, no score card needed.
While men are more comfortable expressing anger, women are often more comfortable expressing sadness. And the society we live in reinforces this. And yet, if you are a passionate person - like me, anger is just the shadow side of that golden virtue. You can't have one without the other. Fire is fire. Rarely, however, is anger a primary emotion, but often a secondary one to pain, loss, sadness, fear, disappointment, and frustration.
Noted psychologist James Hillman once said, "Being outraged is a sure sign that our soul is awake."
Personally -- I'd rather have a soul that is awakening than a deadened one.
A few years ago, a former friend shared with me that she threw eggs at her husband in a rage. I was so floored that I didn't even bother to ask, "Were they hard-boiled or scrambled?" [Ouch]. Because the
old me couldn't even imagine getting to this point, but after years of suppressing my anger, as I maintained "peace at any price," I can see it. We protect others at our own expense - and then our anger comes out sideways after years of attempting to extinquish it (unsuccessfully with booze, food, TV, or any number of mind-numbing addictions).
As I've come to learn, this peace at any price was way too expensive.
It took me years of therapy, a Shamanic healer, and countless hours of meditation to see the origins of my anger. From a twelve- year old girl who after her parent's separation did anything to avoid conflict
to a grown woman trying to be "fine" (when clearly I wasn't). It took an enormous amount of energy to maintain the facade of having it all together.
But here's the most important lesson: We either get angry, or we get sick. Through the
process of uncoupling and emotionally divorcing, I got very angry due to the fear associated with more loss. Naturally, it's a big part of the grieving process. Anger and all emotions are just energy. Once I realized that I could utilize that vitality to create positive change in my own life, it dissipated.
I took back my power.
And I set myself free.
• Harriet Lerner, PhD, The Dance of Anger
• Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow
• Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames