I grew up in a family where emotions weren't expressed cleanly; especially challenging emotions like anger. Everyone feels angry from time to time, but growing up I got the sense that there was something wrong with this basic human emotion because nobody talked about it. My parents never seemed to say directly that they felt angry; but it was obvious when they were and their anger came out in ways that I found very frightening and destructive.
Everyone around me seemed ashamed of their anger. Over time, I learned to feel ashamed of my anger too. I denied, suppressed and internalized it as though I was doing something righteous and noble. But the repressed rage built up inside me until eventually as an adult I developed overwhelming anxiety, panic attacks, depression and even a physical illness.
This forced me to wise up and realize that there was nothing noble about denying my anger. But with poor role models for expressing anger constructively in my family of origin and in society at large, who was I to turn to for help?
My answer came in the form of enlightened therapists who understood that anger is a perfectly normal emotion whose purpose is to motivate us when our needs aren't getting met. A powerful energy that needs to be channeled and expressed constructively; not internalized, denied, suppressed or misdirected.
As a therapist myself now, a lot of my clients struggle with expressing their anger constructively. Instead, like me, they internalize their feelings and wind up anxious, depressed and/or physical ill. Or they let the anger build up to the point where they explode and start yelling, which damages relationships.
Whether it's internalized or externalized, unacknowledged anger is a powerful destructive force.
A healthier approach is to learn to express our anger assertively and channel the energy into getting our needs met. Anger seeks expression, not repression.
Like all emotions, we feel varying degrees of anger depending on the situation. The more angry we feel, the more emotionally hijacked we become and the less rationally we can respond to our situation; hence the worse the outcome tends to be. The sooner that we can identify accurately what we are feeling as our anger escalates, the more effectively we can channel the energy constructively instead of exploding with rage or internalizing with anxiety and powerlessness.
When I started learning to do this, even just realizing that what I was feeling was anger was a challenge. I often have clients now tell me that they “didn't feel angry”, after being criticized for instance, but then go on to describe how they became defensive or combative, or start describing their critic with negative labels such as “narcissistic” or “a bully”.
These responses are all indications that we feel angry; but when we've been brought up to feel guilty or ashamed about anger, it can be hard to admit this to ourselves or other people.
This can be particularly challenging in our adult relationships with our parents. My clients and I had parents who neglected our emotional needs when we were young, and this had a long-lasting impact that ultimately led us to therapy. Neglecting a child's need for love, approval and emotional validation can leave deep psychological scars, and it's normal for an adult with unmet childhood emotional needs to feel angry and resentful with their parents when they start to heal and regain their power during therapy.
Yet most of our parents were always there for us physically, and were often very generous with our other needs. This raises the question:
How can you be angry with someone who has done so much for you?
It doesn't matter how well our parents or other caregivers may have met our physical survival needs; if our emotional needs were neglected it's normal to feel angry.
By the time most people come to therapy it is often hard to express their feelings of anger and rage towards their parents since they may have died or the time when it was appropriate for the parent to be their emotional caretaker has long passed. Yet the feelings can be very strong even years later, and need an outlet that releases the energy and facilitates us getting our needs met in adulthood.
If a parent's behavior still leaves us feeling angry as an adult, it is important to use the anger assertively to set healthy boundaries with them. It can be very frightening to express anger towards a parent, even as an adult. The passage of time is irrelevant to the inner child in our nervous system that was once reliant on the parent for survival.
I remember how much my body shook the day I finally stood up to my critical mother and told her how angry I was about the way she continued to criticize and berate my father; a behavior which left me feeling unsafe and self-conscious when growing up. Standing up to my mother's criticism and attempting to set healthy boundaries with her was the most frightening thing I have ever done, yet also the most liberating. Facing my fear that expressing anger to my parents would lead to conflict and abandonment left me feeling much more confident about being assertive with people generally.
When expressing anger it's important to describe our emotions cleanly and avoid negative judgments, labels, blaming and shaming. Calling other people “bullies” or “narcissistic” isn't likely to help. These labels aren't healthy expressions of anger no matter how accurate we might think them to be.
It is also important to avoid passive aggressive expressions of anger, such as critical generalizations or attempting to punish someone for behavior we don't like. These approaches don't release the energy of our anger and they aren't likely to motivate other people to improve the way they treat us in the future. They may give us the temporary self-satisfaction of feeling self-righteous, but do little to resolve our anger because we don't end up getting what we really want.
When I first started expressing my anger assertively, I felt guilty; and my clients often have the same experience. This unhealthy guilt was the result of childhood conditioning. Healthy guilt indicates that our behavior violates our own values, but in this case we're breaking someone else's rules that we have internalized from being punished for expressing anger in the past. We may feel guilty even if these rules were never stated to us explicitly, like that a parent's behavior must be respected no matter how destructive it may be, or that to feel and express anger is somehow bad, evil or wrong.
Getting past this unhealthy guilt by allowing ourselves to feel and move through it, is key to using our anger assertively with parents who used to shut us down when our needs weren't getting met.
It can be difficult to respond constructively when our anger is being triggered by someone's behavior. I have found learning to harness anger assertively in the moment challenging. In order to the avoid emotional overwhelm caused by emotional wounds from the past being triggered, I have found it essential to find a compassionate therapist who knows how to heal past traumas underlying the anger in an emotionally safe environment.
This has allowed me to heal past hurts and practice expressing my anger constructively even when I'm triggered. Over time this heals the wounds of the past, the guilt fades and the anger subsides. Once we have healed the past, overcome our conditioned guilt about our feelings and learned to express our anger to a therapist, it's much easier to express and channel anger constructively when it arises in high-stakes real-world relationships, like with our parents.