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Befriending Anger

When I first met Sally who came to therapy for depression, I couldn't help notice how meek and small she seemed despite her tall stature. She claimed people walked all over her. And she was scared to say "No!" for fear others would get angry.

As Sally shared her stories, she wilted like a flower in need of water. When I asked if she had feelings about what she was sharing, she'd say, "This is just the way it is." I was struck by her passivity. As I listened to stories of friends and family who grossly took advantage of her kindness, I felt my blood boil. My anger got me curious about hers--where was it?

Anger is a core emotion, one of the seven pre-wired emotions all of us have from birth to death. The core emotion of anger is crucial for survival. Without it, we would not know when to protect and defend ourselves. It is the emotion of anger that cues us that something is not right and needs to change. It is anger that protects us from being violated.

Almost everyone I work with hates their anger. They fear what their anger will do to others. They don't like the feeling it creates inside. They don't know how to channel anger's energy and impulses. Why would Sally or you or anyone for that matter know how to channel anger safely without blocking it? We don't learn about how to work with our emotions in a high school health class or anywhere. But we should -- we must -- for long-term mental health!!

I love teaching people about anger: how to notice it, how to sit with it, and how to listen to it. These are entirely internal experiences. Knowing your anger intimately has nothing to do with expressing it. In fact, most people I know confuse the internal experience of anger with the external expression of it, commonly called "acting out." For example, I am not talking about accessing anger and then immediately discharging it with insults, yelling, threats, or any other action meant to intimidate or frighten someone else. I am talking about learning to process and make good use of anger, which includes learning to pause before lashing out or turning it back on ourself and becoming meek like Sally did.

Sally, after two years of hard work, now has an intimate relationship with her anger. She recognizes the feeling in her gut the moment it arises. She breathes or takes a break if she needs some time to calm her anger down. Sally strives to understand how her anger is trying to protect her before she reacts. Now Sally can think about what she wants to say and how to say it. Moving the anger to her backbone, she questions others about their intent. Using the strength and force of assertion (not aggression), she communicates her wants and needs firmly, yet kindly. Her tone of voice, posture and facial expressions all work together to convey "I mean what I say!"

Sally is not depressed any longer. She is not meek. Only one friend couldn't deal with her newfound assertiveness and that friend we decided was not a real friend so the loss was tolerable. Anyone can change their relationship with anger. We can master its forceful and self-protective energy. We can be thoughtful and decide to express our anger in constructive ways that foster good relationships: by bring about positive change with effective communication. Befriending anger isn't always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

(Details have been changed to protect patient privacy.)

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