Not long ago, I tried to find a self-help book on accessing one’s own feelings of anger. A counterpart for books about finding joy, finding love – what about finding anger? This proved to be a fruitless endeavour. There are however many books on dealing with and overcoming aggression. Aggression is portrayed as an unhealthy, not a healthy emotion. At this point, I shall add a disclaimer: I am not here to deny the devastating consequences of criminal and uncontrolled expression of aggression. There is evidence for this in every newspaper or history book. But what about the devastating consequences of repressed or unexpressed aggression? Ulcers, depression and self-harm are classic examples, yet I don’t feel this issue receives enough attention.
I believe I can make the bold claim that everybody has legitimate reason to feel angry at times in their lives. Even for the luckiest person in the world, things won’t always go to plan. People will not always act towards them as they wished. When anger arises in us, what then? If imagine a continuum of anger expression, I would put healthy, appropriate expression in the middle, complete inward direction (repression) at one extreme and disproportionate, destructive expression at the other. Where do I see myself? I am sure you guessed correctly – at the repressed extreme.
I believe it is fair to say that I have never had a healthy relationship with anger. Depression and self-harm are both auto-aggressive diseases, and I have suffered from both. Both of these lie in the past. But still, in my everyday life as well as in moments of deep contemplation, me and anger aren’t friends.
The person who first made me realise this most clearly is a therapist I shall call Mr Z. In the clinic where he worked, he was known among patients as ‘the one who hands you a wooden stick and makes you hit a foam cube’. A terrifying prospect for me. Nonetheless, I knew that this could be important work for me, so I agreed to some individual sessions. The aim of the foam cube exercise, he explained, was to bring the action of the body, the emotion, and verbal output, together to express anger. In other words, hit the cube while feeling your anger and shouting it out. I think I managed this, or a very cautious version, for a grand total of three strikes at the very end of our first one-hour session. Looking back now, I think that was a big step already. But so much work left to do.
Outside of the therapeutic environment, examples of my inability to express anger are also plentiful. It is most apparent if the source of my should-be-there anger comes from the actions of another person. If anybody for whatever reason ‘treats me badly’, I get sad. I cry. At most I’ll swear at them in my head, but never out loud. If I do confront them, it’s either tearful, or very measured and controlled. This pattern, I can tell you, is not great. A bus driver acts like a prick and makes a mean comment – I well up. How very grown, empowered woman. Oh – I forgot to mention – this pattern is infinitely stronger if the ‘source of evil’ is an older male.
Aha! You might think triumphantly, quickly developing an inkling about where this might all come from. Let me tell you my own theory. A the heart of it is fear. Fear of other people’s anger, and fear of my own. The first part was easy for me to see. The uncontrollable, unpredictable outbursts of rage of my father formed the shadow monster reigning over my childhood. Never physically violent, they nonetheless had a great destructive force. In itself, these were scary and traumatising. But I shall make the bold claim that they only got their absolute power status over my family because no one called them out as what they really were: inappropriate, and in serious need of some critical self-reflection or therapy time. Never put into perspective. Instead, we all lived in speechless fear, and my father never received the critical feedback that might have resulted in a change: your behaviour is not ok and we do not accept it.
With his behaviour initially mainly directed at my mother, I believe I started to grow a pot of dislike for him around the age of twelve. I did not like the way he treated her. In my mind, I referred to this behavior as ‘Jekyl and Hyde’. A complete switch in personality from one minute to the next. Dangerously unpredictable. So of course, due to my fear of this man harbouring a monster inside, I never confronted him directly. Instead, I expressed my feelings in a consistent act of passive aggressiveness that lasted throughout my teenage years. Of course, my father soon picked up on this selective treatment he was receiving from his beloved daughter, and was probably bewildered and displeased. With monthly regularity, I pushed him one step too far and he exploded, his outbursts now directed at me as often as they were at my mother. A pattern we kept going over years. The feedback I received from my father, and by extension my mother, was clear. My behaviour was in the wrong. I was treating my father worse than ‘a beggar on the street’ and he did not deserve my dislike. Faced with this seemingly united front of my parents, I accepted this view and conceded. Every single episode ended in a tearful apology from me to my father. And with great consistency, I came away with the conclusion that I was worthless and did not deserve my place on earth. I was the home wrecker of our family, not him. But my underlying feelings of anger towards him didn’t just disappear. I had to put them somewhere. Enter self harm.
So two things made their firm mark on me by the time I was grown up. A great fear of a male figure being angry at me, and the lesson that my own, passive aggressive anger outbursts rendered me worthless. At university, It took one more paternal-flavoured male first treating me inappropriately, and then expressing their anger at my final rejection to tip me over the edge. Enter depression.
After some very tough therapeutic work, enter recovery.
So what now? My mother finally turned herself around and has started to give my father the much needed critical feedback he never received. This has drastically improved the relationship between me and my father – someone else has taken over the critical torch. I know that I need to forgive my teenage self and retrospectively acquit her passive aggressiveness. Heck, I might even commend it. But most importantly, I need to work on the node in my head that directs every feeling of anger towards sadness, or feelings of autoagression at worst. People will cross me again, but I not prepared to become depressed or cut again. That much I know, and I think it’s a big step.
I am going to make a wild guess and say that the issue I described above is more common among women than men. An angry woman? How unpleasant. An (appropriately) angry man? What a fierce warrior. But that’s another story for another article.