Tracy came to therapy to be treated for depression. When I first met her, 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 she 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 said, “This is just the way it is” and then let out a big sigh.
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 prewired emotions all of us have from birth to death. Anger is important for survival. How else would we know to protect and defend ourselves? Anger cues us that something is not right and needs to change. Anger 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 they? We don’t learn about emotions in high school biology, but we should.
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 anger itself with acting out at someone or something else.
I am not talking about accessing anger and then immediately discharging it with insults, shouting, threats, or any other action meant to intimidate or frighten someone else. This is about learning not to react with action. Ultimately, we can be thoughtful and decide how to express our anger in a constructive manner. I teach people how to better channel the energy it generates, how to let it go or how to use it for the better — to bring about positive change with effective communication.
Tracy now has an intimate relationship with her anger. She recognizes the feeling in her gut the moment it arises, remembering to breathe or take a break if she needs some time to calm down. That little pause makes all the difference in how we react. Now Tracy 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 but kindly. Her tone of voice, posture and facial expressions all work together to convey “I mean what I say!”
Tracy is not depressed any longer. She is not meek. Only one friend couldn’t deal with her newfound assertiveness. We decided that was no friend, so the loss was tolerable.
We can change our relationship to anger. We can master its forceful and self-protective energy. Befriending anger isn’t always easy, but it is always worth the effort.
Meek woman photo available from Shutterstock