Our society can shame us for having anger. It is often deemed unsightly, not loving, and certainly not spiritual.
This kind of belief can lead many of us to deny our anger, and much research tells us that denying or suppressing anger can be bad for our health. Anger can be a wake-up call that we are allowing someone to treat us badly. Anger can let us know that it is time to set a firm limit or get support to change a pattern.
Say you see your husband, Sam, at a party complaining to his friends about something you did. He was rolling his eyes in exasperation at “the old ball and chain.” You might respond in several ways. See for yourself which one feels most familiar and which feels most useful…
1. You go into denial that it bothered you. You aren’t consciously aware of any problem. When you wake up the next morning, your back is out. You end up spending the next few weeks completely stressed and occupied with pain relief, doctors’ visits, and coping. Your well-meaning subconscious has protectively tucked this disappointing piece of truth about your relationship away underground.
2. Or you lock yourself in your host’s bathroom and sob, feeling victimized, and trapped in the relationship. You then pull yourself together and put on a pleasant face. When you get home, you initiate love making to feel close again. Later you proceed to take it out on yourself by eating three pieces of cake and a whole carton of ice cream. You feel depressed.
3. Or maybe you simmer with resentment for days, acting icy, highly irritable, running late to meet him at an important business dinner. You are being really passive-aggressive – trying to get him to feel your anger. You don’t directly tell him what upset you. You complain to your friends about what an ass he is.
4. Or after the party you lose it – screaming at him and shaming him for being such a terrible, flawed husband. You end up feeling ashamed that you treated him like that.
5. You see his eye rolling and public complaining about you, and you feel anger arise inside. You think to yourself, “Oh that is so not OK.”
You approach him, “Hey Sam. Could I talk to you a second?”
Once you are away from the party: “What the heck! That was so not acceptable. I love you and I’m pissed!”
“I don’t want you to ever show disdain for me in public. It is disrespectful. If you have an issue with something I have done or said, bring it to me privately so that I can address it.”
So what went right with #5?
You were aware of Sam’s behavior and the anger that arose inside you.
You didn’t go to blame or shame. Instead you stayed with what is true for you and made a direct request. And you kept it about his particular action and didn’t go to drama about who he is as a husband.
You leaned into the relationship with sharing your feelings rather than pulling away.
You channeled the anger into empowerment. You took care of yourself by setting a clear boundary and expectation of respect. You raised the bar for the relationship.
The irony is that Sam isn’t to blame. It’s not really about blame – it’s more about choice and preference. Because we have free will, we get to choose what behaviors we will tolerate in life and which we won’t. .
Anger can be profound. I know it is so not always easy, but anger offers us a gift. It gives us guidance on how to navigate a life where we can thrive.
Judy O’Neill, MSW