Monday, August 23, 2010

Anger is Just the Frosting

Is there somebody close to you who gets easily angered? Or is it you who takes out your frustrations and disappointments on others? Some people develop the unhealthy emotional pattern of projecting their internal discontent on their loved ones. Dumping anger and rage into your close relationships is like pouring acid rain on them. It is hard for those close to a hot reactor to feel safe enough to relax, be themselves, and feel connected. Living with a rageaholic makes you feel like you always have to walk on egg shells, or there will be an explosion, often for ridiculous reasons.

In sessions over the years, I have had patients confide the kind of things that set them off. Sometimes the reasons for a sense of justified anger are really petty. Imagine feeling entitled to rage at your partner because they don't wipe down the shower or share every interest you have. What about being furious at your spouse for not reading your mind and intuiting your desires without you having to communicate anything to them? At times, I need to stop patients and examine their (unrealistic) expectations. It can be helpful to remember that your partner probably also tolerates behavior from you that annoys them, but hopefully they love you anyway, and see the big picture. In a grown-up relationship you have to ask for what you want, incorporate your partner's unique needs, and learn to appreciate the good things the relationship brings you.

Some people bully others in the family with their anger. This is not ok. If you live with a bully, you need to set your own limits, and take care of yourself. You might tell the bully you love them, and you understand they are upset, but you will talk it through with them later, when things are calmer. A dictator needs a doormat to operate. Don't be a doormat. You can go to a movie, go to the gym, or go for a self-care walk outside and give them time to get back in control of themselves.

If you are the angry one, you should know that researchers tell us it takes about 20-30 minutes to calm our physiology down after being very upset. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and blood rushes to your extremities. Evolution prepared your body to run from a wooly mammoth. Digestion stops, and blood flow to the brain slows. Noone thinks well when enraged, so don't try to talk a conflict through then.
Take time to calm yourself down, go running or for a brisk walk, or listen to your "feel good" playlist on your ipod and dance. It will be more constructive if you talk through the conflict later, when you are quieted and have soothed your savage internal beast. Remember, it is called NORMAL for other people, including your partner, to sometimes approach things differently than you do. You are the only person who sees things exactly the way you do.

If you are noticing yourself struggling with anger in increasing frequency, step up your exercise. Brain research shows us exercise increases seratonin levels. Low seratonin levels are associated with aggression, and contribute to mood disorders.
I normally ask all my patients with depression or anxiety, whether adults or children, to increase their amount of exercise for this reason. It helps.

If you are experiencing a lot of anger, it will also be helpful to reflect by yourself or with a good therapist WHAT YOU ARE HURT ABOUT. Often the powerful sensation of intense anger is just the frosting. Underneath the anger or rage is often long held hurt, perhaps dating back to childhood. Perhaps current situations trigger old wounds that make you react in disproportionate ways. The hurt is like the cake beneath the frosting, and helped create the story you tell yourself about your life. What if your angry rages keep the pain going and rob you of closeness?

Why is important to clear the hurts beneath your anger? Pretty much everyone has some unmet core needs or wounds from childhood. Sorting them out can help you be in the present, and not destroy the chance for getting your needs for closeness and intimacy met now with your current partner and family. If you don't get a handle on your unchecked anger, you will recreate your personal story (i.e. " nooone ever loves me enough")again and again. This saddens me when I can see it happening. Life is short. Why would anyone choose to create the same sad scenario over?

When you examine the hurt beneath your anger, you can begin to experience the joys of real intimacy and the real person you love, rather than your old projections. Anger, when examined and understood, can be channeled and redirected into healthier patterns. Letting rage run your life and ruin your relationships is a huge mistake.

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