Recently I’ve been getting input from several different sources that I have a lot of unexpressed anger. Believe me, I do get angry, but it’s usually in the form of irritation or impatience. I’m angry about a stupid choice someone else makes while driving. I’m irritated that my son didn’t put his dishes in the dishwasher. I’m annoyed that the person in front of me in line can’t make up their mind what to order. But real, deep anger is something I have a lot of difficulty accessing.
Up until recently I have thought, or at least I have told myself, that this is because I’m not angry. But on some level I think I’ve always realized that these irritations and annoyances are there because I’m not allowing myself to feel or express this deeper anger. It has to come out in some way, and the impatience I feel with someone who isn’t doing things the “right” way (i.e. infringes on me in some way) is one way it shows up. It’s my safety valve and allows me to divert attention from the anger that’s hidden deep inside me.
When things happen that I have reason to feel angry about, I frequently feel hurt instead. When I was being trained as a psychotherapist we were taught that anger is a secondary emotion, that it usually is on top of hurt or fear. Even before I was taught this, I believe that I had discovered that where there is anger there is hurt.
So the question remains: is it good to go directly to the hurt beneath the anger, or should the anger I have be acknowledged and felt and maybe even expressed in some way?
I understand that the reason I have gone to hurt over anger is that feeling angry means that I am blaming the other person, saying they did something wrong. I have a PhD in blaming myself. Somehow, whenever someone does something mean or bad to me I believe it is my fault. I search for how I deserve what they did.
Having had this insight recently I struggle with a couple of things. First of all, I do believe that we co-create what we experience. When someone treats me badly I do have some responsibility for having created that situation. But does that mean that what the other person did was okay? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that my inclination is to look for what I could have done differently, or what I did that contributed to the situation.
In general, I don’t think this is a bad approach to take. I can’t change anyone else; I can only change myself so that’s where my energy is best spent. Unfortunately, I tend to take it beyond taking responsibility to blaming myself – and there is a difference. Any anger I feel about the situation gets turned on me, which is not a good way to handle it.
Secondly, I can usually feel some compassion, or at least understanding, for the other person and why they acted the way they did. Intellectually I don’t think this absolves them of bad behavior, but it makes it more difficult for me to feel angry at them.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that to be angry requires me placing blame. The difference between blame and responsibility is this: blame is about character, responsibility is about behavior. If I am going to blame someone it means I think they are a bad person (myself included). My tendency to feel compassion for the other person makes it hard for me to blame them.
And yet…I do have this anger that is inside me that is not being accessed, acknowledged or expressed except inappropriately as annoyance and irritation at the wrong people.
Can I change my perception about the relationship between blame and anger? Can I allow myself to feel angry about an action someone took without labeling them as a bad person? Can I learn to be appropriately angry with people I care about?
I welcome input, ideas, feedback.