Anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders, suicide, cutting, homicide, self-criticism, etc. All of these have something in common, one thing that lingers inside the soul of a person, fighting to get out, to be known and felt and to longer live trapped within the heart. It is that one emotion that we don’t want to feel, for if we do it will create more problems and possibly destruction; it could ruin relationships and that would forever stay with us. I believe this one emotion is one of the greatest creators of so many mental health disorders and as I have seen, we have no clue what to do with it when it comes up.
The above disorders are not some embedded, permanent problem, forever entrenched within a person. Instead, they are the loudest notes of pain and relational disorder. All of these surface and reveal themselves to point to the disharmony in connection. An individual is not their disorder, but their disorder is a sharp cry that something is off in the system.
However, this is not what I mean when referring to the common denominator. What connects them all, despite the differences in the manifestation of an internal struggle is one emotion.
Throughout humanity, anger has been the most demonized, avoided and judged emotion. But it is one of the most important, integral, and transformative feelings. The significance of this emotion is where language falls short.
We avoid showing it to people, attempt to not feel it, create “control” groups for it, and build hundreds of clinics to address the behavioral displays of deeply buried anger. But the problems continue to exist.
It is a powerful emotion and when we fight so hard to avoid it or act out of it destructively, it causes an innumerable amount of issues. But its meaning and existence is profoundly invaluable and is trying to tell us why it is there.
But to hear the message, we must feel it and allow it to exist.
Underneath the Floorboards…Eventually It Reveals Itself
As a young boy, I would encounter one of my parent’s vitriolic anger towards me. It was terrifying. My body radiated and pulsed all over synchronized to the battering-ram pounding of my heart. It was so intense that while the rest of my body froze, this little beating organ was working overtime, punching my rib cage so hard it had to the potential to break it.
I stood their stuck, as the deepest, most guttural blasts of rage hit my soul. And I was trapped, for to pull away potentially threatened the “loss” of relationship. This conflicting experience was happening simultaneously, wanting to get the hell out of there and hide and yet staying to maintain connection.
In the midst of the plumes of anger and rage from this parent, came my own anger. At some point, naturally, I began to feel pissed, probably even enraged. And I could not keep this from being displayed.
Once it was out there, my own anger, that is, this parent could see it, and the response was “you can’t be angry, only I can be angry” or other reactions to shut down this feeling.
The scariest one, was the pulling away. While still angry, this parent would turn to silence, and visibly display their anger with slamming the cupboards or slamming silverware into the drawer, the ear-splitting clash of the metal piercing me internally at every moment of contact. But the silence and withdrawal were the killers; this menacing presence of cold removal permeated the house.
So, in response, instinctually, I would fall to the ground, crying, begging and pleading for this person to come back. I would berate myself, attacking my own self just to soften this person and have them return back to me. It was quite the effective tactic, but it was so reflexive, I had no idea why I committed to this way of getting connection back. It just happened.
But the moments after the return and “reconciliation” I would be left in the fumes, feeling the most intense shame and rage. However, I had no idea what to do with these feelings, but I needed them out of me. I could not carry them. We were never meant to.
I would spend quite a bit of time after the moment, ruminating on what happened, cycling through the events, hoping for relief. It would never come. All I experienced was the unending misery of disorientation, shame, self-hatred and loneliness. The only relief was when this parent would apologize and shift to being affectionately loving. However, my own internal world was writhing in pain and feeling lost. And even the affection created conflict in me. I wanted to pull away.
As I got older, I found myself all of a sudden in depression, feeling hopeless and helpless. Something would trigger me and I would end up in this low, gloomy place paired with blasting thoughts of criticism. Any “mistake” or an upset reaction from someone and there I was, hating myself, withdrawing from others.
It led to me to staying in my room, or talking to my parents about how horrible of a person I was. One parent’s response was to turn compassionate and contend with the hateful words I was saying to myself. But this issue continued.
Another byproduct was that I would hardly ever want to attempt something new out of the intense fear and assumption that it would only end in hurt and pain and misery. An intense frustration would have to kick in for me to get out of this protective barricade.
It was not until I met with my old supervisor, now therapist, several years ago, that I became aware of what was truly happening. He could hear the depression and self-criticism present in my voice. The energy was not there as I talked about my current experiences. The tone of my voice was flat.
He pointed this out and challenged me to start getting angry at the depression and eventually the self-criticism and judgment.
Because these were all symptoms of not feeling my anger when it came up.
The depression happened because I would quickly go from anger to despair, but then get stuck in the despair, the “This will never work out” state.
And the self-criticism was fueled by rage, but it was turned towards myself instead of toward the object I was angry at (mom, dad, God, life, friends, situations, etc.)
When I became aware of this, it was not an easy transition. I would fall into despair quickly, eventually beginning to see that I ended up in this state. But to tap into my anger, anger that was buried so deep within me partnered with my learned reflex to stuff it and then mentally stab myself over and over again, seemed almost impossible.
This was a whole new way of connecting to myself. In my younger days I developed anxiety and anxiety-driven behaviors such as OCD and hypochondriasis in response to avoided anger and relational pain. As an adolescent I would operate more passively, saying and/or acting in ways that communicated I was angry, but never overtly and vulnerably admitting it to the person.
Then in my early 20s, I began to feel anger towards my mom and my dad. All this rage and hate radiated viscerally to the surface. However, to buffer the intensity I would continue to shove it down and judge myself. I felt so lost in how to deal with the power of this feeling. Anger was a “dangerous” feeling in my experience and I was completely alone in navigating it, so I naturally built walls around it.
Yet, this muscular feeling, that I worked hard to quiet, was pushing and screaming to be felt and heard. At the time, I was without a map, directionless on what to do, because I had never been helped in connecting to and understanding this part of myself.
Something began to happen when my therapist both pointed out the origins of depression being an internalized anger, and validated the feeling, exposing it and giving name to it without judgment.
Slowly and with trepidation, I began to really feel it, in all of its intensity. Hate, rage, anger, violent thoughts and desires, criticisms, judgments, vein-tearing screams, the most vile and vitriolic-laden words; all of it came out. There were moments where I would pull away, noticing that some of my thoughts fueled by my rage were uncomfortable, bordering on racist or demeaning appraisals of others. But if I were to fight against all of these, it would stay hidden, corrode my soul and nag until it came out.
I could no longer escape the anger and all the intricacies laced within it. To hide was more uncomfortable and unbearable than to scream it out…until its presence left.
And eventually I became comfortable with the emotion, going on rage-drives (not speeding, just yelling) or having unfiltered conversations with friends, aware that it would lead me somewhere. Subsequently, would come the other pain, hurt, loneliness, sadness, etc. underneath.
The result is that very little, if at all, do I feel depressed and am aware that when I do, that I have often times pulled away from anger or that it is around the corner of the despair I feel.
Things Get Messy: When We Mishandle our Anger
So why share my story regarding my struggles with anger?
Because anger has gotten a bad rap, and for understandable reasons. Actions fueled by anger have led to much destruction and harm; however, the reason for this is because we have had a foggy awareness of anger and its existence. We also have set up ways to circumvent our anger, which, when something stays hidden, it eventually bursts forth with great intensity.
Anger is the louder cry of pain, more specifically, relational pain. The bellows of anger signal that things are off in our connection with others and with the function or structure of life. It points to injustice, whether on a large scale, such as racism and other forms of inequality, or within our own person relationships where toxicity (manipulation, abuse, etc.) exists.
Whenever there is harm done to another or to ourselves the root is most likely anger and if we were to travel further, we would unravel a more vulnerable emotion of hurt.
However, we cannot access that tender feeling of pain, until we travel through the intensity of our own anger. And most of us probably carry some intense anger within. Usually the larger the wounding and pain, the larger the anger, rage and hate.
The problem is that some of us are scared to feel the intensity of anger. Whether you realize it or not, you have defenses set up to avoid this emotion. Whether you turn to some coping mechanism or retreat to some mental defense, such as judging your own reaction or trying to invoke empathy for those that enrage you, there are these unconscious detours that steer you away from feeling your pain.
Self-harming behaviors such as cutting, pulling hair, uncontrolled substance use, and suicide are all signals of rage turned inward, towards the self. But these only exist, because it has never been safe to feel such rage. It is squashed, stifled, suffocated, bitterly criticized, etc. by loved ones. The person feels an overwhelming sense of aloneness and lost, unaware that such self-harm is really to deal with the hate towards someone else that was never validated and allowed to be expressed.
Or there is the other end, where anger, rage and hate turn towards harming or destroying the other, whether psychologically or physically or both. Regardless of the complexity of its expression, the simple basis of such actions is an overwhelming sense of pain that the person has no idea how to vulnerably share. Instead of humbly acknowledging it, feeling it and expressing it, instead the person moves in violent ways to destroy another as an attempt to end the suffering with themselves.
The problem is that it never resolves anything.
The only path of healing is to look at our violent thoughts, desires and fantasies, or even our actions and to follow that back to the presence of anger. From there, we must boldly face and feel our anger, finding other outlets to express this feeling (finding non-living things to rip, smash, hit, scream, etc.).
It can never be physically directed towards others or ourselves, for the healing will never come. Invoking violence upon others is an illusion that only elicits further destruction, which humanity has sadly experienced enough of.
When we truly connect to the anger we feel, it leads us somewhere, to greater truths. What I mean, is that feeling this emotion connects to the reason it has surfaced, but we must enter into feeling it to draw us towards tenderness and a more vulnerable state where we will discover the hurt that occurred within the relationship.
This is no easy endeavor and I certainly am not making it out to be. I was completely unaware of my anger and how it presented itself. I felt an incredible discomfort as it began to surface. Instinctually I tried to turn it off.
I would consider the most integral part of connecting to my anger, was my therapist naming it, conveying understanding and guiding me in feeling it. I needed someone to point this out, without judgment or shaming.
And I hope that others do the same for you. Or if you do not currently have that support, that this writing is enough to validate what you struggle with inside.
May you feel the depths and richness of your anger and allow it to guide you towards the greater message of relational discord and pain. May it draw you towards vulnerability and to boldness in sharing your hurt to those who have done the wounding. And may you express the anger you feel in such a healing way that those around you no longer feel alone in the anger they carry; instead, giving others permission to feel what they have avoided.
Anger is a beautiful emotion, that should never be silenced, because in doing so, others will never see nor hear the truth and have to face change within themselves necessary for reconciliation and relational healing; or in other words to bring unity to the world around us.