When I was in rehab, my therapists told me something that shocked me. They were frustrated with me because I was repressing my emotions. I was holding back what I truly thought and felt.
“You know,” they said, “You have the right to breathe and take up space. You have the right to be angry. The world is not going to fall apart if you flip a few tables.”
What? I remember staring at them – dumbfounded. I bit back tears.
For weeks they had been trying to teach us that there was no such thing as a “bad” emotion. Emotions tell us something about what is going on inside of us. Yes, we tend to categorize them as “good” and “bad” – but the truth is they simply are.
In my case, I was taught from an early age to repress my “bad” emotions. My anger, sadness, worry… basically any emotion that might be difficult to process and deal with. But especially my anger. It scared people. It was something to be hidden – never shown.
Of course, my anger, like all my other repressed emotions, came out in other ways. Self harm, disordered eating, alcoholism, and addiction.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men [and women], but for alcoholics these things are poison.”
Now, I have used anger to justify my drinking/drugging in the past. And it does not take much anger to justify a drink for me. So, I must be very careful here. I agree that anger is not something to wallow in and pander to, but it is also not something to repress. So what am I to do with it?
I cannot simply “be free” of anger. I can choose to do one of two things: 1) I can repress my anger like I’ve done in the past, and eventually I will drink over it. 2) I can try to acknowledge, feel, and process my anger, carefully indulging in the “dubious luxury” that the Big Book warns against.
Part of processing anger is understanding it. Anger is a secondary emotion. The primary emotions that lie underneath anger (for me) are usually hurt or fear. If I slow down long enough to feel the underlying emotions, I find that my anger dissipates.
It dissipates because I’m allowing myself to feel the emotions that the anger was trying to protect me from. Anger, you see, is much safer to feel or express than admitting I’m afraid of something or that I’ve been hurt.
It’s much easier to lash out with cynicism and sarcasm than it is to be honest about feeling hurt or afraid. It’s so much easier to get defensive and passive aggressive than it is to be honest about what I’m really thinking and feeling.
Reaching out for support
When I am processing anger, I always call my sponsor. Anger is a deadly feeling for me, and I cannot work through it on my own.
Of course, there are small things that happen throughout the day (getting cut off in traffic, getting frustrated at the grocery store, miscommunications with my husband, and so on) that I don’t call about – and I probably should! Because these are things that do make me angry, but this is the anger/frustration I deal with on a daily basis that I have learned to repress and never show.
This is the kind of anger that builds up until something big happens, and I lose it. Like the other night not long ago when I was triggered and I all my pent up emotion and anger came boiling out onto my husband without warning.
I’ve learned to talk about big things that make me angry, but I have to talk about the little things too.
Recognizing warning signs
Anger is something that I turn inwards – towards myself. I repress it so greatly that it comes out sideways in self harm, depression, and suicidal ideation. But I can use these harmful side effects of repressed anger as warning signs — red flags that I am holding onto anger that needs to be dealt with.
One big warning sign is the urge to self harm. Psychology Today has a good article on the psychology of cutting/self injury. When I am repressing anger, my urge to self harm increases because I am craving a physical release to emotion that I cannot express.
Having this self awareness gives me a chance to rescue myself.
Learning to flip tables
It’s possible to be angry, express that anger, and still be loving and kind. I’m still learning how to be angry. I lean towards bitter sarcasm and cynicism when I’m angry. If that doesn’t feel satisfying, I get extremely passive aggressive. These are not healthy ways of expressing anger.
One thing that has really helped me is noticing where I feel anger in my body. Being present in my body in the moment I feel anger helps stop me from stuffing the emotion. I usually feel anger in my face (it flushes) and my hands (they clench) and my shoulders (they bow up). Sometimes my stomach tightens. Once I’ve recognized I’m feeling angry, I can take steps to express it.
- Scream — This is hard for me (I don’t even scream on roller coasters), but the first time I buried my face in a pillow and really just let it out, really screamed until I couldn’t scream anymore I felt such an incredible, satisfying release. I’ve only ever done it twice because it’s such an intense release it’s almost like masturbating. I have to be alone to do it. My body feels completely different afterward.
- Curse — There’s nothing like turning the air blue with a string of your best curse words. I like to start with, “I’m fucking angry right now, and…” Giving voice to the anger keeps it from getting stuck in the bottle. Adding curse words makes me feel silly.
- Do something physical — Hit a pillow (not the wall), do push ups, do yoga, go for a run…the point is to find a way to vent my physical sensations of anger so that I can better communicate my anger later.
- Write it out — Why am I angry? I need to dig into the details. Getting into the feelings underneath the anger will help me understand what’s really going on.
- Process it — Getting a friend’s perspective on my situation helps me see that perhaps my anger is out of proportion. Perhaps my anger is completely misplaced. Maybe I shouldn’t be angry at all! Talking about what has made me angry gives me the opportunity to hash it out and let it go.
Now, I can flip the table because I’ve taken care to process my feelings and emotions. I can go to the person who’s made me angry and say, “I’m angry (or hurt or afraid) about this, and this is why, and I need to talk to you about it.”
It might not be as dramatic as I would like it to be (there’s no shouting matches when I do it this way). But it feels very grown up and adultish. And you know what? It keeps me sober.
The Big Book is right about anger being a luxury I cannot afford. I cannot afford to continue treating my anger as I have in the past, bottling it up until it bursts. I cannot afford to pretend I’m never angry. Carefully processing anger is the answer. Allowing myself to feel my emotions is a key to my sobriety.
(Featured Image: Venom – Chimera Kai)