Anger. Isn’t that the emotion that wrecks relationships? Terrifies children? Provokes violence? How can anyone say anything positive about it? For many of us who have grown up in dysfunctional families, trying to appreciate anger may seem like extolling the virtues of migraines.
Let’s first start by dispelling some misconceptions. Anger is not violence. It is not screaming or yelling, and it is not sarcasm. These are merely mismanaged anger-driven behaviors. Anger is really just a form of emotional energy. It’s energy oriented toward protection and survival and we have it because it has helped our species to evolve. Fifty thousand years ago, it helped us to keep the jackals away from our prey. Today, we’re more symbolic. Anger now helps us to protect our self-concepts from injury. An important thing to know about anger is that it’s always driven by one of two possible emotions. Look under anger and you will always find either fear or pain. That’s useful to understand when you face an angry lover. Trying to understand the fear or pain of your partner can help you avoid the cycle of trading retributions. If anger is energy, then like most forms of energy it can be constructive or destructive. Atomic or electrical energies are highly toxic if un-channeled. Shielded and focused, they are very useful. So how can anger be useful? Do you think you can have a healthy intimate relationship without sometimes saying “No” or “please stop”? Where do you think you get the energy to oppose your partner’s wishes and risk their displeasure when your needs come into conflict with theirs? Many people have a naïve notion that intimate partners should be a perfect fit so that conflict doesn’t occur. That’s not the real world. In the real world, partners have conflicting needs every day and maintaining the relationship is a balancing act. What does useful anger look like? It doesn’t have to look like a rage or a tantrum. One example is when you ask your partner to stop doing something that bothers you. Another example is when you maintain the privacy of a relationship from someone else who is intrusively inquisitive. Useful anger often involves planning. For example, seeking relationship counseling can also be a healthy expression of anger. Working very hard to save a troubled business can be another form. All of these examples involve energy to preserve or defend; to defend personal comfort, to defend privacy, to defend a relationship, to defend a livelihood. Who would deny that it’s healthy to mobilize the energy to preserve or defend our self interests? Many people. Why? Because so many of us have seen unhealthy expression or enactment of anger.
If you grew up in an alcoholic or other kind of dysfunctional family, you probably have witnessed parents who expressed anger in what’s known as a “regressed” form. This means that when they got angry, they tended to become like tantruming children – and that’s very dangerous. Children don’t focus or channel their anger. They act it out without regard to consequence. Fortunately, two year olds don’t have the strength, the means, or the freedom to cause much damage. Try to imagine a highly verbal and mobile 200 lb. two year old throwing a tantrum. That’s what a regressed parent can be like. Those of us who have witnessed an alcoholic parent beat or demean our other parent, shoot the family dog, or leave bloody welts on our legs have probably learned early on that anger is ugly, dangerous, and unhealthy. We may also learn something else: that under no circumstances will we be like our angry parent. And so, we may learn to deny our anger and become as un-angry as possible. But this doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because without our anger we can’t maintain our boundaries during intimacy. It also doesn’t work because if we don’t welcome anger into our adult experience, then we also will experience our anger in a regressed form. There are many male readers of this article who fear that they will become explosive like their fathers. The sad fact is that in order to avoid their anger, they must also avoid intimacy… and do so.
Instead of viewing anger as necessarily ugly, let me suggest a view that allows the possibility for “beautiful” anger. What is beautiful anger? It’s anger that’s not designed to inflict pain but rather allows you to defend self-interest and thereby to risk intimacy. It’s anger that helps you to mobilize and say “No” when you need to. It’s anger that addresses the needs of that little child inside inside you and gives you the unconscious message “I’ll protect you and keep you safe.” If viewed in this way, anger can be focused and channeled as an expression of self-love. Doesn’t that sound beautiful?