“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” – Aristotle
Anger is one of the most frequently cited reasons for why people relapse back to addictive behaviours. Anger can be such an intense emotion that when triggered, all rational thought is lost, the logical brain gets hijacked and the emotional brain takes over. In such a highly charged intense state it’s easy to press the F*** it button and throw recovery out of the window. It is very normal to experience anger in recovery as in the past you would likely have numbed or suppressed it through drugs and alcohol. Once the anaethetizing effects of substances are no longer an option, anger and all its variations, – frustration, irritability, annoyance, impatience and intolerance So how can you learn to manage your anger? Classic anger management techniques might tell you to beat a pillow with a baseball bat, scream and shout until you’ve worn yourself out or count to ten and breathe through the anger until it subsides. However, while these techniques may help to calm you down temporarily, they don’t do anything about the underlying cause of the anger.
Unfortunately anger gets a bad press because of the destructive ways we act out in anger or because of the myths we are told about anger when we are growing up. Anger is not bad, anger is not unhealthy and anger is not a sign we are out of control. Anger is a signal that something desperately needs to change in our lives. So what might your anger be trying to tell you?
1. You need to implement a boundary
Anger often signals that someone has crossed an emotional boundary. Is there someone in your life who keeps telling you what to do, who doesn’t listen to you or constantly criticises you? Are there people in your life who don’t take no for an answer or abuse you emotionally? Anger often starts to arise when we feel that someone has crossed a line but we don’t know how to deal with it. When we fail to implement healthy boundaries in our lives we start to project the anger we feel at ourselves onto other people. So if you feel anger towards a person stop and ask yourself if there is something that you want to tell them but for some reason you feel like you can’t?
2. An emotional need is not being met.
As humans we have a range of emotional needs that need to be met in order to feel a sense of fulfillment and well-being. We need to feel understood, cared for, important, significant, heard, seen and respected to name but a few. In my practice with clients I often see anger arising in people when they feel dismissed, ignored, or misunderstood or dis-respected but they don’t know how to express this in words. Many people don’t even realise that they have emotional needs let alone that they are not being met. Anger arises from the frustration of not being able to communicate their needs clearly and assertively to those that they feel are responsible for not meeting their needs. Look through this list of emotional needs and try to recognise what needs are frequently not being met that may play into your anger.
3. You need to acknowledge and express a “vulnerable” feeling.
Anger is powerful. It gives us strength and courage to face injustices and stand up for ourselves. When we are angry we often feel empowered but there are a whole array of emotions that feel the opposite. They make us feel weak, dis-empowered and very small. Feelings such as shame, humiliation, fear, anxiety, insecurity and vulnerability are extremely difficult to tolerate and often when these feelings first begin to arise, we move quickly to anger to avoid feeling them. We often project feelings of anger onto another person unconsciously blaming them for triggering these excruciating feelings. So next time you feel anger, try to look beneath it. Did you feel insecure or anxious? Did something or someone trigger feelings of shame? Acknowledgement and expression of these underlying feelings can go a long way to reducing the intensity of the anger that you might be feeling.
4. A core value has been compromised
Our core values are the things that are really important to us on a very deep level. A core value could be justice, loyalty, freedom, independence, family, adventure, security or solitude. Our emotions are very much connected with our core values. When we live according to our values we are rewarded with feelings of pride, satisfaction and a deep sense of fulfillment. When we go against our own values we can feel a profound sense of shame or anger at ourselves. Anger is often a sign that we or another person has compromised a value that we hold dear. Are you angry with a friend because you believe them to have been disloyal? Are you angry with your kids because you feel that they are preventing you from having solitude? Look at this list of core values and try to gain an understanding of what important values in your life are not being adhered to and then try to make room your life to live according to these values.
5. An old wound needs to be healed.
Sometimes when we feel angry and we can’t pinpoint why, it might be an old traumatic memory that has been triggered. If you were abused emotionally, physically or sexually in the past , these memories will be stored in the emotional brain, largely unprocessed. Anything that reminds the emotional brain of the memory, a sight , sound or smell that was associated with the traumatic event can trigger the stored emotions of the event. Sometimes, people remind us of past abusers and we transfer feelings of anger onto them. This can especially happen in relationships when a partner does or says something that triggers unconscious memories from the past and the emotions associated with them. So in trying to make sense of your anger, think about the person who is the target. Do they remind you of someone? Are you unfairly projecting your issues with someone else onto them?
Trying to process anger, whilst in the middle of it is extremely difficult. It is easier to do it after you have calmed down but the more you process what is underlying the anger, the easier it will become to deal with it. Dealing with anger means learning to communicate and express ourselves calmly despite the rage we might feel inside.
ANGER AND RECOVERY
If you are to maintain recovery, you will need to start learning how to communicate in a healthy, assertive way. Remember, no one else is responsible for your anger. No one can make you angry. People who relapse often sabotage their recovery by creating conflict so that they can blame other people and justify their return to substance use.
When you start to feel angry and have the urge to react STOP! And if necessary/possible remove yourself from the situation
- Notice where you experience anger in your body – is it a knot in your stomach, a tightening of the throat, tightness in your chest etc
- Slow down your breathing – this will help the intense feelings to subside.
- Try to notice what other feelings might be under the anger – is it fear, hurt, shame?
- Are you feeling misunderstood, disrespected, ignored, dismissed? Any other needs being frustrated?
- Does the person who is triggering you remind you of someone who has hurt you in the past?
- Has someone violated a boundary such as telling you what you think and feel? Giving unsolicited advice?
- Has one of your core values been rubbed against / compromised?
When you have worked out what your anger is about think about the action that you need to take to release the anger.
- Do you need to express and release your feelings of hurt, sadness or shame?
- Do you need to assertively tell someone that you felt disrespected or ignored and state your needs clearly
- Do you need to implement a boundary?
- Do you need to let go of the anger or work on some past issues?
- Do you need to start living life according to your values with people who share your values?
Dealing with anger when it arises, will prevent a build-up that could result in destructive behaviours which will affect your health, relationships, work, and generally your well-being. Don’t believe the myth that progress in recovery means not feeling anger. Progress in recovery is about being able to tolerate anger and addressing it in healthy ways.