“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 used excuses for why people relapse. It can be such an intense emotion that when triggered, all rational thought is lost and this puts you at real risk of a return to substance abuse. Early recovery can be an emotional roller-coaster. When you first stop using substances, your previously numbed emotions are often all over the place. It is common to feel happy one minute then become irrationally angry the next. Learning to identify, manage and express emotions in a healthy way is one of the key skills you need to learn to navigate the highs and lows of early recovery.
Like all other emotions anger has a purpose. It is perfectly healthy and normal to feel angry when you’ve been mistreated or wronged. Anger is like other emotions in that it signals to us that something is wrong; that something needs to be acted on, not acted out. Anger motivates us to make changes in our lives, implement healthy boundaries, or strive to get needs met and achieve goals. It gives us a feeling of power to stand up for ourselves and fight for our rights. Anger only becomes a problem if it is excessive, suppressed, or you act in destructive ways in response to it.
The first step in learning to deal with anger is to first recognize it and identify how you deal with or react to it.
INDIVIDUAL REACTIONS TO ANGER
Many people think that anger is about shouting, yelling, verbally or physically attacking others. However, anger exists on a continuum starting from mild irritation to furious rage. Feelings on this continuum include frustration, impatience, irritability, resentment, bitterness, hostility, fury, rage and outrage. All of these will set off an anger response in the body of differing degrees. Maybe you don’t consider yourself an angry person but if you monitor your feelings you might find that you spend a lot of time irritated, impatient or frustrated. These are still forms of anger and will have damaging effects on your health, well-being and ultimately your recovery. People who find it hard to express anger, or believe anger is wrong, often try to suppress anger or act in passive aggressive ways such as using sarcasm, sulking or gossiping. Not recognizing anger prevents you from learning from it.
How do you experience anger? what do you do in reaction to your feelings of anger?
What is the relationship between your addiction and anger? Do you use substances to suppress anger / express anger? Are you angrier/ more relaxed when you are using? How do you think the way you personally deal with anger could affect your recovery?
In order to learn to manage anger and learn from your anger, it is important to understand what your anger is about. Before we do this, think of what makes you angry. Try to think of specific incidents and write them down before you read the next part.
Anger is a complex emotion that can arise from a number of underlying issues. Anger is often a reaction to not understanding or not being able to communicate these underlying issues. It can be caused by
- Unmet / frustrated emotional needs – we all have emotional needs such as respect, validation, being understood, being listened to, being noticed etc. When these are not met the feelings of being disrespected, invalidated, misunderstood, ignored – if not recognized and communicated clearly will often generate an anger response. However, anger will result in further frustration of these needs.
- An underlying painful or ‘weak’ emotion– many people cannot tolerate or accept difficult feelings such as fear, shame, hurt, humiliation, insecurity, sadness and guilt. They move quickly to anger as this is easier to tolerate and creates feelings of power. Often extreme rage is a reaction to excruciating feelings of shame.
- A boundary violation or breach. – if our boundaries are not clear or we have difficulty asserting boundaries, anger can be a reaction to our inability to speak up or implement boundaries with other people. This is usually felt as a simmering resentment towards someone. Often we are angry at our-self but project it onto others.
- When values are compromised – emotions give us valuable information about our core values and what we care about most deeply. Shame signals that we have compromised our values. If we can’t tolerate shame we might move quickly to anger or feel anger if someone else has compromised an important core value. Justice, loyalty, honesty, and integrity are common core values that will cause anger if others do not adhere to them.
- Cognitive distortions – certain thinking styles can generate anger, such as black and white thinking, should statements, jumping to conclusions, mind reading, blaming.
- Childhood wounds – often anger is a signal that a childhood wound / trauma has been triggered. If we were abused (physically, emotionally, sexually, psychologically) by someone as a child, people or situations that trigger unresolved memories of the early abuse can cause an intense feeling of anger. This is a sign that old issues are still unresolved.
- Activation of Schemas such as Unrelenting Standards, Mistrust and Abuse, Abandonment, or Defectiveness and Shame
Look back at the anger incidents you wrote down earlier and see if you can find the underlying issue for the specific event. Is it any of the above? What are your common triggers for anger?
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 often you try 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 really want to overcome problematic substance use, 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 challenge unhlpful thinking styles?
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.