The best thing my ex-wife ever did for me was to divorce me.
Seldom does a day go by that I am not thankful for that divorce.
I grew up in a family where anger was never expressed. So when I got married, anger was really scary—my own and others.
During the first seven years of that marriage, I was a human doing. I washed and sterilized the cloth diapers (my four babies never got diaper rash). I painted the outside of our first house (sweat equity) so we could buy it without a down payment. I rewired and repaired most of the house, all the time, working 40 hours a week as a grocery clerk.
Then, the surprise announcement on Christmas Eve that she’d been having an affair—and I was too stupid to know it! She told me that everything wrong in our relationship was my fault, and I went into a major depression. Then major anger. Then back to depression, and then anger again.
Finally, I concluded that if everything in the relationship was my fault, I could fix it and do it differently next time. And that is when I started to learn about anger.
One of the biggest fears so many of us hold is a fear of anger, our own and others too. And like so many fears, it is based in ignorance.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about anger:
>> The opposite of love is not hate or even anger. The opposite of love is indifference—not caring, not even bothering to get angry. In fact, we often get the most angry at the people we love the most. If we cannot get angry at someone, that is usually a sure sign we do not care. If someone we care about gets angry at us, we can choose to say, “Thanks for loving me so much.”
>> While anger is a feeling, it is also a tool we can use. There are three ways we can use anger:
1. To reject and keep somebody out of our life forever. This is what most people think of, particularly when faced with rejection or abandonment, but consider honestly how many times you’ve used anger to cut someone out of your life forever. Few to none would be my guess.
2. To manipulate someone. Using anger to manipulate someone is probably the most common form. And in certain instances, there’s nothing wrong with this. Have you ever yelled at your kids not to play in the streets, clean their room, or take a bath? When you yelled at your kids, were you trying to get rid of them or keep them out of your life? Of course not. Have you ever been yelled at by your boss? Was he trying to get rid of you? If he were, he probably would not have raised his voice, but would have instead just given you your pink slip and showed you the door.
So, what was the parent or the boss trying to do. In these cases, they were trying to manipulate someone into doing what they want them to do or what they think they need to do—not playing in the street, cleaning their room, or showing up to work on time. Our job is to figure out what that anger is trying to achieve. And in doing that, we become the actor rather than the reactor.
3. To “feel good.” Sigmund Freud called this venting. The goal of venting is not to manipulate or try to get rid of someone. The goal of venting is to make us feel better. To make this happen, our expression of anger must not be directed at another person. When you direct your anger at another person, that’s what you receive back. And it should be noted that venting should not be used in front of infants, police officers, or senile old people.
>> Anger needs to be expressed as strongly as we feel it. But this is scary because of the meaning that we attach to anger. This is not a new problem. Over 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he discovered they were “lying about their anger.” Paul’s response was for the church members to “be honest about their anger and do not hold the anger inside. Do not let the sun go down upon your anger. Thereby allowing the devil to work in your life.” (Eph. 4:25-27)
God knows that anger is just another feeling, like joy, love, resentment, depression, or excitement. Anger has never been a problem—it is how we express it that creates the problem. If we express our anger using putdowns, judgments, sarcasm, control, demands, or silence, we only want to worsen the problem. According to what Paul wrote, we are allowed to be angry and not let the anger build up inside us.
So, how do we express anger constructively? It starts out with both people agreeing that the opposite of love is not hate, or anger, but indifference. Not expressing our anger is a way of saying this person is not important enough to care about. On the other hand, consider how you’d react if your partner said, “I am angry at you because I love you and care about you, and if you weren’t so important to me, I wouldn’t get so upset when you don’t get home till after midnight from the church supper.”
>> Anger comes in degrees. Irritated, upset, frustrated, annoyed, mad, and furious are all degrees of anger. People lie about their anger when they say, “I am not angry. I am just upset!” Yes, it may start out as being a little upset that things at home did not go as we thought. Then it’s followed by crazy drivers on the freeway, which is frustrating. Then we get to work, where nothing is going right, and we climb the ladder to hostility and fury. As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Another problem with not expressing anger is that it will build and build and build until we reach the “last straw.” And, that is when the devil has an opportunity to work in our life.
>> Anger is a secondary feeling. We often feel some other feeling before we feel anger. We cannot just suddenly be angry. We may be unaware of our anger, but going from zero to 100 is usually impossible, unless we’ve been storing irritations, upsets, and frustrations for a long while. One of the best ways to recognize our anger before it explodes is to become aware of what we feel before we feel the anger, which is our irritations, upsets, and frustrations.
Here are the things we often feel before we get angry:
Disappointment because of our expectations, or what we wanted not happening.
Unexpected pain, such as hitting our thumb with a hammer.
Loss due to death, divorce, or separation, to name a few.
Boredom, confusion, or feelings of powerless.
If anger is not expressed and we let the sun go down upon our anger, then we will experience third-level feelings. These can include depression, anxiety, resentment, and bitterness. The more we understand and accept these axioms about anger, the more we will find ourself in control of our life.
After the divorce and with the help of therapy, I thought, felt, and behaved differently. I was able to accept all my feelings without any judgments.
And over 50 years ago, I found a woman with whom I could communicate and solve problems, and I got a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Counseling. What I thought was traumatic was actually the best thing that could’ve happened.
When a client comes to see me and starts expressing anger, I find it difficult not to end up with a big smile. Why? Because I know the joy and freedom they will feel once they get their anger out and learn constructive ways of expressing their feelings.