The nature of relationships: anger

By Mard Felix and Kathrin Seitz | May 12, 2010
Marc Felix and Kathryn Seitz

Jessica from Owls Head asked: "What do you think about getting angry? Shouldn't we always be peaceful?"

Marc's answer

We live in a society that has a taboo against feeling and expressing anger. This taboo is especially strong for women, the nurturers, who are supposed to be made of "sugar and spice and everything nice." Our culture has some rude names for women who express their anger.

But anger isn't right or wrong in and of itself. It's the way it's used that makes all the difference.

We have a right to feel all our feelings and we have a right to express all our feelings. Of course, we don't have a right to express our feelings in a destructive way. We don't have a right to hurt another person or their property. Indeed, the violent expression of anger is one of the most powerful ways to damage a relationship.

On the other hand, holding back anger is a major cause of psychological symptoms, especially depression. Repressing anger is a major cause of physical illness, especially heart disease.

The full cathartic expression of anger often has a vital role in the healing of trauma and abuse. Anger is also an essential part of the grieving process.

Just like there are all kinds of weather, there are all kinds of feelings in the human emotional palette. There are calm days and stormy days. And personally, I like to experience a good thunderstorm. Anger is energizing and mobilizing.

Anger is a way we communicate with ourselves; a cue we give ourselves that something is wrong, that our rights are not being respected, or that our boundaries are being violated in some way. As a necessary part of good self-care, we have to listen to these signals and not push them away.

I think that "always being peaceful" or any variation of that phrase is the New Age equivalent of what we used to call the "nice guy." Peaceful can easily become too passive. A healthy relationship is free and spontaneous and alive with the full spectrum of emotions.

Imagine how boring an erotic relationship would be without the spice of a little loving aggression now and then.

Anger can be supportive. Why does support have to look gentle? Sometimes caring confrontation is the most effective way to get through to someone.

The key to the healthy expression of anger is that the anger is heart connected. It takes practice to keep our hearts open when we're angry. Keeping the heart open is a spiritual practice as well as an emotional practice.

When our hearts are closed, anger can be cold and destructive. When our hearts are open, anger can be refreshing, authentic and invigorating.

Kathrin's answer

When I was younger, I thought getting angry was cool and powerful. That is until my boyfriends started saying, "You're so cute when you get angry."

So I learned a technique for expressing anger from my therapist, who was also my supervisor when I was a therapist. This was an Alexander Lowen exercise, which involved beating the bed with a tennis racket, and saying things like "I hate you." I brought to mind the various people with whom I was angry and beat the bed. Sometimes we would kick the bed while banging our arms. It helped. Kind of reminds me, as I look back, of Peter Finch in the Academy Award winning movie "Network" opening the window and yelling, "I am mad as hell and I won't take it anymore." Remember those days? That worked, too, for a while.

I have become (a bit) wiser as I have grown older and I now see that many of the things that annoy me in my close relationships are really projections of my own fears and sense of shortcoming. So if a girlfriend doesn't call me back when I expect it, and I find myself angry, perhaps irrationally, I stop, look and listen. I ask myself, have I done that recently? Not returned a call from a close friend? This is often true. It's easier for me to get angry at someone else than to own up to my own lack. A client of mine, Mike Elkin, who is a therapist renowned for working with brilliant difficult addicts and bullies, maintains that our deepest need is to feel innocent. So let's place the guilt on our partner or friend. And be the innocent one. In his mind, anger is always based on moral judgment. We judge the other, at whom we are angry, as morally inferior.

I have been observing myself -- stopping, looking and listening -- and I see that I am just as Mike Elkin says. I try to toss the guilt across to the other. This happens especially in my closest relationships. I see that I argue with my husband about the most mundane issues, like who has the correct directions to where we are going. Does this sound familiar? Don't all couples do that? I want to be right. It's as if I am fighting for the moral high ground. About directions? Yikes. So I've begun to cede the high ground to him. He is most likely as right as I am and if I cede the ground, I hold onto energy that would otherwise be wasted. Now that I am looking at each potential conflagration, I see that most of them are not worth the struggle. It turns out, as I experiment with this, little by little, that I'm OK if I let go.

And here's the analogy that came to me last night. If I cede an issue or two or three, I am saving energy. I'm reducing my negative energy footprint. When I hold onto my energy, I can give it back to the grid. Give back to the community, to my family, to my work.

If, as I read recently, we are meant to be a beam of light for others, I might just save enough kilowatts to light up the world for a moment!

Our next column will address whether there is such a thing as a soul mate.

 


 

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