We pulled this post for this week, recognizing that many families are divided on political and religious issues during this time. And many of us are headed straight to those families. We have choices on how to deal with anger and conflict, rather than giving in to your impulses or bad habits learned as a child. And an extra word of advice at the end..
Anger. There’s a lot of it out there.
My office is on a narrow one-way street that isn’t well-marked as such. A while back there was a big cement truck traveling the wrong way; it pulled over to let me by and I gestured, smiling, that this was a one-way street. The guy screamed, “F—- you!” as I drove by.
As I said, a lot of anger is out there.
It starts in childhood; you first learn about anger in your family. You watch and listen to the adults around you who, perhaps without realizing it, model how and when to express it. You might have learned that anger:
- Should be avoided
- Leads to abuse and fear
- Can be discussed and understood as a natural part of human experience
Let’s start with the healthiest one first.
When has been respected, listened to, and appropriately expressed…
Sometimes anger is really irritability. It’s about being in a bad mood, or waking up on the wrong side of the bed and hopefully, you can recognize that before you do or say something you’ll regret.
Yet often anger is more important than a passing mood. It’s about your core identity; it’s about who you are and what you care about. It speaks to your personal boundaries and your ability to maintain them.
Someone tells a demeaning joke, and you feel your skin crawl. Someone speeds through a stoplight, barely missing a child, and you get angry. That’s a sign that a boundary has been crossed for you; something important to you has been threatened, disregarded, or mocked. So you get mad, but what you do with that anger depends on what you were taught – as well as whether others around you are fueling your anger.
Anger isn’t violent in and of itself. The power of anger can be respected, and voiced respectfully. You may have to wait until you’re not quite so mad and when your words can be calm, of course; that’s part of successfully navigating the intense emotion.
Instead of racing after the offending car, you can call the police and give a description. Rather than punching someone in the face, you can tell them you don’t like what they’ve said. You could choose not to curse loudly at some stranger who has irritated you, and instead wonder why you were affected so strongly by their actions.
A more difficult scenario is when someone’s anger is focused on you, particularly when it’s a close relationship and you’re struggling with an issue or having a disagreement. It’s hard not to get defensive when they’re lashing out angrily, and instead to listen. However, doing so can be an opportunity to learn and make that relationship stronger. Moreover, talking about that anger can even help you build empathy, ”I didn’t know that would make you mad… can you tell me more about it?”
When anger has been avoided…
How many of you can say, “I never heard my parents fight?”
Perhaps they strongly believed that conflict shouldn’t be handled in front of the kids, and did a really good job with keeping those kinds of conversations private. It’s not that they didn’t disagree, they simply didn’t spill their differences in front of the kids.
Yet you potentially learned to avoid conflict. It was something you never experienced, and you may even consider anger irreconcilable.
As a result, you may actively deny problems. Maybe you and your partner haven’t touched each other in years but haven’t ever spoken of it. Or you never talk about the credit card debt that hangs over your heads, or silently watch as your partner gets drunk every night. But you never argue, and you think that’s healthy.
“I don’t think it would change anything.”
“We’d never agree, so why fight?”
Really? It’s hard work, true. But so worth it.
Anger that’s avoided can lead to tremendous resentment and blind insensitivity. One partner may eventually have had it, totally withdraw, justify having an affair or file for divorce. Yet the other may never have recognized the extent of the emotional damage.
If you grew up in an avoidant family you can learn to voice your identity or your opinion, believe in your own worth, and express that opinion appropriately. These skills can be learned at any age.
When anger has been used abusively…
These are families where anger is used to control and manipulate. There is no safety nor security, and atrocious acts of violence and manipulation can happen in a vicious cycle. So maybe you tried to protect yourself as best you could.
“I knew better than to make Mom mad.”
“When we’d hear Dad’s car in the driveway, we’d all run to our rooms.”
You could’ve been so dominated by a parental abuser that to disagree would only lead to further torment. You learned not to rock the boat, or your own private hell would begin all over again. And the confusing thing? Many times it did anyway, no matter what you said or did, or didn’t do or say.
As a child growing up in these families, you can become very angry. There is no safe outlet for emotions. In an attempt to deal with that anger, you might ultimately become an abuser yourself, you might try to fight back (which can be dangerous), you might become invisible, or you might try to escape in some other ways such as substance abuse, an eating disorder, obsessive athleticism — anything to escape from your real world.
You don’t have to be governed by what you experienced in an abusive family. It’s important that you work through that trauma so that you aren’t continuing the coping skills you adopted as a child. With time and patience, what you experienced can be worked through; it’s finally safe to have your own identity.
One last word: I always suggest that it’s helpful to predict what might bring up conflict within you, and take responsibility for that. If you’re going to get mad or be irritated by another family member doing or saying what they always do and say, then predict that will happen – and plan a better response to it. This is far better than you then doing and saying what you always do and say, especially when it leads to worse conflict.
You can change your own behavior. That’s it. That’s what you have control over.
And that truck driver? Maybe I reminded him of his aunt who he detests who’s always telling people what to do – and I got the brunt of his anger. I hope he’s better now.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!
This was originally published on January 28, 2017 and was updated on March 30, 2019 and again on September 4, 2021.