There’s a lot of it out there.

My office is on a narrow one-way street and there was a big cement truck traveling the wrong way the other day. It pulled over to let me by, and I gestured, smiling, that this was a one-way street. I thought he might not realize it, as it’s not well-marked. The guy screamed, “F—- you!” as I drove by.

Hmm. As I said, a lot of anger is out there.

We learn about anger in the families we grow up in. We watch and listen to the adults around us. We learn how and when to express it.

We learn that it can be respected, it can be avoided, or it can be abusive.

First, let’s talk about the respected kind.

Sometimes, anger is really irritability. It’s about being in a bad mood, or waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Hopefully, you can recognize that before you do or say something you’ll regret.

Yet a lot of anger is more important. It’s about identity -who you are, and what you care about. This is the  anger that reveals your values.

Healthy families understand and support this kind of anger. They teach ways to listen, to compromise, or to “agree to disagree.”

Someone tells a demeaning joke, and you feel your skin crawl. Someone speeds through a stoplight, nearly missing a child crossing the street, 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.

What you do with that anger depends on what you were taught.

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 — when your words can be calmer.

Rather than punching someone in the face, you can tell them you don’t like what they’ve said. Instead of racing after the offending car, you can call the police and give a description. 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.

Talking about anger can even build empathy. “I didn’t know that would make you mad… can you tell me more about it?

The difficult part is when someone’s anger is focused on you. It’s hard not to get defensive, but to listen and learn, so that your partnership can become stronger.

But it can happen.

Second, there are families where anger is avoided — at all costs.

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.

Or, perhaps as in many relationships, conflict was avoided. When two people don’t know how to talk about and resolve their differences — find a compromise or put up with the discomfort of knowing there’s disagreement — relationships stagnate.

This can lead to an active denial of problems. Many a couple haven’t touched each other in years, never talk about the credit card debt that hangs over their heads, or silently watch as their partner gets drunk every night. But they never argue.

We learn about anger in the families we grow up inI don’t think it would change anything.” 

“We’d never agree, so why fight?”

“I don’t like to argue. It’s so unpleasant.”

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, then 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.

Third, there are families where anger is abusive, and conflict isn’t allowed.

These are families where anger is used to control and manipulate — families where there is no safety or security. These are families where there can be atrocious acts of violence, and children try to protect themselves as best they can.

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.”

Family members can be so dominated by the abuser that to disagree would only lead to further torment. They know not to rock the boat, or their own private hell will begin all over again. Many times it does anyway, no matter what they do or say, or don’t do or say.

You can be very angry in these families, but as there is no safe outlet, you can absorb an abuser identity yourself, you can try to fight back (which can be dangerous), you can become invisible, or you can try to escape in some other way.

As in the case of learning avoidance, you don’t have to be governed by what you experienced in an abusive family. The trauma you experienced can be worked through – with time and patience.

Anger can become a signal to you, and be about your identity.

Because it’s finally safe enough to have one.


You can now listen to Dr. Margaret as she talks about what we learn in our families and many other topics on her new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Click here!

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