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Anger. Is It Respected, Avoided, or Abusive In Your Life? - Dr. Margaret Rutherford

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. The other day 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.

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

You learn about anger in the family you grow up in; you watch and listen to the adults around you who model for you how and when to express it. And you learn that it can be respected, that it can be avoided, or that it can be abusive.

When you respect, listen to and appropriately express your anger…

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 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, nearly 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; 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 and when your words can be calm.

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.

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

But it can happen and 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 you avoid being angry 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.

But you learned to avoid conflict. It was something you never experienced as reconcilable. 

So you may actively deny problems. Maybe you haven’t touched each other in years, 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.

I 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 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 you learn that anger is about control and the threat of abuse keeps you silent…

These are families where anger is used to control and manipulate. There is no safety or 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 the 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. 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.

And you can learn that all of your feelings, including anger, can be respected.

You can now listen to Dr. Margaret as she talks about relationships and many other topics on her new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Click here!

You can also subscribe to her website, and join the over 4000 readers who enjoy receiving her weekly posts via email! For joining, you’ll receive a free copy of her ebook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy,” a guide to evaluating a therapist.

This was originally published on January 28, 2017 and was updated on March 30, 2019.