Anger is the emotional response that moves through our bodies when we are faced with injustice, betrayal, or violation. In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown says, “If you look across the research, you learn that anger is an emotion that we feel when something gets in the way of a desired outcome or when we believe there’s a violation of the way things should be.”
As a result, anger is a gift and a messenger. It exists to tell us that something is amiss. It signals to us that we are experiencing injustice, betrayal, or a violation of our personhood in some way. This can be something small like being cut off in traffic, which may trigger low-level frustration, or something big, like being cheated on, which could trigger high levels of rage.
When anger surfaces, it is telling us to pay attention to what is happening. If we listen to our anger, it will nearly always tell us about something that needs to change.
A great example of this is the way that resentments are handled within 12-step communities. Resentment, which is a form of anger, typically surfaces when we have not held our boundaries appropriately with another person or situation, or we have not used our voice effectively on our own behalf.
In the process of working through the 12 steps of recovery, we learn that when a resentment surfaces, it is about us, not the person toward whom we hold the resentment. The resentment is a messenger, telling us that we have over-extended and said yes when we should have said no. Or we have not spoken our truth about something. Or we have allowed someone to take advantage of us. As such, resentment, when we take responsibility for it and listen to what it is trying to tell us, helps us adjust our boundaries, speak up for ourselves, and change how we show up in our relationships.
Anger in any form – frustration, resentment, rage, etc. –contains a message for us. If we listen to our anger, it will help us to change patterns that are not serving us well.
Our anger may be directed toward our partner for their cheating and lying. It might also be directed toward us because we feel stuck in our situation. Anger may be telling us that we must make a change, set some boundaries, and even risk the loss of our relationship to demand change. Anger may be telling us how deeply our sense of dignity is suffering because of the compromises we are making. Or perhaps the anger is about recognizing the extent to which we have lost our voice and sense of self.
Anger like this rushes through us each time we feel dismissed or ignored by our partner. This red-hot emotion is trying to tell us that a relationship in which we must reduce ourselves to get along creates suffering and is not healthy.
Our anger might also be about our loss of sexual expression, experiences, and self-esteem during years of living with a sexually addicted partner. This type of anger generally resides right next to our sexual and romantic longings. It reminds us of what we long for, who we are, and what is possible for us.
Whenever we feel anger, we need to pause and create space to listen to what our anger is telling us. This can be challenging because anger has a strong action tendency toward making us want to fight. If we do not pause and create space for our anger, we can sometimes be swept up in expressing our anger before we have sorted out what the anger is about and the message it contains for us.
That said, the action tendency in anger does need to be expressed. Sometimes we can’t find the message in our anger until we allow some of its energy to move through us. Taking a brisk walk, going for a run, throwing rocks in a pond, hitting a punching bag, screaming in our car with the windows up, repeating a mantra – all are ways to help anger move through our bodies. As that energy moves through us, we want to listen to it and ask ourselves:
- What am I so angry about?
- What is my anger trying to tell me?
- What does my anger want me to do or to stop doing?
As betrayed partners, our anger is a gift and a messenger. Our challenge is to slow down and give ourselves permission to hear what our anger is trying to tell us. Next week, we are going to continue this conversation by looking at anger as a catalyst.