“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”
– Carl Rogers.
A few years ago I got a phone call from a friend who had seen irrefutable evidence that my boyfriend at the time was cheating on me. I had just said goodbye to him; a long, drawn out, romantic, midnight affair, because he had dramatically professed the amount of love he felt for me. It was like being in a film. This is what love is, I thought. Finally, I thought. When she said it, I felt a stab of fury hit me in my stomach, and then, seemingly magically, this stab was blunted, smoothed down, made okay. There must be an explanation, I thought, moving swiftly from my gut, to my head, where I felt safe. This was my pattern when I felt anger. Don’t acknowledge it, and definitely do not express it. I was afraid of judgement, I was afraid of being somehow wrong to feel angry, and, mostly, I was afraid, of losing this lying, cheating man (or, more accurately, I was afraid of losing what he represented). So, to my detriment, I quietened the anger, and believed his lies for another eight months.
Since then I have done a lot of reflecting on my reaction. It appears that I had been very skilled at repressing my anger. I repressed it when I was disrespected, I repressed it when I was harassed and even when I was sexually violated. I repressed it whenever anger was an appropriate feeling to feel. From this reflecting I learnt that in none of the situations I could think of, did repressing the anger benefit me. It allowed me to stay vaguely comfortable in the short term, but in the long term, I ruminated over incidents, I blamed myself, I went over what I could have said, how I could have reacted, what I could have done differently. It got me down. Although sometimes repressing our anger in the moment is a valuable self – protective strategy, it becoming a go-to behaviour in any anger provoking situation, was unhelpful and unhealthy.
Finally I learnt that all of our emotions are valid, and acceptable. We are taught all through our lives that anger and sadness and fear and anxiety and so on are ‘bad’ emotions, that we should try our best to avoid, and that we should be trying to be constantly happy, and if we aren’t, there is something wrong with us that we need to fix, but I vehemently disagree. All of our emotional states are equal. They are all valid. They are all part of us and they are all trying to tell us something. Repression, whether that’s through avoiding, denying, escaping, distracting, and so on, doesn’t work, it just allows them to grow and become stagnant and denser. By repressing our feelings, we not only deny parts of ourselves, but we also lose out big time on vital information that they are trying to give us. I was right to feel anger that night in my car on the way home. My life would have been a lot easier if I had have rung my cheating ex up, told him it was over, recovered, and carried on with my life, but my fear of feeling anger hijacked what was a rational response to being treated without respect. My anger was telling me ‘this isn’t okay for you, you are worth more than being treated like this’, but I didn’t listen to it.
Anger, like all of our emotional states, is pointing us towards a personal insight. Dig a little, without judging or self criticism, for what could be beneath the anger; maybe it’s a value we didn’t know we held, maybe it unearths a blind spot, maybe it shows us what we really care about. Anger can also motivate us into action; without anger towards the Government it is unlikely that such enormous water charge protests would have taken place. The thing we forget is that we don’t have to punch walls and scream at others or ourselves in order to feel angry. Anger isn’t an inherently destructive emotion, but the behaviour we choose when we feel the anger can be destructive. However, we can feel, acknowledge, respect and accept the anger, and make productive constructive choices from there.
I recently heard a great little phrase; “anger is your friend; hug it”. Anger is our friend, just as all of our emotional experiences are. The idea is not to deny the less joyful feelings, but to non-judgmentally accept them, welcome them as just another part of us first, and then we can reflect on them, be curious about them, and work through them, while also learning invaluable information about ourselves to add to our emotional toolbox,which can only help build our resilience, as we navigate our worlds.