Today’s post is about anger. It’s a topic I know a lot about.
I consider myself to be a happy person. I have an optimistic outlook, great energy and gratitude. However, my current reality wasn’t always my truth. The truth is that, for many years, I was angry. I blamed everyone else, mostly my ex husband, and all the boyfriends before him, for my anger.
I would go to work and enjoy my clients and work, relish my time with my girlfriends and then go home and feel angry in my marriage. The dichotomy was striking. It made for a bad marriage, which eventually fell apart.
Like all good stories, I had to hit rock bottom before I could crawl my way out of my chronic anger and build an authentic life that didn’t make me so mad. I lost almost everything in a few months in 2011. I lost my house. I had to sell it because I couldn’t pay the mortgage. My marriage ended and most of my savings was spent on rehab — my ex husband lost his medical license due to an opiate addiction, and with it, our income. I had to move and sell everything because the house of cards I created had collapsed. However, as I said, I lost almost everything. I didn’t lose my kids and I didn’t lose my real friends. And my two beautiful children inspired me to dig deep and really fix my own sh*t.
Today’s post is all about my journey out of anger. You can read it below, or listen to me share it on my podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:
Anger feels so awful. It eats you up and causes strain and raises blood pressure. If you live there, you are not pretty. I’d been living in and out of anger for 13 years by the time my marriage collapsed. I had developed a big habit, and I wanted to let it go. The story of how I let go of anger might be drastically different from the way you choose to, if you suffer from anger, but the principles will help.
STEP #1: LIVE WITH AUTHENTICITY
The first thing I did to get out of my anger was to start living an authentic life. You might ask, what does authenticity have to do with anger? Well, turns out, everything. I’ll explain. When I was a young girl going to an elite private school with a bunch of wealthy families in Denver, I developed an ugly thing called jealousy. I was “middle class” and had a nice home and two incredible parents who worked their tails off to provide me with a good education. But what I saw at school, and more importantly, what I chose to focus on, was that most kids lived in a different area. They wore shirts with alligators and polo ponies on them. Their parents drove Mercedes and Jaguars. Not old Volvo station wagons. Somewhere in the depths of my being, I decided I wanted to have more. Not a conscious thing I said to myself. It was buried deeper than that. So, when I met a surgeon who was good looking and a wonderful man, I married him, but partially for the wrong reason.
When things got rough, the way things do in life, I blamed him for our problems. He was gone at work and when he wasn’t, he was playing golf. I was so mad you would have thought he was out running the mafia. I would stew. When I met him, he was sober, but over the years he relapsed a few times. I didn’t want anyone to know. That would muddy my image of our perfect life. I started living with a secret. And having an ugly secret made me even angrier. I didn’t feel safe or prioritized. I knew that in his heart, opiates were his first love and that, more than anything, made me angry.
To live an authentic life, I had to look all this ugliness in the face. I had to stare at the fact that I’d been a jealous child. That I wanted to be rich like the other kids in school. That maybe I’d ignored important things that should have been bigger red flags and I’d done it all to have security and all the things I’d longed for as a child. Authenticity means looking at all your good and bad things directly and owning them. When I owned them, I could take control of my past and my pain.
I spent a whole lot of time crying the year I went through my divorce. That’s when it struck me that being authentic during my marriage would have meant a lot of things. I would have asked for help instead of keeping a secret. I would have owned my pain, which is of course, what my anger was. I would have encouraged my husband to get more help and I would have been compassionate instead of scared.
The addiction and the anger ended our marriage. After the dust settled, I had nothing but a little rental house and my two kids and my work. But I started to feel good. I started to feel calm. The thing I’d feared, having less than all the other people around me, was true and it wasn’t bad at all. It was still more than lots of people in the world had. I had a roof over my head and the same wonderful parents and my darling children and that was totally enough. Authenticity was the first part of saving myself from more years of unbearable anger.
Authenticity means that you NAME YOUR TRUTH IN FULL. Mine was that some faulty conclusions had been made in my childhood brain. I had associated money with happiness. It led to chasing a false idol. Those few years in my rental, working my ass off at the office and doing emotional work made me face my truth and decide to pursue authenticity instead.
The other, incredibly hard truth for me to face was that I had given the men in my life all of my power. If they said I looked nice and paid attention to me, I felt good. If they focused on their work or hobbies too much, I felt angry. This was an even harder truth for me to face because I thought I was so liberal and liberated. I was educated and strong. But when I looked hard at my truth, there it was, looking me back in the face. My self worth was tied to how my men loved me and how much attention they gave me.
As you can imagine, this is the tough part of doing emotional work. I had to face myself and say, You are shallow, you have been chasing the wrong things, you gave all your power away and you are too angry!
STEP #2: MAKE AMENDS
This step overwhelms most people, but shouldn’t. If your anger has harmed only you, then you can move to step three. If you hurt others because of your anger, you will not be able to move on to forgiveness, the third step, without taking responsibility for your actions.
My anger was partially focused on my ex husband and over the years, I have apologized and written letters and emails to him to try to right my part of the failure of our marriage. We didn’t end because of his addiction. We ended for lots of problems, and many of them were mine.
Some people get focused on fairness at this point. I hear people in my clinical practice say, “Well I wouldn’t have been so angry if he hadn’t….” This is a way to avoid having to look at your own part of a problem. It delays healing. Give up thinking about fairness and just breathe into your part in the mess. My husband was an addict. But I chose to be mad. I am not looking at who caused what and what percentage of the problem was mine versus his. Blame
is a waste of time and doesn’t allow you to let go of your anger.
Depending on your past, this process might be small and involve an email or a phone call, or it might be bigger. Only when you have really named your anger and its causes and effects will you know how to handle this step. My one recommendation is to do more that you think is necessary. I would rather take responsibility fully instead of doing this step in a half assed way. This step leads the path to the next step and is crucial for being able to get past your past.
STEP #3: FORGIVE YOURSELF
This part is harder for some people than for others. Because I had been so loved by my parents and trained in psychology, I was able to have compassion for myself. I looked back at the pieces of my childhood and did what is crucial if you are to forgive yourself or someone else. I had compassion. I thought back to the time and realized it was a valid mistake. My friends with money looked really happy. They were happy and they had lots of cool toys. I made an association in my brain that the two were connected. I even ignored data to the contrary because I had been happy without having wealth for most of my life.
The second, tricker part for me, was taking back my power from the men in my life. Women in this culture are given a message by the media from the time we are able to comprehend language and images. Be pretty, thin, fit but not too fit, have big boobs, but not too big, have hair on your head, but not on your body, have nice nails, have white teeth. I could go on and on. Here is a truth that makes giving up body focus so hard. Being attractive is powerful. But the power that comes from being attractive lasts a very short time. A man might be drawn to you for being attractive, but that novelty that lights up the dopamine in your brain doesn’t last forever. Once the novelty of the relationship would wear off and life got back to normal, my power felt diminished and I’d get angry. Having compassion for my, once again, faulty correlation between beauty and happiness, was easy. Replacing this pattern in a world that still values women for the wrong things, is a challenge. I’m a work in progress.
Forgiving myself meant looking at my past, embracing my faulty reasoning and feeling the loss of everything that could have been better if I’d made better correlations. As you forgive yourself for being human and making human mistakes, you can let go of the shame of your secrets. This part is key to letting go of anger.
STEP #4: FIND YOUR REAL POWER
Once you have authentically named your truth, taken responsibility, and forgiven yourself, you tend to be a more fully aware and primed for change. This means that when you start to get into your old reasoning, you are able to see the devil for what it is. I’m now blessed with the most wonderful man. Sometimes I fall into my old patterns because those neural networks are deeply formed in my brain. When my old anger “monster” is triggered, I am able to take a few steps back and say, “Hello old friend, how’s it going?”
I once saw Cheryl Strayed talk about fear as and old friend who she didn’t want to steer the boat of her life. I feel the same way about anger. Anger steered my boat for too long. I want the better pieces of me to steer the boat. Pieces like my intelligence and my compassion.
As many of you know, anger is usually a secondary emotion that is based in fear or hurt. For today, let’s not get into that. For lots of people, the anger feels real. If you want to get out from under your anger, say hello to it with humor and remove it from it’s place right on top of you. Say to it, “I’m not interested in having you make my decisions today.” Then go do what’s hard, but actually much more effective, like telling your loved one you want to spend quality time together.
Power comes from figuring out what you are here to do. Without needing to just be pretty for the men in my life and without needing security in the same way I did before, I had some time to figure out what I enjoy. I love fitness and friendships. I love good food and white wine. I love reading at night in bed. I love psychology. I loved it as my major in college and I love my work now. I decided to switch my focus from what I wanted to what I had to offer others. In my private practice, I can only reach so many people a year and they have to be able to pay a lot of money. I decided to get into creativity and writing and figure out how to give the lessons from my private practice, from psychology, from my life, to a bigger audience.
The fact that you go through the process of becoming authentic in step 1, making amends in step 2, and then forgiving yourself in step 3, will enable you to find your true power. Without having to simply go through life, reacting to your fears and anger, you will have the time and space to ask, “What do I want to do with my limited time on this earth?” That’s how you will find your power.
STEP #5: LEARN TO LOVE YOURSELF
Sounds cliche, but if you don’t love yourself, you will never believe it when other say they love you. The truth is, once you have done the previous steps in earnest, this step is possible.
I’m telling you, if I hadn’t looked my ugly truth in the face, I wouldn’t have been able to genuinely love myself. I would have known I had a hidden secret and the secret would have been this kernel of truth in the back of my head that would have kept me from being full. To be clear, it isn’t that I don’t still want security or that I don’t care about beauty. I’m just more fully aware of my truth. The way jealousy and desire to be attractive steered my boat for too long. I understand it and I name it. I work on it, which means I control it — it doesn’t control me. Most of the time, the thing you are working to avoid isn’t as bad as you imagine it is. It’s a common theme, likely shared by millions of people. I was not as alone as I believed I was.
STEP #6: LIVE IN GRATITUDE
Once you have done this work, you can move onto the final step which is gratitude. When you come from a place of gratitude each and everyday, you can’t live in anger. The two don’t co-exist easily. I now have so much gratitude for my ex husband. He taught me that people change and overcome incredibly difficult things. He conquered opiate addiction and that is harder than anything I’ve ever done, including conquering anger.
Remember that these steps are just tools. They work, but only when we use them. Sometimes anger rears up and I have to go back into the steps. Anger is information. It tells us that we believe we are being wronged. But, mostly we aren’t. We are just creating a story in our heads to deal with hurt and fear.
Here is a caveat. If you are being molested or abused and you feel anger or fear, it is information and you should act on it. Tell someone. Get help. But if the anger is just a running tape in your head, like it was in mine, then the anger is not serving you.
People have heard the saying that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other person, and it’s true. It’s even biologically true. If you hold on to negative emotions, they will eventually take your prefrontal cortex offline. The prefrontal cortex is our advanced brain and it is where we make our best, organized decisions. Once it’s offline, and the emotional centers are being used to make decisions, you have a problem. Fear based and anger based decisions aren’t good decisions.
No one wants to be angry all the time. I genuinely believe that. In fact, I don’t think most people even realize that they are so angry. I didn’t. I remember a friend once telling me she was happy for me that I wasn’t so angry anymore and I was shocked. You mean other people saw my anger?
So remember that this is hard process. But it works. I am living proof.
- Be willing to be authentic and look at every hard and ugly part of yourself. Take responsibility for your part in your own anger. You cannot move past what you won’t acknowledge.
- Make amends for the hurts you have inflicted on others in your anger. Even if they are symbolic.
- Forgive yourself for making the choices you did. Forgive yourself for everything. You may have to apologize to people, maybe just to yourself.
- Find your power so you know what you are here to do. You are here to do something.
- Learn to love yourself. You will be less lonely and the world will be easier once you love yourself.
- And finally, live in gratitude for this wonderfully complex, messy existence that we are all sharing at this time on this planet. You can focus on the good with gratitude or you can focus on the bad. The choice is yours.
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.