Link back to index.html
The Lesson of Anger
All the passages below are taken from the book “Life Lessons” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2000.
A nurse at a Midwest hospital emergency room got a call from the dispatcher informing her that five people in critical condition were being brought in. The situation, already tense, was complicated because one of the injured was the nurse’s husband. The other four were a family she didn’t know. Despite the doctors’ and nurses’ best efforts, all five died. What killed them? A building collapse? A bus crash? A drive-by shooting? A fire? Anger killed them. One car had been trying to pass another on a rural road. But each driver refused to yield. Side by side they raced ahead, jockeying for position, fueled by anger. Neither one saw the third car heading toward them until it was too late. The nurse’s husband was one of those angry drivers. The two men trying to pass each other were strangers—they had never even met. They had no reason to be this angry with each other, yet they were overcome with rage simply because one wanted to pass the other. Charges were filed against the surviving driver.
Three families were devastated by this tragic accident resulting from anger, which some officials believe is the number one cause of auto accidents in our country today.
We can all identify with driving while angry, but luckily, few of us suffer such extreme consequences. Yet, letting anger build up as these two men did can be a substantial negative force in our lives. We must learn to express it in healthy ways so that we can control it before it controls us.
Anger is a natural emotion, which, in its natural state, should only take a few seconds to a few minutes to externalize. For example, if someone cuts in front of us in line at the movies, it’s only natural for us to be angry at him or her for about a minute. If we naturally felt our anger by expressing it— if we let it live for a minute in order to move through it— we would be fine. But problems arise when we either express anger inappropriately by blowing up or suppress it so that it accumulates. We end up either giving a situation more of our anger than it deserves, or none of it.
Suppressed anger does not simply evaporate, it becomes unfinished business. If we don’t deal with that little bit of anger, it gets bigger and bigger until it has to go someplace, usually the wrong place. Those two drivers were so full of old anger that, when they encountered each other, it exploded. In no more than a few seconds, they blew up like volcanoes.
The other problem with accumulating anger is that even if the people who hurt us are willing to take responsibility for their actions, it isn’t enough. If they apologize and we believe the apology was sincere yet continue to be angry, that is old anger. And it can rise to the surface over and over again, in different and unexpected ways.
Many people were raised in families where showing any anger was wrong. Others came from families where even the slightest problem escalated to rage. It is no wonder we have no good role models for expressing this natural emotion. Instead of understanding what to do with anger, we question it, wonder if it is valid, misplace it, and do just about everything we can— except feel it. But anger is a normal reaction, useful at the right time and place, and in the proper portions. For example, studies have shown over and over again that angry patients live longer. Whether that’s because they externalize their feelings or because they demand better care, we don’t know. We do know that anger creates action and helps us control the world around us. It also helps us set appropriate boundaries in our lives. As long as it’s not inappropriate, violent, or abusive, anger can be a helpful and healthy response.
As one of the body’s important warning systems, anger should not automatically be stifled. It warns us that we are being hurt or our needs are not being heard; it can be a normal and healthy reaction to many situations. On the other hand, it may, like guilt, be a signal that something is out of line with our belief systems. Occasional anger, registered in proportion to harmful events, is healthy— it’s what we sometimes do or do not do with the feeling that causes problems. Often we are so afraid of our own anger and deny it so deeply, we are no longer aware of it.
Anger doesn’t have to be a horrible beast that consumes our lives. It’s just a feeling. It isn’t productive to overanalyze it or to ask if it is valid, appropriate, or warranted. To do so is to wonder if we should even have feelings. Anger is just that— a feeling. It’s a feeling to be experienced, not judged. Like all our feelings, anger is a form of communication, it brings us a message.
Unfortunately, many of us no longer hear its message. We often don’t know how to feel it. When people in anger are asked “What are you feeling?” they will begin to answer by saying, “I think . . .” That is an intellectual answer to an emotional question. It comes from our minds, not from our guts.
We must get in touch with the feelings in our bellies. Sometimes people find this so difficult that it’s helpful for them to close their eyes and put one hand on their stomach. This simple motion helps them get in touch with what they are feeling, probably because it uses the body, not just the brain. Getting in touch with our feelings is almost a foreign notion in our society: we forget that we feel with our bodies. We tend to split our minds from our emotions. We’re so used to letting our minds dominate that we forget our feelings and our bodies. Notice how many times you begin a sentence with “I think” rather than “I feel.”
Anger tells us that we haven’t dealt with our hurt. Hurt is present pain, while anger is often lingering pain. As we gather these hurts and do not address them, our anger grows. We can accumulate many hurts, and it becomes hard to sort them out— eventually, even hard to recognize the anger. We get so used to living with the feeling that we begin to think of it as part of who we are. We begin to see ourselves as bad people. The anger becomes part of our identity. We must begin the task of separating our old feelings from our identity. We must release this anger to remember our good and remember who we are.
Besides becoming angry with others, we become angry with ourselves, mad at what we did or didn’t do. We become angry because we feel we’ve betrayed ourselves, often in trying to please others at the expense of our feelings. We get angry when we fail to honor our own needs and wants. We know we’re mad at “them” for not giving us what we deserve, but we don’t always realize that we’re angry with ourselves for not giving to ourselves first. Sometimes we’re just too stubborn to admit that we have needs, because in our society, need equals weakness.
When we turn our anger inward, it often expresses itself in feelings of depression or guilt. Anger held internally changes our impressions of the past and distorts our view of current reality. All of this old anger becomes unfinished business not merely with others, but with ourselves.
We tend to bounce from one extreme to another, holding our anger in and “letting it blow,” blaming others and blaming ourselves. We’re not letting anger express itself naturally, so it’s no wonder we think it’s bad. It’s no wonder we think people who yell are ill-tempered, but just because we’re not yelling, too, doesn’t mean we are at peace or free from anger.
Berry Berenson Perkins, wife of the late actor Anthony Perkins, is one of the most charming women you will ever meet. Her mixture of grace, style, and warmth puts you instantly at ease. Yet, under this soft veneer lies a great deal of pain. Fortunately, she has had the courage to confront the anger that lives beneath the surface. She hadn’t spoken about this publicly, but when I told her I was writing another book, she said, “I want to share this because I think it can help others.”
She notes, “Everybody deals with grief in different ways. The most important thing is to talk about it and find ways to get your anger out. So many people say ‘Get over it already’ or ‘Deal with the anger,’ but they haven’t experienced what you have. As someone who has gone through it, I can tell you that it is one of the toughest things you will ever do.
“I had to come to grips with the reality that I was angry a lot of the time. Angry that there was not someone there to help me to finish raising the kids. Angry that I had to cope on my own when I used to have someone else to cope with me. I see now I was angry with Tony for leaving us. It’s an underlying anger. I found myself angry and I didn’t know why.
“I realized I took it out on the dishes or myself. I hope to get it out completely one day. I think the more one deals with one’s anger, the more one gets it out. I’ve written him letters and done a lot of work to bring out the anger and direct it.
“It is also important to bring out the good feelings you have for that person so that you can balance the anger and not feel angry all the time. After his death we were shocked and confused. We repressed our anger, which turned into depression. I just loved him so much and I didn’t want to blame him for anything, but you can’t help it.
“I have learned so many lessons about anger. I learned that I was never in touch with my anger. Most married couples experience anger from time to time. We never had angry arguments, we avoided them as a family. We never wanted to say mean things that might hurt the other person. We were very nice to one another. We skirted a lot of anger issues. But it’s hard to forgive if you haven’t dealt with the anger. The more anger you can let go of, the more forgiveness you are going to have.”
+ + +
Untreated fear turns into anger. When we’re not in touch with our fears— or when we don’t even know we’re afraid— that fear grows into anger. If we don’t deal with the anger, it will turn into rage.
We’re more accustomed to dealing with our anger than with our fear. It’s easier for us to say to a spouse “I’m angry at you” than it is to say “I’m afraid you’ll leave.” It’s easier to get angry about what’s going wrong than to admit “I am afraid I’m not good enough.”
A young man named Andrew was supposed to meet his girlfriend, Melanie, at a coffeehouse a few months ago. But several of these coffeehouses are spread throughout the city, and each went to a different one. Andrew waited for Melanie for thirty or forty minutes, left a message on her answering machine, and went back to his apartment. “I figured that there must have been some sort of mix-up, so we’d try again,” he explained. “That was not Melanie’s impression. She was very angry with me. She was implying that I deliberately left her there, that I disappointed her, that I couldn’t be trusted. I pointed out that we both just assumed it was a different coffeehouse.”
What for Andrew was a simple mix-up was for Melanie a horrible letdown suggesting he was unreliable and would disappoint her again. She brought more anger to the situation than it deserved, anger that was possibly left over from an old hurt. She couldn’t see reality as it was.
Out of touch with the fear under her anger, Melanie made Andrew the villain. Unfortunately, she only took the first step— she got mad. We’re all very good at this step: “I’m angry because you weren’t there,” “I’m angry because you were late,” “I’m angry because you didn’t do a good job,” “I’m angry because of what you said.” We need to learn how to take the second step, looking into ourselves to explore the fear underneath. Here are some clues to what may really be going on:
• The anger: I’m angry because you weren’t there.
• The fear underneath: When you’re not there, I fear you’re abandoning me.
• The anger: I’m angry because you’re late.
• The fear underneath: I’m not as important to you as your work.
• The anger: I’m angry because you didn’t do a good job.
• The fear underneath: I’m afraid we’ll make less money and not be able to pay our bills.
• The anger: I’m angry because of what you said.
• The fear underneath: I’m afraid you don’t love me anymore.
It’s easier to keep rubbing in the anger than it is to deal with the fear, but it doesn’t help solve the underlying problem. In fact, it often only makes the “surface” problem worse, for people don’t respond well to anger. Yelling at people rarely convinces them that they are wrong. Have you ever heard someone say, “They yelled at me for ten minutes, but I still thought I was right. But during the next twenty minutes of yelling I really understood their point.”
Even when we have valid fears, they can be made invalid by too much anger. For instance, constantly reminding a coworker that she’s late does not help the situation. But if you say, “There’s so much to do, I’m afraid we’re not going to get it done,” she can relate to your fear without feeling wronged by your anger.
It takes a lot of energy to hold anger in, yet we all carry pain that darkens our souls. Daphne Rose Kingma, a therapist and author, held a workshop for those who were dealing with the end of a relationship. She said, “I will always remember this remarkable, poignant woman. She was in her late seventies. I thought, ‘What is this woman doing here? Is she ending a relationship?’ We went around the room and everybody told their story: why I am here, who left me on Christmas Day, what I am trying to get over, how it ended, can you believe it! And finally I came to this woman and I said, ‘What are you doing here, are you ending a relationship?’ She replied, ‘I ended a relationship forty years ago with my husband, and I was so bitter and angry that I have spent these forty years being bitter and angry. I have complained to my children about my ex-husband, I’ve complained to everybody I know. I’ve never trusted another man. I have never been in another relationship for more than three weeks before some issue came up that reminded me of that dastardly man I was married to. I have never been able to get over it. And now I am dying, I am terminally ill with only a few months to live. I don’t want to take all this anger to my grave. I am so, so sad that I lived all this life without ever loving again. So that is why I am here. I couldn’t live in peace, but I do want to die in peace.’
“If you wonder if you have the courage or the strength, if you wonder if you are ever going to get over that anger, remember this woman, she is a great and tragic teacher.”
Our society feels that anger is bad and wrong, so we don’t have healthy ways to externalize it. We’re not familiar with how to talk about it or let it out. We stuff it, deny it, or contain it. Most of us hold it inside until we finally blow because we’ve never learned to say, “I’m angry about the small things.” Most people don’t know how to stay current and say, “I’m angry about this,” and when something happens tomorrow, to say, “I’m angry at that.” Instead, they know how to pretend to be nice people who never get angry until they blow up and list the twenty things the other person did in the last few months that have made them angry.
Dying produces an enormous amount of anger on everyone’s part. Where does the hospital staff take its anger? Where do families and patients take their anger? It would be great if hospitals had a room where you could go and scream— not at anyone, just out loud. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a safe room where we could let out our anger? Because if you don’t let your anger out, you will scream at someone. And screaming at someone carries its own set of consequences. No one enjoys being around an angry person. An angry person is often a lonely person.
Many hold anger in sometimes because they judge it. They believe that if they were good people, if they were loving and spiritual, they wouldn’t and shouldn’t be angry. Yet, this anger may be a normal reaction. It’s important to help people work through any feelings of anger they have toward themselves or other people, or even toward God.
It helps some people to call God names, scream into a pillow, even pound a baseball bat on their hospital beds to externalize their anger. They will often afterwards talk about how good it feels to have finally let that anger out. And they realize that they were afraid if they ever spoke those words, their God would strike them with lightning or otherwise punish them, but now they feel closer to God than ever. As one woman said, “I realized my God was big enough to handle my anger. And I realized that my anger was not even about Him, anyway.”
A flight attendant shared the story of her father being accidentally killed while he was cleaning his gun. She had tried and tried to make peace with his death but could not accept it. She couldn’t get over it until one day at home, while thinking about his death, a terrible rain and thunderstorm began. She ran into the backyard and, in all the noise and rain, screamed at the top of her lungs into the thunder and sky about how angry she was. She said that something about that storm helped her get in touch with and express her anger. After a few minutes of screaming and raising her fist to the sky, she dropped on her knees and cried. Then, for the first time in years, she said, “I finally felt at peace again.”
After my strokes, I could live with the idea of dying and I could live with the idea of recovery. Instead, I had to live with being incapacitated, with my left side paralyzed, not getting better or worse. I was like a plane sitting on a runway: I wished it would either take off or go back to the gate. There was nothing to do but sit. I became angry. I was filled with anger at everything and everyone. I was even angry at God; I called him every name in the book— and lightning didn’t strike me. Through the years, so many people have told me how much they appreciate my stages on death and dying, of which anger is one. But now, so many people in my life disappeared when I became angry myself. At least 75 percent of my friends left. Even some in the press condemned me for not having a “good” death because of my anger. It’s as if they loved my stages but didn’t like me being in one of them. But those who stayed with me allowed me to be, not judging me or my anger, and that helped to dissipate it.
I have taught that patients must be allowed to express their anger and must give themselves permission to do so. While I was in the hospital after my first stroke, a nurse sat on my elbow. As I cried out with pain, I gave my first “karate chop.” I didn’t really hit her, I just made the motion with my other arm. As a result, they wrote in my chart that I was combative. This is so typical in the medical world; we overlabel patients for having normal reactions.
+ + +
We are here to heal and move through feelings. Babies and young children feel their feelings and move through them. They cry and it passes, they get angry and it passes. With their honesty, the dying often begin to resemble the young children they once were. The dying remember to say “I am scared” and “I am mad.” Like them, we can learn to be more honest and to express our anger. We can learn to live lives where anger is a feeling that passes, not a state of being.
Link back to index.html