Most of us would rather clean a bathroom with a cotton swab than sit down for an honest airing of angry feelings -- yours or anyone else’s. This is common and understandable, because anger can be ugly, upsetting and destructive... but that’s because it’s misunderstood. When handled well, anger can become a powerful force for dramatic, positive change -- and in a relationship, it can be the catalyst for unprecedented growth and intimacy.
But, of course, few of us are good at processing anger or know how to express it well... and therein lies the challenge.
Why Anger Gets Buried
Many (if not most) people are uncomfortable with anger -- both feeling and receiving it. Many fail to recognize that unexplored, unexpressed anger is at the root of their problems. Some are completely unaware of their anger, while others who are tuned in to their feelings don’t have any idea what to do with them. They push their anger underground and simply pretend it doesn’t exist.
That doesn’t work, however. It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that buried anger is dangerous. It’s like a volcano on the verge of bubbling up and spewing out unpredictably, often with disastrous results.
Do you have issues with buried anger? If you’re not entirely sure, Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman of The Handel Group, suggested that you ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have a tendency to complain about some aspect of a relationship to people who can do nothing about it?
- Do I feel resigned about something, as in "I have no control over that (his drinking, her overeating), so I just accept it?"
While "yes" answers to both of those questions may seem like mature responses to anger because they avoid confrontation, Zander says in actuality they make matters worse. Venting to people who can’t change what makes you angry and/or martyring yourself with feelings of resignation are both efforts to "feel better in areas where you feel trapped," she said, pointing out that "trapped" is not a good place to be. You’ll stay angry... and get more so over time.
Far better is to take steps to free yourself from the feelings that are interfering with your life by challenging yourself to address your anger. And you may be surprised to learn that the way to do this is not to walk away from that part of your life, but rather to open it up. Only when you stop holding everything inside can you get to work on fixing what makes you feel so unhappy.
Why Is This Frightening?
All of the above seems fairly self-evident. So why are people so fearful about bringing their anger out into the open? Zander explained that often what lurks beneath the reluctance is deep-seated anxiety that broaching angry feelings may create an irreparable rift in a relationship. What might happen then? Will there be drama? Will your anger bring pain to someone you love? Might the relationship come to an end?
There’s another possibility, too, and it’s scary in its own right, Zander said. If you speak your feelings, you may also have to give the other person a chance to share his/hers... and that means having to listen. "Even those who feel their grudges are justified may fear that revealing their feelings will open the door to allow the other person to say things that they don’t want to hear," she said. "Since you can’t control the outcome of a conversation like that, it feels safer to hold it in."
Zander said that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being in such an honest relationship... but this is true intimacy. "If you stop selling out by hiding your true feelings, you will find the love that you need and deserve," she explained.
What Should I Say?
First, be honest with yourself. Exactly why are you angry? And is there another side to the problem? It’s vital to understand what’s behind your own feelings, but you also should remember that your truth isn’t a universal one. The other person has a point of view as well, and it will likely be different from yours.
Be respectful in presenting your request to discuss your feelings. For instance, don’t blast your partner as he/she walks in the door after a hard day at work. A better way: Ask permission to raise an important matter, and suggest a time that won’t present conflicts for either of you.
What to say? Zander suggests saying something like this: "There’s something I need to discuss, but I’m scared because I’m not sure what you will think or say. I am so committed to you being happy with me that I am afraid to share my innermost feelings, but I think talking about it will help. Please listen first... and then repeat what you heard so I know you understand... and then tell me what you think."
Believe it or not, in a caring relationship, resolution is usually right around the corner from here. When you get feelings out into the open, you can heal problems and let them go, Zander said. An apology -- a real one, with empathy behind it -- needs to be enough. And fortunately, for people who really do care about one another, it usually is.
Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman, The Handel Group, www.TheHandelGroup.com.