By S. Sandhu
We all feel anger from time to time. While a natural and inevitable human emotion, it is definitely not an easily accepted or expressed one. Like happiness, sadness and fear, anger is a core human emotion that is a natural response to perceived threats and the feeling of being wronged by something or someone. Even before we realise we are angry, our body starts to experience it through increased blood pressure, heart rate and adrenaline. It even causes our muscles to tighten - we clench our jaws or ball up our fists - and sometimes, we start shaking and even go red and hot in the face. That’s when we know the rage is really coming. But how do we express that anger? This simple and, as I soon discovered, pertinent question by my therapist, left me quite stumped and speechless for a while.
I pondered over what I do when someone makes me angry and figured out that I try hard not to feel angry, to begin with. In fact, I don’t think I feel angry much at all. When I do feel angry at times, I try to let it go and be a bigger person. I tell myself things like maybe they didn’t mean it that way or maybe I misunderstood the situation. Maybe they are going through a lot themselves right now. Maybe, it’s me who needs to not get affected so easily. Lots of maybes, benefits of doubt and trying to put myself in their shoes is how I deal with my anger, I proudly told my therapist. “That’s great”, she said. “But what I’m asking is how you express that anger when you feel it strongly, and no amount of maybes help resolve it.” I could feel myself getting annoyed at that question. What did that even mean? Isn’t telling myself to calm down, forgive, forget and let go the right thing to do? I can’t possibly go around yelling at everyone who makes me angry!
For my homework, I dug deep into what makes me angry to begin with and came up with a bunch of inane instances like someone cutting me off in a line, someone eating my last protein bar without asking, people who are never on time, lengthy zoom meetings, someone at home not doing their share of the chores - the usual stuff that annoys us on a daily basis. I probably throw some cuss words at them under my breath or roll my eyes, but that’s usually it. After all, you can’t let small stuff like this get in the way of all you have to take care of, so you just take a few deep breaths and move on, right?
I went back to my therapist to let her know that the stuff that makes me angry from time to time is quite irrelevant in the large scheme of things, and I’d rather focus on how to continue improving myself than finding ways to let people know they made me angry. I just don’t see the point. Then came the real googly ball/serve, “I’m not asking about anger relating to people you don’t know or occasionally interact with. I’m talking about people that you love, people you are deeply attached to, your family, your friends, your partner”. I blankly stared at her for some time, and then started to feel annoyed with her again. “It’s almost as if you want me to get angry and lose my mind!” I said to her, “Yes!”, she said, quite matter of factly. “That’s exactly what I want you to do”.
Who gets to be angry?
When I think about anger, I realise how influenced I’ve been to put anger in a box. As far as external and cultural cues were concerned, while ‘The Angry Man’ (read Amitabh Bachchan from Zanjeer) of Bollywood was a symbol of raw charm, righteousness and progressive change, there were hardly any ‘Angry Young Women’ around. The few angry ones out there were always portrayed quite exaggeratedly hysterical, out of control, crazy and villainous (maybe google Indian actress Bindu for a reference for this one). Worshipping warrior Indian Goddesses like Maa Durga worked well, as long as we only worshipped them but did nothing to emulate what they stood for.
Expressing anger was also very confusing and alienating from our loved ones. Even in school, expressing anger meant spending the rest of the day in a corner of the classroom, while facing the wall. Ironically and rather confusingly, I grew up in a home where loud displays of anger were the norm, yet the cultural caveats regarding angry, aggressive women always applied to me. Also, being the youngest, there was absolutely no room for me to ever get angry.
As far as I was concerned, anger in a woman was too ‘unattractive’, ‘selfish’, ‘ugly’ ‘shameful’ and ‘risky’ of an emotion to have, therefore not to be seen at all, forget being heard.
It dawned on me later why my therapist’s probing had annoyed me so much. It was not because I felt like I didn't have the right answer to how I express my anger, there is no right or wrong answer in therapy, after all. It was because she had, quite tactfully, hit a raw nerve regarding how I felt about feeling angry to begin with. That had started to gnaw at me. After a lot of introspection, I realised that anger, plain and simple, meant something ‘dangerous’ to me, it made me feel scared and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to feel it. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to be exposed to it in any kind of way.
I started to think about my relationship with the emotion of anger and all the messages and conditioning surrounding it, that I was exposed to while growing up as a girl in 90’s India. Slowly, I started to see a pattern that, as Brene Brown puts it, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The display of anger, that too, coming from a girl, was a most unwelcome occurrence in my immediate environment. There was a constant barrage of criticism whenever young girls, including myself, expressed this natural, but most ‘unfeminine’ human emotion. ‘Good girls are never loud and always smiling’. ‘Good girls always keep the peace.’ ‘It’s quite un-ladylike for a girl to get angry’. My grandmother, amidst feeding me homemade delicacies, would also say things like ‘girls who frown get ugly wrinkles’ or ‘No boy wants to marry an angry girl’. If I fought with my brother, I was told ‘don’t get aggressive with boys, you’ll provoke them even more’ or ‘if your mother in law sees you shout like this, she’d think we taught you nothing!’.
So, I finally went back to my therapist with all this information that had been relegated into some subconscious part of my brain. My childhood conditioning and experiences had led me to believe that I did not have any right to feel anger, to begin with. It was so dangerous when directed at me and so unacceptable and shameful when coming from a girl, that not only did I avoid it, I denied, suppressed and numbed it entirely. If anything, it came out in self-destructive ways that only caused me to get ‘annoyed’ with myself or in passive-aggressive ways that caused lingering issues in my close relationships. I was relieved, more than anything, to connect the dots of my childhood influences that have carried into my adult life. Such awareness can be very eye-opening and illuminating. And yet, there is a gap between awareness and action that can be very challenging to close. The action part is like the missing central piece of a puzzle, without which, it will always remain incomplete.
I was not done pushing back against my therapist just yet though. She asked me if I now realised that I actually avoid my anger, rather than manage it through deep breathing and forgiving. My annoyance had now transformed into denial and defensiveness. “No, I don’t avoid my anger, you can’t avoid something that you don’t feel in the first place, and I just told you all the reasons why I don’t get angry”, I cried. I could feel an intense and all too familiar migraine descending over me.
That migraine, as I’ve now learnt, was a sign of repressed anger. Repressed anger is anger that is unintentionally avoided, often as an attempt to avoid uncomfortable feelings related to stress, conflict, and tension. It’s different from suppressed anger, which refers to the feelings people purposely avoid. People who struggle with repressed anger often say, “I never get angry!” because they are unaware of their anger. Repression of anger is anger that is not expressed or even acknowledged for a prolonged period of time. It can occur for many reasons, but traumatic experiences in childhood trauma are the most common culprit.
Cultural norms also factor into how people learn to express anger, with girls often learning it is unacceptable to express anger. If you grew up in a household that shamed or criticised emotional expression, you may have internalised the belief that it isn’t safe to talk about your feelings, causing you to repress emotions instead of expressing them. Some people who grew up in a house with an abusive parent might associate anger with fear, danger, or damaged relationships. However, it’s important to remember that there isn’t a single cause for this phenomenon, and many genetic and environmental factors also can contribute to how people express and process emotions.
I realised that I have spent a lot of energy suppressing my anger, for decades. I know now that I do get angry, in fact, I get angry all the time, I just don’t express it. Not in a healthy manner, anyway. I repress it to the point of oblivion, thinking it will just go away eventually. With the help of an emotional wheel diagram, I was able to figure out that experiencing anger is not always external or accompanied by harmful outbursts. It can be experienced just as strongly when our entire energy is devoted to numbing, distancing and withdrawing from it. Other symptoms include high blood pressure or increased heart rate, chronic muscle tension, cramps or pain, especially migraines/headaches, insomnia, digestive issues or appetite changes, unexplained weight loss/gain, anxiety, depression, higher risk for addictions, fatigue and falling sick often, skin allergies like rashes and breaking out into hives, and fibromyalgia. It’s a pretty long list, and I was struggling with all of them. Every. Single. One. And the doctors I saw couldn’t figure it out either.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps The Score, talks in detail about how events and experiences that caused us to repress big emotions can literally be stored in the body for long periods of time. Your mind may forget, over time, but your body won’t. So my therapist helped me do a lot of somatic (body-based) work to help recognize, acknowledge and release years of pent up anger. In another book, Gabor Mate’s When The Body Says No, describes how the healthy expression of anger is essential for healing and overall well being, not in a hostile or violent way, but in a way that provides a healing release. After almost two years, my body finally feels like my own again and I’ve been able to get back to the things I love, like yoga and hiking. It’s been an amazing journey to discover the intricate connection between the mind and body.
For me, the biggest gift was to finally recognize the connection between repressed anger and not only emotional but also physical health. It’s been a huge learning curve for me, to understand that experiencing ‘ugly’ and ‘uncomfortable’ emotions such as anger are just as vital as experiencing joy and happiness. A friend of mine once told me that real therapy happens in between therapy. She couldn’t have been more right. As I went home that day, I saw another one of those patterns that I could not unsee any longer. I realised that I was focusing so much on being content with why I don’t feel angry that I was completely blindsided by the realisation that I used the euphemism of ‘annoyance’ to mask my feelings of anger, in order to make it more acceptable to myself. It was the impact of repressed emotions, especially anger, on my physical health, that was a total blind spot for me. That was the final pattern that I couldn’t unsee any longer. Anger is not only meant to be controlled and managed but acknowledged and expressed in a healthy manner, in order to resolve it. Fully feel it before you forget it, deeply express it, before you forgive it.
Releasing anger by involving your body
Arzt, Nicole. LMFT (2021). Repressed Anger: Signs, Causes, Treatments, & 8 Ways to Cope- https://www.choosingtherapy.com/repressed-anger/