“Anger tells us something needs to change; rage tells us something needs to heal.” — Tiffany Sankofa
Afraid of Anger?
Are you afraid of anger? I have to say, most people that walk into my counseling office are. You are not alone. However, you are probably also missing some really helpful information that can help change your life for the better.
Most of the time when people tell me they are afraid of anger, further conversation makes it clear that what they are really afraid of is being harmed by someone else’s anger, harming someone else with their anger, or both. I don’t blame you one bit. As marriage and family therapist Dr. Robert O. Burdette advised me many years ago: “Don’t blame the thermometer for the fever.”
Thermometers and Fevers
I started working with Tisa, a middle-aged woman, when she hit a new layer of trauma memory recovery. She had done quite a lot of great healing work in the past, but she was starting to uncover the way that her trauma experiences had left her terrified of feeling, expressing, or being in the presence of anger.
She was also starting to recognize that deep inside, she was furious.
Initially, she wanted me to talk her out of her anger. Holding onto anger felt like she was giving her perpetrators continued power in her life. And that… made her even more angry.
Anger Marks the Spot
As we talked more, it became evident that her anger was marking something really important inside of her. In her rush to make it go away, she had missed the message. Fortunately for her, our psyches are both wise and tenacious.
Anger and rage often serve as time capsules, holding important data that we aren’t yet ready to deal with. When we’re ready to listen to it, they pour out like healing oil from a sacred flask.
Anger vs. Rage
So what’s the difference anyway? I like to think of it like this: Anger is about something in the here and now that needs to change.
Our first instinct is very often to change someone or something outside of us. There are sometimes things we change outside of us and sometimes not. Changing other people is not really possible, and even if you could, it’s phenomenally disrespectful. You wouldn’t want someone to try and mold you to their idea of who you “should” be, right?
We might be able to change what we do or don’t do in a given situation. We might use our anger to push away from a toxic relationship or a job that really isn’t working for us. It might be something more subtle, like a pattern of communication we have that isn’t getting us what we want.
When we can’t change our outer world, we owe it do our adaptable selves to change our inner worlds. Maybe you hate your job but making a change right now feels too risky. Your anger will keep coming up because it’s trying to jump up and down and tell you that you need to change jobs, and it’s right! However, until it makes sense for you to make a career move wisely, you can use that anger to help you refine what you are doing or not doing in your present position or how you are doing it. You might change how you’re thinking about your job or colleagues so that you are practicing the kinds of new behaviors you want as your norm in your new position.
Rage is something deeper. Where anger tells you something needs to change, rage tells you that something needs to heal.
Tisa was frustrated and feeling somehow defective because she would sometimes fly off into a rage at something that seemed like a small thing. Logically, she couldn’t put her finger on why these situations felt so… extra.
In her previous therapy, she had worked out that both her job and her relationship choices had long affirmed this pattern. She coupled with men who competed with her instead of collaborating. She took jobs where her ideas were stolen by others and she was silenced. The early childhood traumas that she endured had left her thinking that her thoughts as well as her personhood were not valuable. She is grateful to have mostly grown past that now. BUT…
The Match on the Fire
While Tisa has learned to trust her voice, there are still times when, seemingly without warning, she is not just yelling but screaming at someone. She loses all sense of perspective and just goes off.
These episodes leave her feeling like total crap. Her self-perceptions start to default to the old story that she isn’t “worthy.” These rages have also done serious damage in her intimate relationships. Especially with her trauma history, feeling out of control is terrifying to Tisa. She needs it to stop.
The Dish in the Sink
Tisa and Joe have lived together for a few years. For the most part, it’s a really good relationship. Tisa feels respected most of the time, and when she’s not, she can candidly tell Joe how she’s feeling. Most of the time, they work together on the issue until they both understand each other better. But then… there’s that dish.
Joe and Tisa disagree on how to manage dishes. Tisa doesn’t believe in leaving them in the sink. Joe isn’t a slob, but he’s okay with leaving dishes in the sink until the evening when they can all be dealt with. Tisa has expressed many times that she is not okay with Joe’s way of doing things. Joe listens and acquiesces to Tisa’s way for a time and then goes back to doing what he’s always done.
Diagnostic Anger… Diagnostic Rage
When Tisa sees the dishes in the sink, she gets angry. They have an agreement, and Joe is breaking it. Her anger first told her that she needed to speak up for her needs. When Joe stopped following through, anger told her she needed to take her power back from the inside: Joe is not willing to consistently take care of the dishes right away. She has choices to make:
* She can get mad at Joe and yell at him each time, throwing them into a really unsexy parent-child dynamic.
* She can take care of it herself and resent it.
* She can choose to take care of it herself because it matters to her and is worth her peace of mind.
* She can learn to live with dishes in the sink.
Tisa wanted to challenge herself to live with dishes in the sink. After all, he really does take care of them pretty consistently; he just does it on his own timetable.
And then Came Rage
One day, after a long day of Zoom meeting and being sick to death of staring at the same walls every day, Tisa went to make herself a snack and found not just Joe’s dirty dishes but a roach happily munching away at the leftover bits of food.
Tisa. Lost. Her… (Mind.)
In a manner very uncharacteristic for her, she stormed into the room where Joe was watching TV, stood in between him and the screen and unleashed a string of profoundly creative, utterly profane, verbal attacks that felt powerful enough to her to knock all of the walls down.
Joe was stunned.
Tisa was stunned.
The dog ran away to a different part of the house to hide.
Rage is Faithful
While Tisa’s anger told her something needed to change, I encouraged Tisa to listen to her rage to discern what needed to heal.
I had her do something I call “biolocation.” Biolocation is tuning into the physical sensations in our bodies as we recall different events and describe them without interpreting. When Tisa tuned into her encounter with dishes, she described a hard knot in her stomach, a freezing in her chest and a painful tightness in her throat. I had Tisa relax her body and ask herself if she can think of an event or a time in her life when she felt that combination of sensations.
Tisa’s eyes popped open wide. “Oh!” she said in surprise. THAT.
She went on to describe the chaotic home she grew up in, where much of her childhood abuse had taken place. Her mother was depressed and overworked and her siblings were acting out their anger any way they could. No one did their chores, and the house was very often not just messy but dirty. In spite of numerous efforts to destroy them, the house was also often infested with roaches.
The present-day roach sent Tisa into a rage because in that flash of a moment, she felt like she was that vulnerable, neglected, and abused child again. Her younger self planted this time-capsule to remind her to go back to it when she could do something useful with it. Her rage was holding on to the lie that she doesn’t deserve to be cared for. Now that she is grown, she can completely reconsider that idea and put it to rest for good.
She is now confident that she deserves to be cared for. She recognizes that her neglect came from the issues of the other people in her life — it wasn’t something she earned or failed to earn. She has ample evidence that Joe cares deeply for her. She knows that she is resourceful, capable, and able to take herself out of any situation in which someone does not value her. She knows that roaches show up in clean houses too.
Tisa is now confident that she is worth caring for. She sometimes gets automatic reactions to things that tell her the old lie, but she’s gotten good at recognizing and considering other possibilities. When she gets the message in her job that she isn’t valued, instead of getting mad or raging, she gets strategic. She has learned to position herself differently. She is also confident that if she is unable to reposition herself, she will leave that job for a more suitable opportunity.
What About You?
So what are you angry about? What do you have the power to control? What constructive changes can you make?
Do you find that you sometimes rage, whether internally or externally? (Internal rages can look like binge eating, compulsive behaviors, self-medicating behaviors, self-harming behaviors, passive aggression, and the like.) Is there something unhealed in your life?
Instead of running away from or trying to suppress or extinguish these feelings, take the risk to listen to what these feelings are telling you. The payoff is a healthier, more enjoyable, fulfilling life.
You Don’t Have to Figure It All Out Alone!
Hearing and understanding these kinds of diagnostic messages can be really confusing on our own. It’s easy to get caught in a loop of our own assumptions. There are numerous highly qualified counselors out there who can help! If you want help finding someone who can do that for you, just use the Contact Me on this page. I’m happy to help point you in a useful direction.
Go find your joy!