I used to believe my anger made me a bad person.
My temper was wild and easily triggered. In the throes of rage I had no qualms about breaking objects, saying horrible things and threatening self-harm, sometimes following through on those threats. I would become spiteful, just looking for something or someone to take my frustrations out on. Unfortunately, with that kind of emotional volatility, it was often the people closest to me that suffered the most.
Once the rage was spent, I would often survey the damage as if coming out of a daydream, stunned at the destruction I had wrought. Some nights I would lie awake praying to God to take away that bad part of me, the part of me that made me hurt those I loved and do things that I later would endlessly obsess over as proof that I was evil.
Some nights I would lie awake and pray to God to just let me die.
It’s hard to put into words the paradoxical nature of the anger that comes with anxiety. Often it was frustration, either at myself or a particular situation (for example, a falling out with a close friend). That frustration was something I would carry around with me. Often it was over something minor but, as many know, the anxious brain is eager to make a mountain of a molehill.
So there I was, carrying around this weight that I couldn’t talk about, stressing out about a situation that my anxious mind was busy magnifying until I was certain it was the end of the world and that nobody would understand if I told them. And now, fully stressed out and terrified, I was basically buckling under the weight of my own worries and fears.
This meant that people couldn’t see the weight I was bearing and so when the smallest frustration or irritation became the straw that broke the camel’s back, they were shocked to say the least. It’s not really normal to kick a hole in the wall or break an appliance because you can’t understand your math homework or because your mom asked you when you’d be washing the dishes.
After these incidents, the shame and the guilt would set in… but sorry didn’t repair the physical damage and it certainly didn’t make me feel like any less of a freak. I remember watching the movie “The Hulk” and identifying with Bruce Banner when he suddenly lost control and exploded into a raging giant. Often, that’s what the anger felt like.
As much as I detested my anger and my hair-trigger temper, hating it and wishing it away didn’t have any positive effects, funnily enough. It just made me feel more and more stressed out and anxious which would, in turn, make my fuse even shorter.
It was only when I started seeking counselling that I began to process and understand my anger. From my incredibly helpful and patient counsellor I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Anger is not the problem, the problem is the harmful behaviours that might follow the anger.
Anger, like sadness, disgust, joy, and fear, is a feeling, a reaction to a particular situation. Assigning value to it, whether good or bad, is unhelpful. By hating and fighting my anger I was fighting and hating my own feelings, part of myself. The result of that was a shame and guilt that made recovery even tougher.
I still have a hair-trigger temper. For example, when I’m running for the train and someone gets in my way and I miss it part of me goes off in my head bellowing about how annoying other people are and my first urge is to give them the stink-eye.
That first reaction and urge, is an impulse. My follow-up reaction is to get curious about what is going on for me is to ask myself questions. ‘Did they mean to get in the way? Did they even see that you were running for the train? The next train comes in 3 minutes so what’s the consequences of missing that other train?’ I slowly bring myself back down without so much as a single glare towards the person in question. This skill that I practice (one of many), I learned through counselling and mastered with absolute determination once I noticed that it works.
If you or someone you love is struggling with their anger, here are my suggestions:
- Seek the help of a professional: Often, struggling with anger that seems misplaced or unreasonable, is a sign that something is wrong. It can be a sign of anxiety, depression or even PTSD. There is no shame in seeking help and having the help of a professional who’s trained to walk alongside you in your journey of discovery about your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
- Accept the anger: accept that it’s there for a reason. It might not make sense why you’re ticked off and accepting the anger doesn’t mean giving yourself free reign to break plates (did that multiple times), punch walls (also did that), scream at the top of your lungs (oh boy did I ever do that, sorry mom) or any other reaction that hurts or affects others in a negative manner. When you refuse to accept it, that doesn’t mean it goes away and often that just makes you even more distressed
- Be curious: ask yourself ‘where is the anger coming from? How do I know I’m angry? What did it look like when I began getting angry?’ Discovering the pattern of my anger helped me learn when and how to interrupt it, being curious instead of freaked out gave me some space to inspect the situation instead of making me feel even more shame.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness helped me learn how to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that would make me lash out. My inappropriate physical and verbal reactions were a result of me not knowing what to do with myself in the moment. When you learn to sit with the tough feelings, you learn how to manage your reaction to them. For information on mindfulness and free mindfulness recordings, check out: http://keltymentalhealth.ca/healthy-living/mindfulness