I will never forget her. I even recall her name. Martha. (Not her real name. But I remember that too.) The first time she said “f#*k” outloud, we all stood and cheered. Her history, like many that darkened the doors to our program, was abysmal. She had endured years of sexual and emotional abuse as both a young girl and as an adult. Suicide, emotional and then literal, seemed her last option. Life as a perpetual victim could no longer be sustained. Then she found us, an inpatient psychiatric treatment program in downtown Chicago.
Martha knew pain. She could tell us about that. Understandably, she was too good at that, crying a river anytime she spoke of the horrors she suffered. It was anger that escaped her. Did she have a right to her rage, to stand up and against the abuse that stole her development? For too many years, she could not muster the courage. And then she did. And it was beautiful. And necessary. And healing.
The three basic emotions of the human heart are anger, hurt and fear. Along with love and joy, they are the rudimentary feelings of everyday life. In this piece, I will describe how these feelings work together as a complex, interwoven response system to all things life. I will emphasize how their collaboration is critical to not only repair leftover carried pain from our past but also to keep our emotional systems clean, clear and available to squeeze the juicy deliciousness from every moment life offers.
Let’s start with anger – a feeling most of us fear, avoid or deny. How did anger get such a bad rap? In its basic form and function, anger is a protective emotion, and therefore indispensable. We tend to feel the pulse of anger flare inside us when we feel threatened – as if danger is either imminent or already upon us. It is as if a red or yellow hazard light suddenly starts flashing inside us. We feel the very real, almost unstoppable physiological changes associated with anger – a racing heartbeat, accelerated breathing, tense muscles and a surcharge of adrenalin pumping through our veins. This involuntary anatomical response has changed little from days of old when physical peril was more of a daily allowance. Our bodies respond the same way, preparing to survive – albeit fighting, fleeing or freezing. We are born with a propensity toward survival, and anger is the emotional sign that denotes change is needed to ensure our physical and emotional existence, to safeguard our self as a separate entity with value and boundaries.
Like all feelings, we need to express anger for our emotional health and well-being. If our anger is not expressed, it then turns on us. And then watch out. Perhaps this is where we learned to fear the stuff. Repressed anger, stored like compounded dynamite inside the warehouse of our psyche, is the breeding ground for destruction, albeit our own, others or the world at large. Repressed long enough, anger becomes resentment or bitterness. I no longer feel angry, I become anger. Ever met anyone like that? They brighten up the room just by leaving it. With time, stockpiled resentment turns to hatred. And hate requires action. It needs to destroy – either me for feeling it or you for being the object of it. Tragically, violence results.
Although indispensable, anger is a superficial feeling. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It is the white crests of waves on the ocean’s surface. Underneath it lies the dark, uncharted depths and layers of emotional complexities. If we wish to understand ourselves and others better, we must explore these hidden layers with patience and insight.
The feeling that lies directly beneath anger is hurt. In this feeling camp, I am including the likings of sadness, grief, disappointment, betrayal, distress and heartbreak. In contrast to anger, hurt is the deeper, more genuine feeling response to a life situation; however, most folks prefer to feel anger because it is the more protective emotion. Anger enables me to build walls and defenses in an attempt to ward off future additional hurt. Hurt, on the other hand, makes me vulnerable. Hurt is the more authentic feeling response to an injury. As a further benefit, it acts as an opening for greater intimacy with self and others because it offers the real truth of what I am feeling. But, the downside is that being in and expressing hurt can lead to further hurt. Thus, by avoiding the hurt and staying only in the anger, I protect myself but at a price … I am not telling my full emotional story.
On the flip side, some folks prefer to feel and express hurt instead of anger. These folks run to the hills to escape their angry feelings, because being angry means potential abandonment and rejection by the other. In other words, they don’t feel safe enough to bring all the parts of who they are into a relationship, including their rightful aggression. And yet, the need to feel and express anger is critical to set appropriate boundaries for the survival and healthy functioning of the self. Without anger’s protective purpose, we are left too open and exposed to be the victims of the other’s aggression. So, we walk around defenseless, just like Martha, who finally let out her inner howl.
In order to have a full healing experience, we need to contact the hurt and the anger. One works only in conjunction with the other. Two sides to the coin – both essential. If we insist on feeling only one, the anger or the hurt, we become emotionally stuck and stunt our progress toward emotional maturation. It takes our willingness to stretch beyond our comfort zone, our lead feeling, and find the one we are afraid to embrace.
Stay tuned for next month’s Part II. We will figure out how fear fits into this picture.