Anger is a completely normal and healthful emotion. It helps us focus our awareness on situations that require our attention, and helps us rouse the energy needed to protect ourselves from harm. But when anger is frozen into cynical hostility or resentment, it robs us of our natural capacity to give and receive the love and social support that protect us from the emotional (chemical) surges that can contribute to heart disease. Hostility can use up a great deal of energy and make us miserable.
Healthful anger is flexible, controlled, and specific. Unhealthful anger is anger that has hardened into rigid patterns, out of conscious control (either suppressed or explosive), and generalized to the point that it becomes a dominant emotional response. With counseling and practice, it is possible to develop a special awareness, one that creates the opportunity to choose a response that is appropriate rather than automatically reacting in ways that sustain antagonisms from the past.
Such practice can bring daily irritations into full awareness. One reason these irritations bother us is because they are often connected to lingering pains from our past. Eventually we start to realize that the anger we feel isn’t just the result of current events, but is an expression of the frustration and pain that we have been saving for years. It’s like we are carrying a burning hot ember, maybe with the intention of throwing it at someone. But who is getting burned? We need to find a safe way to drop the pain of the past: the hurt and anger, fear, guilt or shame that we carry around inside.
Another way to release hardened habitual patterns is with bodywork.
Ignoring or denying this pain doesn’t make it go away. When this feeling arises, it is important to discuss with someone you trust (such as your therapist), so that you can come up with a plan to get rid of the pain rather than holding it inside. One of the best ways to get rid of old hurts is to learn to forgive. This doesn’t mean condoning the person who has done you wrong. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget what happened or lower your guard so that you might get hurt again. It simply means that you choose not to carry the grudge around any more. It is an act of grace, one that frees you from the burden of the past. It involves seeing the humanity of the person who hurt you, the goodness along with the flaws. You can even forgive yourself for holding onto the pain for all these years. Learning to forgive is a skill that will take some time and practice to master. It’s a good idea to start with small matters and work your way up to the big things. Don’t force yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t work unless you choose it of your own free will.
We have a choice in every situation to be caught by the forces surrounding us – to be hooked – or to choose our own response. Sometimes we don’t realize we have a choice, and we just bite at the hook because it seems to be the only thing to do. We blame other people for dangling the hook in front of us, but we are the ones who get caught. Even when other people are in the wrong, we can choose not to be hooked. We are free to choose the response that makes the most sense to us, one that is most likely to give us the most benefit in the long run.