Many people (including some therapists) tell us to express our anger at the unfairness of life. Go on, they say, beat those cushions to a pulp and scream out your rage.
But this can be very misdirected advice. It accentuates the anger and sends blood pressure through the roof. It often ends in repetitive, violent behaviour and it makes the perpetrator more outraged than ever, since they fail to address the real ‘purpose’ of their anger.
Let me give you an example. A man called Tom feels angry that his friend, John is backing out of their long-term friendship. John keeps cancelling arrangements to have a few beers at the local pub and, he is also not returning Tom’s phone calls. Tom feels inclined to give John an earful of his vitriol. He feels furious that John is snubbing him and wants to confront him angrily.
But what is Tom really feeling? I can tell you from my decades of experience working at the Smart Therapy Centre that the anger is simply a learnt strategy to deflect Tom away from feeling the sadness that perhaps John doesn’t care about him anymore and no longer wishes to be around him.
This hurts – and Tom has ‘automatically’ learnt from past events to protect himself from feeling this pain. Specifically, Tom is afraid to let himself feel the sadness in case his fragile self-esteem cannot bear it, and so instead he opts to go on the ‘offensive’ by focussing on his anger.
But if there is one thing that Tom needs to do for himself, in order to move past this event, it is to feel the correct emotion (sadness). Anger will simply make him deflect outwards and blame John without taking any responsibility for his own behaviour. This will inevitably keep Tom ‘stuck’ in his rage.
On the other hand, if Tom allows himself to bravely feel the sadness and the vulnerability that comes from self-reflection, he will find that he can bear it quite easily. In fact, facing reality actually strengthens Tom’s fragile self-esteem in the longer-term, as he learns that he is far more robust than he originally believed.
Also, being sad will more likely encourage Tom to reflect on how he may have contributed to John losing interest in the friendship. Was he too pushy? Was he a bit boring? Was he whinging a lot of the time? Was he drinking too much? Was he not contributing his required 50% input into the conversation or friendship in some way?
It is the honest, unadulterated answers to these questions that get people genuinely ‘unstuck’ and allow them to progress and incrementally improve their behaviours, strategies and happiness over a lifetime. Keeping on ‘loudly’ expressing the wrong emotion just keeps people barking up the wrong tree for decades – agitated, unhappy and unable to progress.