Note: This is part of a 7 lessons challenge spread over 14 days called “Say Yes to Your No”. It is meant to help you become more confident in saying NO to what doesn’t serve you anymore so you can say yes to yourself. This is lesson 3.
Anger is the 3d A of healing in the book “When the body says NO” by dr.Gabor Maté. The following paragraphs in ” ” are excerpts from the chapter “The 7 A’s of healing” in this book.
The double bind of getting angry
“I never get angry”, a Woody Allen character says in a movie, “I grow a tumor instead.”
This phrase might be from a fictional character but the many cases mentioned in the book, especially those of cancer patients have confirmed the truth of this remark.
The thing is that “repression of anger is a major risk factor for disease because it increases physiological stress on the organism.”
But the uncontrollable expression of anger is what causes harm to those around us and to ourselves as it increases the risk of having a heart attack.
“The repression of anger and the unregulated acting out of it are both examples of the abnormal release of emotions that is at the root cause of disease.”
The studies of Allen Kalpin, a physician and psychotherapist in Toronto, show that both repression and rage represent a fear of the genuine experience of anger.
So if both repression of anger and its unregulated expression are making us sick, what are we to do with it?
Healthy anger is an empowerment and a relaxation.
The real experience of anger is “physiologic experience without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system along with a mobilisation to attack. There is, simultaneously, a complete disappearance of all anxiety.”
Dr. Kalpin is video recording some of the sessions he has with his patients so they can see for themselves how they look when they experience different emotions.
“When healthy anger is starting to be experienced, you don’t see anything dramatic. What you do see is a decrease of all muscle tension. The mouth is opening wider, because the jaws are more relaxed, the voice is lower in pitch because the vocal cords are more relaxed. The shoulders drop, and you see all signs of muscle tension disappearing.”
“If you’re watching the tape without the sound on, you’ll see a person looking quite focused and quite relaxed, but you wouldn’t necessarily even guess that the person was angry.”
If anger is actually relaxation and focus, then what is rage?
Rage is just acting out anger, without the physiological experience of it.
Dr. Kalpin says: “The question is, what do people really experience when they experience rage? It’s fascinating to ask people. If you really ask, the majority of people will describe anxiety. If you ask in physical, physiologic terms what they are experiencing in their body when they feel rage, for the most part, people will describe anxiety in one form or another.”
So how come we end up expressing rage instead of healthy anger?
In a child, anger is anxiety provoking because it coexists with positive feelings. Since anger leads to an attacking energy it threatens attachment. So in order to avoid feeling this anxiety, the child will act out in bursts of rage. “Even without having parental injunctions against anger expression there is something basically anxiety-provoking about the anger experience.“
Throughout the book I’ve read how the main common issue people diagnosed with the most diverse diseases was their inability to say NO. Most of them had learned to repress anger in childhood.
And “when anger is disarmed, so is the immune system. Or when the aggressive energy of anger is diverted inward, the immune system becomes confused.” Thus our own defenses might turn against the body instead of protecting it from outside threat.
So when cancer patients are given psychotherapy to help them internalize their anger they start to learn how to experience it.
How to experience anger in a healthy way
“Anger does not require hostile acting out.
– First and foremost, it is a physiological process to be experienced.
– Second, it has cognitive value – it provides essential information.
Since anger does not exist in a vacuum, if I feel anger it must be in a response to some perception on my part. It may be a response to loss or the threat of it in a personal relationship, or it may signal a real or threatened invasion of my boundaries.
I am greatly empowered without harming anyone if I permit myself to experience the anger and to contemplate what may have triggered it.
– Depending on circumstances, I may choose to manifest the anger in some way or let go of it.
The key is that I have not suppressed the experience of it. I may choose to display my anger as necessary in words or deeds, but I do not need to act it out in a driven fashion as uncontrolled rage.
Healthy anger leaves the individual, not the unbridled emotion, in charge.”
Another refreshing view of anger comes from the therapist Joann Peterson.
“Anger is the energy Mother Nature gives us as little kids to stand forward on our own behalf and say I matter”, says the therapist Joann Peterson, who conducts workshops on Gabriola Island, in British Columbia.
“The difference between the healthy energy of anger and the hurtful energy of emotional and physical violence is that anger respects boundaries. Standing forward on your own behalf does not invade anyone else’s boundaries.”
The ideas that I most resonated with and how I use them
Two of my biggest a-ha moments while reading the book have been around what healthy expression of anger actually is and the definition of anger as “the energy Mother Nature gives us as little kids to stand forward on our own behalf and say I matter.”
I grew up in a family where anger was either acted out in the form of rage or repressed. So when I finally understood what it means to be angry and how to express it in a healthy way it was such a liberating feeling!
Ever since understanding this crucial aspect about anger I’ve become more assertive, more able to allow myself to feel anger if that is the case and state my point of view in an argument without (so much) fear as in the past.
I keep telling other people about this insight because I want everyone to know how to deal with anger in a healthy and constructive way, neither acting it out or repressing it.
Anger & saying NO
Anger is an essential part of our survival mechanisms. It is not inherently good or bad. Just like any other emotion we experience it has its role and purpose.
Anger is the healthy reaction to a situation when someone crosses your boundaries and doesn’t back off even if you first politely asked them to stop. Anger is there to mobilise our resources so we can have the necessary energy to defend our selves.
When we say NO to people or situations that don’t respect our boundaries we don’t do that in order to attack them. Healthy anger doesn’t cross someone else’s boundaries, it just helps us assert ourselves in the face of potential harm.
It’s obvious that internalising our anger and becoming able to say NO becomes an essential part of healing and staying healthy.
My lost and found anger
I grew up in a family where one parent was mostly in rage, acting out his anger while the other was repressing it up until it would burst out also in the form of rage.
So because I felt so scared as a child when I saw or heard my father yelling, banging in walls and slamming doors I unconsciously decided I would never do that.
Of course I didn’t know at that time that my father was actually expressing rage because he was afraid to feel his anger and whatever else was the real cause of his behaviour. (And I’m not gonna turn this into an excusing or judging the parents game either…)
In this context I decided that getting angry (that was actually rage, but who knew?) is a bad thing and I would always be nice to people.
Well, you can guess how this turned out for me…
I became a typical “Nice Girl”, a chronic helper and saviour, taking care of everyone else but herself. I didn’t know what else to do with myself.
And if I was ever in a situation where the healthy response would have been anger I would hide it under a smile and push it down so I couldn’t feel it anymore.
I got so good at this that it took me many years of classic therapy combined with alternative methods of working with the body and emotions to find my long lost, deeply buried anger. When I finally found it I was able to start working with it, to express it, release it, let it go.
And from that point on I was able to slowly build a healthy relationship with my anger; to not be afraid of it anymore and to understand its real message and purpose in my life.
And when I recently understood what happens in my body when I allow myself to feel anger and then choose the right response I’ve become more able to assert myself and say “no” confidently in situations where previously I would have hesitated.
I feel there’s a lot of room for improvement in my relationship with anger even if I made huge progress compared to my younger self. We live, we learn…
Next steps – Practical exercises
Experience healthy anger
Next time you feel you’re getting angry
– take a few moments to contemplate about what triggered it.
– allow yourself to feel the sensations in your body and
– then decide the right course of action.
You may choose to express it through your words or deeds or you might let it go. By doing so, you’ll notice you don’t need to act out in rage or cross someone else’s boundaries.
Questions of the day
What is your relationship with anger?
Have you been mostly repressing it or acting it out?
Whatever your answer do not judge yourself for it. Give yourself the gift of compassionate attention and then choose to experience it in a healthy way.
Once you’ve gone through today’s exercises go over to the Facebook group and share your experience. If you are not on Facebook leave a comment below.
Missed day two? You can read it here.