I asked Kristen what she was feeling after she and her partner, Mick, had described an event that took place over the weekend where Mick had been giving another woman some extra attention. “I am literally just angry. Furious. I’m so mad. I just want to rage.”
I pressed them a bit further: “What did it look like over the weekend, Kristen? How did you respond?”
“When we got home I let him know I was angry. How does he think it’s okay to do that? If he’s willing to flirt with someone right in front of me what the hell is he doing when I’m not around? Maybe he should just be with her if she's that much more charming.”
“But what did your anger look like?”
“I was yelling at him and wanted to make sure that he would never do something like that to me again.”
“And what were you doing, Mick?”
“Well at first I was trying to calm her down. It really wasn’t a big deal. It’s good for my work if people like me. I’m just a crowd pleaser, you know? But when we got home I knew Kristen was mad. She just kept going and going and finally, I just wanted to get away from it all. It’s really crazy when she screams and rages the way that she does. I go into the bedroom and she follows me. I try to lock myself in the bathroom and she just keeps banging on the door saying the nastiest things to me. So I finally just leave the apartment to get some air.”
I see versions of this from time to time in my office. Many of us struggle with knowing what to do with our anger. We either see red and then release it without any pause, or we shame ourselves out of expressing it at all.
Men and women alike struggle with anger. Men often view their anger as the only emotion safe to express without being labeled as less of a man or weaker than others, while women combat being labeled as “crazy” or “unladylike” at the first sight of anger surfacing.
So what are we to do?
First, we have to accept that anger is healthy and normal. Anger is information. It lets us know that something isn’t right and it often tries to step in to protect us from whatever it is that feels off. Anger is healthy. Aggression, vindictiveness, manipulation and abuse are not. They’re never acceptable…not ever.
I believe anger requires both pause and release.
We ought to understand what our anger is telling us. Before we are angry we are ALWAYS something else. Think of anger as a secondary emotion. Before we feel angry we might feel abandoned, embarrassed or betrayed, but because we tend to go from zero to 100 so quickly it’s hard for us to actually connect to our pain.
Practicing the PAUSE gives us the space between stimulus and response to connect to the hurt and to work on expressing it without going on the attack.
If Kristen would have paused and connected to her hurt she may have been able to explain to Mick that his behavior left her feeling embarrassed and dishonored. She may have even been able to connect it to never feeing good enough (in comparison) to her wound around growing up and always competing (and coming in second) to her younger sister. And if Mick had practiced the pause, he may have been able to connect to her hurt instead of minimizing and shrinking it.
Without the pause, Kristen, like so many of us, goes on the attack and only points out what her partner has done wrong. Her anger takes over to try to set the boundaries and demand that Mick NEVER do anything like that to her again. Although her anger is trying to keep her safe, her anger turns nasty and combative which never makes the conflict become connective. Kristen must learn how to translate her anger and express it to her partner effectively.
Kristen does need to pause, but she also needs to release. And the truth is, the release isn't always packaged up nicely in a calm and rational bow. Sometimes anger needs to be…well, angry. Sometimes we need to move our anger out physically as well. Pausing and translating our anger isn’t always enough and when we only encourage people to pause and slow down, we send the message that the physical release isn’t important.
It is…and it’s not crazy.
I often tell clients to take a boxing class, walk by the ocean and scream into the waves, go to a wrecking club and pay to break things. Or blast music in their home and sing as loudly as possible. We must take care of ourselves physically as we do emotionally.
So make sure to listen to your body and give it the release it’s looking for, while also holding yourself accountable to understand, translate and express your anger effectively.
I would encourage you to start to change the narrative around conflict. It’s hard because conflict and anger are generally something we code as bad, negative and scary, but when you can start to consider conflict as a gateway to very deep connection, closeness and intimacy, you give your relationship an opportunity for new depths.
Honing these skills is not only important for the relationship, but just in case you need a little more motivation, teaching your children that conflict can be safe, healing and informative is a beautiful message for them to receive. Gift them the resources to take on difficult situations, to address conflicts in their lives that need to be addressed, and to know how to confidently and effectively communicate their boundaries.
This work is endless, but it’s beautiful.
Originally posted on Mindful Marriage & Family Therapy.