In a recent article about resentment in relationships I suggested that the purpose of anger is to make something change or to protect a boundary. These can both be appropriate and necessary functions of anger. But there’s a third way that anger is very commonly used, and it has terrible results.
Anger as avoidance
Anger is often used to avoid sadness or grief. This habitual and unconscious use of anger wreaks havoc on personal lives and relationships.
As I’ve claimed previously, resentment is anger that got stuck. One of the main reasons that anger gets stuck is because it never properly gives way to grief.
Grief is a natural response to loss. This loss can be anything: loss of a life, a relationship, a hope, an ideal, a personal identity, a love, a fantasy, etc. Anything and everything that we hold dear can be lost.
When we use anger to avoid feeling grief, the anger tends to get stuck because the necessary grieving never happens.
If you don’t know how to grieve, you will likely be plagued with resentment. Probably you developed a life strategy early on that displaced grieving and put anger (or maybe numbness) in grief’s proper place.
A brief story to illustrate –
Candace and Matthew were in their third or fourth telephone session with me. Married for over thirty years, Matthew’s early behaviours as a young man in the marriage (drinking, going out constantly, ignoring and neglecting Candace) became a source of resentment for Candace. Even though Matthew had “grown up” and changed his behaviour significantly for the past decade, Candace’s resentment persisted, and had come to largely define the relationship.
Matthew was tired of being resented. He readily admitted that his behaviour used to be awful, but ten years after the fact he thought he deserved some warmth and forgiveness. He had apologized and tried to make amends in every way he knew how. Frankly, he had done a pretty good job.
About half way through our session, while I facilitated an exercise between them, something emerged spontaneously for Candace; an insight. “Every time I make a request to Matthew, or a complaint, there’s a meanness. It’s like a poisonous barb that I attach to every interaction.”
We talked for a while about vulnerability and emotional intimacy, and Candace broke down. “I’m never vulnerable with Matthew. Or anyone. My anger is stuck in me. It’s that poisonous barb. I got hurt so badly. But I am seeing that I have never really showed Matthew my hurt. I could blame him for this, say he isn’t trustworthy, but I don’t think it’s really true. The truth is I don’t know how to express hurt feelings without attaching that, that… barb.”
The “angry barb” that Candace described had driven Matthew away, to the point of near despondency. Witnessing Candace as she felt her pain and confronted her inability to grieve was like healing balm for Matthew. For the first time, the thing that had come to define their marriage was being named, was being addressed.
Candace was sobbing. She was sobbing for all that she had lost, not just because of Matthew’s earlier behaviour, but for all that was lost through a lifetime of her disconnection to her own grief. The floodgates opened and I knew things would never be quite the same for her, or for the marriage.
In this example Candace was “ripe” for the insight she received. Her grief had been ripening beneath her anger for who knows how long, presumably for her entire life.
The move from anger to grief can’t be forced, but it can be encouraged, supported.
In service to helping you move past the resentment in your life and relationship, try this embodied grief practice.
- Start with feeling sensations in your body. Where do you feel resentment or anger? In your belly? Your chest? Your fists? Your face? Usually anger shows up as tightness or constriction, so let yourself feel the tightness. Stay with that sensation of tightness for a few moments. Then slowly, intentionally, soften the place in your body that is tight.
- Watch for any small sign of sadness. Usually a trace of it will appear. Notice how you manage the sadness, how you resist it. Maybe you tense up around it. Maybe there are words in your mind that try to manage it. Just notice.
- Do whatever you need to do to allow the sadness to exist. If you felt anger or resentment in your body, the sadness exists somewhere in relation to it. The sadness is beneath the anger, or above it, or within the anger, or beside. If the anger felt hot, the sadness might feel cool. Or maybe the sadness shows up as words or an image in your mind. Let it be there, follow it, nourish and encourage it. This will feel strange if you’re used to avoiding it.
- The sadness wants to move your body in some way. Maybe you bend forward or curl into a ball. Maybe you squish your face up and cry, or cradle yourself in some way. Notice how the sadness wants to move your body. Let it.
Work with this practice. Notice how your resentment or anger interacts with your sadness. Keep making room for your sadness; rather than repressing it, give it room to express itself. Over time your sadness may connect you to grief, to what you have lost. Let it.
At the grief level, sadness is like a rollercoaster, or like riding the rapids in a river raft. You let it take you. You are not in control of it. This loss of control is the main reason we develop an anger strategy in the first place. Part of a grief practice is submitting to being moved by feeling; this is something many people have spent their lives avoiding.
If you do this repeatedly, over time, old resentments (stuck anger) can turn to grief and move through you. If you want help, consider working with a therapist who understands this process. I’m happy to email you a client package by request.
Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.
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