In therapy, I use emotional problems as an opportunity to help my clients heal and grow.
These painful, scary outbursts offer a chance to break the grip of old habits, feelings, and expectations in order to let a flood of new ones rush in and take their place.
Though anger is a valid emotion, most people express their anger in ways that make the situation worse instead of better. They do not get the relief that they need. If our loved one came home with a cut on their finger, we would know where to put the Bandaid. If they had an upset stomach, we would give them an antacid. What do we do for someone who is heartbroken, insecure, guilt ridden, furious, or disappointed? Where do we put the bandaid? What is the bandaid?
We do not know. We did not learn it in school. As a consequence, we feel inadequately prepared to cope with this emotional stuff. Our logic tells us that facts and figures are valid and our feelings are irrational, therefore weak and unacceptable.
The problem is, that focusing only on logic assumes that emotional problems can be solved rationally. When we adhere to this false assumption, we make the mistake of choosing to give evidence to justify our feelings, pleading our case in an imaginary court of law. We make the mistake of defending our innocence to avoid being convicted as guilty and deserving punishment.
As imperfect human beings, we strive to overcompensate for our inadequate preparation for the task of coping with emotions. We overreact, we defend ourselves against the potentially humiliating exposure of our inadequacy. We may say, “Don’t be angry. I’m sure your boss didn’t mean to call you ‘stupid.'” Having succeeded in addressing the anger problem, our inadequacy to resolve it becomes moot. We are off the hook. The pain of our inadequacy feeling has been relieved for the moment.
Unfortunately, the anger problem has been made worse. We have betrayed their expectation that we would take their side, that we would repair the damage done to their self respect. As a result, they come away angrier than they were before!
They becomes discouraged, distrustful of others and pessimistic. Their anger compounds within them. It doesn’t go away. It festers until they cannot contain it any more. Eventually, they erupt like a volcano. The eruption does not change anything. They have not learned anything new about managing their anger properly or solving anger problems effectively. Ultimately, they will repeat the process of suppression-invalidation-eruption over and over.
For example, when someone is angry at us, we are likely to take their anger personally, as if it were a reflection of our worth as a person. However, we can choose to respect ourselves as worthwhile human beings in spite of what just happened. I define self respect as the feeling that we are worth while human beings in spite of our faults and imperfections. We are not worthless, we are merely imperfect. If we can apply this lesson in the moment that the event is happening, if we have the courage to shift our gears in that moment, we will have the opportunity to replace our childhood self doubts with mature, appropriate self respect.
Emotional problems are not “weaknesses” at all. They are as legitimate as a broken arm or a blood clot. They just don’t show up on the x-ray. We need to learn as much as we can on our own. If we do, we will no longer feel inadequately prepared to cope the next time an anger situation arises. We will be prepared to take these unpleasantness as they come and do the best we can with them.