In my experience as a recovery coach, I come across two kinds of people: One is the person who verbally (or physically) expresses their anger, and the other is the type of person who stuffs their anger way down, deep inside, where eventually it comes out sideways. I tend to work with the people that fall into the second category; in fact I also fall into that category.
One concept that’s helped me emerge from this stuffing of my anger, or placing it in a box and hiding it in my closet, is the work of Bill O’Hanlon. Bill is a psychotherapist, prolific author, and popular workshop presenter. He co-developed Solution-Oriented Therapy, a form of Solution-focused brief-therapy, and has authored or co-authored over 28 books. Bill O’Hanlon gave me permission to be angry. In fact, there are four situations in which everyone is allowed to be angry. They are universal. I was never given permission to be angry, and much to my amazement, neither were many of my clients. Bill O’Hanlon looks at anger not as an effect, but as a cause. As Bill says — “turning emotions from verbs into nouns.” Bill calls them upsets. To explain these concepts further, let’s examine the four areas in which we get upset. When you find yourself angry, examine why you are angry, and ask yourself these questions:
- Are you experiencing an unfulfilled expectation?
- Have you had an intention thwarted?
- Was an undelivered communication involved?
- Have you discovered some unrealized truths about oneself, others, the world or life?
Let’s start with the first one. One of my clients is very angry at her father. He left her, abandoned her, and he continues to not be intimately involved with her or his grandchildren. My client, let’s call her Sarah, expects a father to always be there, giving her what she wants or needs, hugging her, and telling her he loves her. At 42, Sarah has never experienced this from her father. It is not the person he is. Yes, he has his own abandonment and intimacy issues. But she makes up in her head that he should be Daddy Warbucks. She experiences these unfulfilled expectations constantly, and gets very angry at him. She is angry he doesn’t fit the image of the father she has created in her head. But it’s ok to get angry at expectations that have been unfulfilled.
The second upset involves a client from Chicago and we’ll call her Caroline. It was always Caroline’s intention to be happily married to one man, forever. She never wanted to have what happened to her as a child (her parents divorced) happen to her children. Now, unfortunately, she is facing divorce proceedings. She is very, very angry at her soon-to-be ex-husband. In spite of her intention to be happily married, divorce is imminent because of her addiction. His refusal to interact with her makes her furious. She can be angry, it’s okay. Her dreams have been dashed, her intentions thwarted
Now, let’s look at Mike. Mike is an addict who is struggling in his first year of sobriety. He and his live-in girlfriend never communicate. She is an executive in a very high-pressure job, which demands very long hours. In addition, she works in the city, an hour’s commute from their home. He is currently unemployed and in outpatient treatment. Recently, he got into cooking as a way to express himself and be creative. He planned a great meal, using an exotic fish, not something you could cook and set aside to re-heat. His girl friend had to go to an appointment north of the city and didn’t think she needed to let him know. However, there was an accident on the Turnpike and she was stuck in backed-up traffic for hours. To make matters worse, the battery on her cell phone died and she had left her charger in his car. He was livid. The meal was ruined. He made up in his head her having an affair, meeting another man for sex, because he was a recovering addict and she didn’t love him anymore. Every time he called her cell, he got angrier. Mike, its okay you are angry when communication is undelivered or blocked. Breathe deep.
Each one of these situations, undelivered communications, thwarted intentions, or unfulfilled expectations, led to the fourth upset: unrealized truths about oneself, others, the world or life. My clients recognize this upset. It makes them angrier, but they either stuff this fourth upset deep inside themselves or in that box on the top shelf of a closet. Behind this upset is deflection, catastrophizing and denial.
It’s easier for Sarah to be mad at her father than for her to recognize she is making up the expectation of a perfect father and trying to fit him into it. She should realize the truth: she cannot change her father. He is what he is. Maybe Sarah is a bit angry about that, as well.
Caroline, thwarted in her intention of living happily married ever after, is not recognizing her role in the drama. If she wants to be married happily ever after, she needs to get and remain sober. Something she knows she is not doing very well. Maybe Caroline is a bit angry about that, too.
Mike imagined his planned evening would be a game changer, a night that would bring his girlfriend back into his arms, his addiction forgotten. Yet, when a natural circumstance like an accident causes a delay, he is off to the races thinking the worse, or catastrophizing that a break-up is imminent. Yes, he is a bit angry about that, his catastrophizing another way of stuffing his anger. Eventually, he will “use” over it. Mike, come out of the closet, open the anger box, and talk about it. Focus on the breakdown of communications, which happened tonight (and only tonight) and get your anger out on the table.
So these three clients are told they can get angry if they experience an unfulfilled expectation, have an intention thwarted or if an undelivered communication is involved. Told that it’s okay, everyone gets angry over these things. I allow my clients to get angry, to rant, to raise their voices and to stamp their feet. Allowing them to get angry is the first step; once the steam is let off it becomes easier to discover the unrealized truths about themselves and deal appropriately with the anger they carry within.