Readers of my previous blog entries may have noticed that there are two main concepts that have been consistently trending across my writings. The first trend is that I strongly believe in our capacity for rational thinking. It is the ability to primarily make decisions and take actions based on facts rather than just opinions. This perspective points out that we are responsible for our actions. Our actions and subsequent feelings are derived from what we choose to believe. Thinking always precedes feelings.
A second trend has been to extrapolate from my clinical psychology practice a connection to our current health and political crises.
As rational beings, we have freedom to choose the type of person we can become. We can choose to even forgive. It is within our capacity to change. Personal growth is possible through changing our ways of thinking. This however is a very difficult task when beliefs have been implanted into our minds from the day we are born and manipulated throughout our lives. We are taught early in life to justify or self validate our feelings even if they are not founded on fact but only on opinion. It is common to hear “you, it, or they made me feel that way.” To blame others is modelled throughout our country on a daily basis by parents, teachers, clergy, peers, marketing, and especially by political leaders. We take pride in pointing out that it is my right to feel a certain way even if the feeling is not based on factual or rational thinking.
In our society it seems that so many people love to be angry. We frequently obsess over events that at best may only be frustrating, annoying and disappointing (FAD) such as the weather cancels a picnic or their sports team lost a game. I do accept that there are horrible, awful and terrible (HAT) events that happen. These events are life threatening such as war, disease and social injustice. Anger in those situations is a reasonable response. As the anguish of the moment is processed the anger is openly expressed and as minds clear people will discuss it and try to understand the factors involved with the tragedy.
One of the most challenging problems I faced as a therapist dealt with anger, in particular what I called Silent Anger. This is a term I used to describe an individual who is angry but refuses to express it and deal with it. Whether a child or so called adult, it is clear to others that something is bothering them. They seem angry, unhappy, distant and withdrawn. When confronted they deny it, nothing is wrong. They give out passive aggressive comments with an annoyed tone such as, “I don’t care or whatever!” Rather than open up and participate, they withdraw from problem solving and put up defensive walls with comments of “leave me alone you are bothering me”, or just more silence or even depression. Living with or working with someone like that wears down relationships. Life with them becomes draining. The silent angry person often takes on a victim role. I have also seen situations or relationships in which both participants are suffering from silent anger. In these situations neither party wants to face issues. This leads to a suffocating emotional stand still.
These individuals are particularly sensitive to security needs. They are fearful of change. They live more by the Failure Road of Life expecting more danger to occur if they need to change. They do not choose to live on the Experience Road of Life where change is embraced as a natural and positive necessary condition of life. There is a strong resistance to extinction of old attitudes and inappropriate behaviors. They internally fight harder to defend their points of view even in the face of facts.
In family and relationship therapy this was a common problem. The silently angry person(s) would sabotage efforts to improve life conditions. To openly talk about the anger would run the risk of them being blamed for the problem. They truly believed they would certainly be rejected and not found worthy of love and approval. Many individuals felt intimidated by their partner, peers and co-workers. They believed that relationships were a competition they had to win. Due to their insecurity, often based on inferiority, they held onto power through their silence. The other parties in a relationship could not achieve their goals as long as they would not cooperate. Like a volcano, containment pressure could only last so long. Eventually an explosion of emotions would erupt often through more inappropriate behavior such as violence, substance abuse, social rejection and isolation and depression.
The same dynamic is present in the societal structure of our civilization. Those who attain power over wealth are threatened when others want to share in the decision process. Old stereotyping and prejudicial views are strongly defended. Actions are taken to overtly and covertly attack anyone deemed a threat to their control. Pressure is brought to ignore the inequality while keeping silent maintains the status quo. Silent anger is seething under the surface. After a period of time, perhaps many years, eventually this anger will erupt often through HAT events.
Healing and progress only proceeds when the anger is finally brought forth. Like a wound the infection needs to be cleaned out before healing can occur. Working with the silent angry person(s) involved them acknowledging their behavior, identifying exposed nerves, and developing new attitudes and beliefs along with new verbal expressive skills such as assertion training.
Learning to identify one’s angry feelings was the first step. I instructed them to find a time each day to settle into a safe and comfortable place and listen to their body. They were instructed to notice tensions and images that crossed their awareness. List any that related to anger, unhappiness, disappointment, and other bad feelings. Now take each emotion and check to see if the situation in which it had occurred was HAT or FAD. Ask yourself if your feeling is founded in a factual event, such as someone dying.
We then learned to develop a list of thoughts and feelings you wanted to express to your significant others. We practiced and role played how to say it from a FAD point of view. For example, I felt disappointed when you were late coming home, it was frustrating when you had to cancel our plans, it was annoying that the boss gave the promotion to someone else. Working with couples in a safe and controlled space was important in letting go of fears of rejection. Over time the silent angry person(s) is more comfortable with socially and appropriately asserting feelings. Couples and groups now could work on problem solving skills.
On a societal level it is very important that we understand that issues can have at least two or more sides each with some facts. Those we elect to assist us with governance have to be sensitive to their role as helpers not rulers. As laborious as it can get at times, more effort needs to be spent sharing views and doing problem solving. Decisions need to reflect a factual basis. This kind of thinking needs to be nurtured very early in life. Classes in schools should make this an important part of the curriculum. We need to learn that anger is a signal or sign, like an exposed nerve. It is a time for reflection and problem solving. We do have a choice. Do we live in silent anger waiting for the eventual eruption? Do we build structure in our society that accepts discussing differences and makes changing a positive way of life?
As I wrote about in my previous blog, a coach that is not working to bring a team together can be replaced. The same goes for our elected leaders who have lost sight of their job which is to represent and bring together all of us. They too can be replaced. We should not ignore problems or hold back from speaking up. It is imperative that we build a society that takes notice of danger signals. Silent anger is very destructive!