Here’s what I’ve learned in my journey through disability, chronic pain and illness. I’m going to get angry. It’s going to happen a lot.
It will happen when someone bumps into me and I know that means I’ll be in pain for hours, or maybe days. It’s going to happen when I want to get up and do something but have to wait for my husband to help. It’s going to happen when I need a shoulder to cry on, but everyone is too busy to call or visit.
In the past, before my accident, I almost never got angry. Now, it happens on a regular basis. Sometimes there’s no obvious reason for it. It comes over me in a wave. I feel like it will never end. I see red. The feeling crushes me.
My mind searches for the reason, and seizes on something. Usually some past hurt. Sometimes I want to yell. Other times, I feel so overwhelmed I want to hide my head under a pillow.
We’re trained from childhood to see our anger as a negative thing.
“Be nice,” we’re told. “Don’t get mad.”
Women often have it harder. We’re supposed to be “good girls” who never raise our voices. We push it down. Replace it with food, TV, sex, booze, whatever.
We do it until the day we can’t hold back anymore. Then we have to deal with it.
For me, getting sick was that day. I was face to face with anger and there was no way out. I lost so much in such a short space of time. Mobility, ease in my body, a sense of well being. Friends.
The reality of my illness and pain made it impossible to act like nothing bothered me. Meanwhile, I couldn’t depend on the usual escapes. I’m on medications that don’t interact well with alcohol. And thanks to my health problems, I can’t eat junk food.
In short, I can’t pretend to myself or others that I don’t get angry. And that’s a gift. No more playing the good girl. No more pushing down the feelings.
How do we deal with anger?
Embracing your anger is a good thing. It’s normal. It’s healthy. And in many ways, it’s just another emotion.
But anger is special in some ways. It can give us energy and power. But it can also be destructive if we don’t learn how to deal with it.
Anger is like fire. It can be helpful and make life better. Or, it can burn everything in your life down.
When you’re angry, you can say or do things that you regret later. I’ve said things in anger that I wish to this day I could take back. If you’re not able to control it, it can harm you and those you care about.
Like fire, you don’t want to give it free reign. It could wreck relationships, or burn at a low level, turning into resentment that never goes away and makes you miserable.
Here are five ways to deal with it so it becomes a normal, healthy part of your life:
- Admit to yourself that you’re angry. This sounds obvious, but after a lifetime of avoidance, you may have trouble recognizing it. Get to know how anger feels. Is it a sensation in your body? What kind? Where is it located? Or, is it a series of thoughts? The better you get to know it, the easier it is to acknowledge to yourself.
- Be as angry as you want or need to be. Try this exercise: Imagine your anger filling your entire body. Then imagine it filling the room. Then expand it, starting with your city or town, then your state, country, the whole world, and finally the whole universe. You can do this any time anger comes on.
- Think before acting. It’s normal to have angry thoughts towards another person. But remind yourself that words spoken in the heat of the moment can cause harm. First, say whatever it is you’re thinking in your mind, or out loud to yourself. Then ask, do I need to tell them this? If the answer is “no,” let it go. If the answer is “yes,” ask yourself, “can I soften it in some way while still getting the message across?”
- Let go of judgment. You’re angry, and that’s okay. No need to analyze why. If you’re sick or in pain, it’s inevitable. Anger is part of being human no matter what. Take note of the thoughts telling you there’s something wrong with it, and imagine them as clouds in the sky. Let them pass.
- Remind yourself the past is over. The best metaphor I’ve ever heard for resentment is that it’s like holding a hot coal so you can throw it at someone. All the time you’re holding that hot coal, it’s burning your own hand. It hurts you much worse than the other person. When anger comes up, let the feeling flow, and then let it go. There’s nothing to be gained from hanging onto old hurts.
Anger is part of grief
One thing to remember is that anger is part of the grieving process. It’s the second in the five stages Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified. (Read my post on this for more.)
If you’re dealing with chronic illness, chances are you’re grieving. I know I am. I’m further down the road than I was six years ago. But I still haven’t resolved it. I’m not sure if I ever will. And that’s okay.
When you put your anger in this context, it helps you cope with it. You realize that whatever you think it’s about, there’s more going on. It’s part of a deep shift.
It’s like an earthquake. We feel the earth shaking. But underground, huge plates are moving. The anger is the earthquake. It can feel dramatic, but if we stop and let ourselves sink into it, we realize that something is happening deep inside ourselves.
When you think about anger this way, you’re less likely to be pulled into it. You still feel it, but you’re not controlled by it.
With this distance, you can get curious about what might be going on deep inside. Investigate. Maybe there are changes happening. I remember the day I decided I was okay with calling myself disabled. It took a long time, and working through my anger was a big part of that.
So when anger erupts, remember it’s not anything bad, and may be the beginning of a new chapter.