Life is Too Short

By Jeff Levy

I remember as an adult, when I would share with my mother frustration or anger I felt toward one or both of my brothers, her consistent response was:  “Oh Jeff, life’s too short.  Don’t be like that.”  When I think about it now, I realize she told me that many times, from when I was a child even until several weeks before she died.  It took a long time for me to learn that expressing anger was not only acceptable, but necessary.  I was careful, though, not to let my mother in on this revelation.

Anger Is Seen As A Negative Emotion

For many of us, anger is not an easy emotion to experience, let alone express.  We may have received implicit and explicit messages since we were children that it wasn’t acceptable to express anger.  Conversely, we may have grown up in a home where anger felt almost palpable.  We lived with anger every day.  It might never have been discussed, but its remnants were visible on the faces and bodies of those we loved, or even on our own bodies.  What complicated our experience of anger is that it was often denied or we were told very clearly not to discuss the anger we experienced outside of the confines of our home.  Regardless of the extent to which we experienced anger, we are a culture that often pathologizes anger.  We see it as a “negative” emotion and, consequently, it is sequestered, making it relatively inaccessible.

Joanne was one of my first clients after I became a social worker.  She had been removed from her mother’s care because her mother had several boyfriends who had sexually abused her. Parental rights were quickly terminated.  When I began to see Joanne, she was seven years old and in a foster home with the intention of adoption.  When we began therapy, it was primarily through play.  We went into my agency’s playroom and rather than choose toys, Joanne situated a chair facing the corner of the room and ordered me to sit there.  As I sat there, she berated me, called me names, and voiced her intent to punish me.  I called Joanne’s former therapist to share information and told her about Joanne’s work with me. She reacted with what felt like judgment:  “I would never let her do that in our sessions” she said.  “I set very clear limits with her about what was and was not appropriate behavior.”

Donald was in one of the groups I was facilitating for male survivors of sexual abuse.  He was 43 and had never had an intimate relationship that lasted longer than a few months.  He also had few friends, spending most of his time at work in information technology.  Donald’s stepfather was the person who had abused him from the time he was 6 until the time he was 16.  He reported the abuse to his mother, who told him she thought he was lying.  As soon as he could leave home, he did, receiving scholarships for college and working for living expenses.  For the first half of the group, everyone was afraid of Donald.  He responded to questions with irritation and agitation.  There was a sense that every muscle in his body was poised to fight.  One evening, I asked him a question following a statement he had made, and he lashed out at me, accusing me of not listening to him and criticizing me as a therapist for not being more attuned to his needs.

Terry was 34 and was asked to leave his family home when he was 18.  He had come out to his parents as gay, and soon after he did, they told him he was “an abomination” and could no longer live under their roof.  They completely cut off contact from him, and to this day, his mother does not communicate with him at all and his father communicates with him almost exclusively through facebook, sending him quotes from the bible that continue to reinforce his judgment.  Terry came to see me because of on-going depression.  While he was able to maintain employment, he was able to do little else.  When asked to talk about his feelings about his family, his responses were almost always quiet, short, and without any emotion.  He repeatedly insisted he wasn’t angry with them but acknowledged feeling alone and unsupported.  He continued to see his saw his father very infrequently, and only on the condition that he not mention being gay or having a relationship with a man.

While all three of my clients had different histories and presenting problems, all of them struggled with how to acknowledge and express anger.  Joanne had been controlled and brutalized as a young child, and her first therapist set limits around her expression of this anger by squelching any misbehavior, controlling Joanne’s attempts to process her anger.  Donald’s mother’s denial of his abuse left him feeling abandoned as a teenager, and enraged as an adult.  His quick judgments of others and their tendency to withdraw from him furthered his isolation and rage.  Terry’s anger took a different form and rather than expressing it outwardly toward others, it permeated his being.  He turned his anger toward himself and it manifest as on-going depression.

Anger Is Often Confused With Rage

Another complicating variable in expressing anger, is trying to make a distinction between anger and rage.  When I was working with teenagers in residential treatment, often I was told some variation of the following:  “Jeff, you don’t want to see me angry.  Once I’m angry, I feel like I don’t have any control over what I do or say.”   In instances such as this, I believe my young clients are talking about rage and not so much anger.  Because so many of them had no role models for how to express anger in non-threatening and non-dangerous ways, they confused anger with rage.

As I work with people who describe anger as a negative emotion, or who see anger as an out-of-control, unmanageable burst of verbal or physical aggression, I try to slow down the process a bit and invite some discussion about the difference between anger and rage.  This may be the first time for many of my clients, where they are asked to distinguish the two—and it is difficult to tease them apart since they have been conflated for such a long time.  I’ll often define them as follows, borrowing and combining from a variety of sources:

Anger:  a feeling of annoyance, irritation, displeasure, and frustration
Rage:  the result of stored anger, uncontrollable, sometimes violent in its expression

If we look closely at these two definitions, it becomes clearer that anger is most likely a feeling that we have every day, perhaps more than one time per day.  It’s hard to imagine a day where we don’t experience some annoyance, irritation or frustration.  Rage, however, is the result of our inability to express our anger.  It comes from stored anger.  And when it is expressed, it often feels explosive, uncontrollable and dangerous.  As we talk more about the differences between anger and rage, we can slowly normalize feelings of anger, encouraging strategies for its expression while simultaneously inviting an understanding that the result of not expressing anger and, instead, storing it, can result in harm—either to ourselves or to others.

The Healing Power of Expressing Anger

For Joanne, her experience of physical and sexual violence prior to being placed in foster care carried with it a host of residual feelings, anger being only one of those.  Her attempts to control my actions through play, berating me and calling me names, was an attempt to regain control over her experiences.  Giving her this permission to experiment with having control over herself and being able to protect herself from danger was one way to express and metabolize anger.  While I believe her first therapist was well intentioned, disallowing Joanne’s expression of anger and, instead, placing more restrictions about what constituted appropriate and inappropriate behavior, created only additional opportunities to store her anger.  I hoped instead, that by giving Joanne permission to express her anger safely might slow or even disrupt the transformation of her anger to rage.

Donald’s mother’s denial of his experiences of abuse left him nowhere to go with his anger.  In fact, his mother explicitly told him she did not believe him, so any expression of anger would be fruitless.  His anger built over years of denial and eventually, any small transgression he experienced created an opening for his rage to erupt.  People who experienced these eruptions became fearful of Donald, only furthering his sense of isolation and experience of others as invalidating of his feelings.  Eventually, as the group developed and with support, group members began to share with Donald the impact of his behavior on them.  While difficult for Donald to hear and accept, eventually he realized that his desire to build safe and trusting relationships was being sabotaged by his rage.  Slowly he learned to separate his anger in the moment from anger that transmuted to rage.  He was surprised that group members were able to hear and validate his anger—sometimes becoming angry for him when he shared some of his experiences of abuse.

Terry’s challenge was different in that his rage was expressed internally—against himself.  Rather than having feelings of anger or rage toward his family, he turned his rage toward himself, resulting in an emotional short-circuiting, where only depression existed.  The consequences of feeling and expressing anger toward his parents would sacrifice the tenuous relationship he had with his father.  It was only through denying his anger and storing it that he felt he could exist.  Over time, through therapy and through an incredibly supportive relationship he built with a partner, was he able to acknowledge his parents’ actions as harmful toward him—and even abusive.  He began to create space from his father and eventually set limits with him.  Surprisingly, for Terry, as he began to set limits with his parents, rather than accepting the limits they set for him, he began to feel less depressed and more able to express a variety of feelings when he talked about his growing up.

Creating Safe Spaces for Anger and Rage

As therapists, one of our challenges is to create space where anger can be expressed and rage can be released safely.  Sometimes our own fears and values around anger and rage limit the extent to which our clients can express theirs.  In one of the very first groups for male survivors that I co-facilitated with Bruce Koff (my business partner) when we first began to work together 20 years ago, we were still getting to know each other.  We had different styles and different ways of working and, consequently, we sometimes felt anger toward each other.  The more unresolved and unexpressed anger we experienced, the more the group members felt constrained in expressing their anger in the group.  And as he and I became more comfortable with anger, our group members felt safer to express theirs.  I have experienced similar dynamics in individual and couples therapy as well.  As my own ability to sit with anger and rage increases, the more my clients are able to express and release theirs in the safety of the therapeutic relationship.

For many of us, we are conditioned early on that there are “positive emotions” and “negative emotions.”  Feeling anger is usually labeled one of those “negative emotions.”  Unfortunately, stifling or stuffing anger can have dire consequences both intrapersonally and interpersonally.  The human experience is not only about feelings of happiness.  It includes a broad range of feelings that not only allow us to be more present to our own experiences, but allow us to be present to and validate the experiences of others.

Whether we are therapists, clients, friends, or romantic partners, allowing ourselves to feel and express all of our feelings to significant others fosters intimacy and trust.  The only negative aspect of emotions—especially anger—is when we are taught to ignore them or not permitted to express them.  Life is too short, which is all the more reason to express our feelings and experience our lives as fully as possible.

Be who you are and say how you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
—Dr. Seuss

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 12, 2017