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Anger and Forgiveness


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Anger and the Healing Power of Forgiveness

Anger and the decisions surrounding it can destroy relationships. This paper focuses on the root causes of anger and ways to express it in appropriate ways. It also focuses on the role of forgiveness in moving anger from an emotional reaction or learned behavior to an intellectual activity.

Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before - it takes something from him. ~ Louis L'Amour

Anger is present all around us. We have a world filled with road raging motorists, angry parents, angry children, and angry teenagers. Everywhere you look there seems to be anger at someone or something in the world. Anger gets a bad rap though on so many fronts. Anger can be a helpful emotion to alert that needs or desires are not being met. However, anger can also sabotage and eat away at our happiness if not handled or if expressed in less than productive ways.

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. ~ Buddha
Anger is considered a primary emotion. Other emotions such as resentment and hate can contribute to or derive from anger. The source of all this emotion can be just about anything. Anger is a signal that some need is not being met, that some desire has been denied. Finding yourself angry is not an uncommon thing. It seems that much of our modern lives tend to breed some kind of anger. Wired for instant access, instant gratification and instant needs being met, the moment there is any delay anger flares.
Anger can be a learned emotion as well. Family interactions train us how to respond to various situations including those that are stressful. Watching how your parents handled stressful situations can be a very telling sign to how you may be handling your own emotional load. Did your father yell when his team lost on Monday night? Did your mother simply keep her emotions in until it was too much and then she would explode with harsh words and even physical violence? Many of your own actions can be found to mimic those very things if you dig back to the experiences of childhood. Much of this type of anger is “a learned reaction verses a learned response.” (Fenton, n.d.)
Elizabeth Fenton states in her paper titled “The Family Tree: The Leading Cause of Anger” that anger is an intergenerational affliction that whether we know it or not we pass down to our children and they to their children. Our everyday interactions teach our children how to respond to situations. If we fall to anger first thing and express it explosively, is it any surprise then when Billy throws his papers in class when he misses a question? Or that Suzie lashes out screaming how unfair her curfew is? These types of reactions were probably modeled by their own parents. Billy watched his father throwing the newspaper when his team makes a mistake and then shout at the television angry and red in the face. Suzie watched her mother screaming at her father how the bills are his fault. (Fenton, n.d.)
Other than learned behavior, there are a number of other things that can trigger feelings of anger. Frustration probably tops the list. Additional things that can influence feelings of anger are anxiety, fatigue, and stress. Just being under a deadline, or having too much to do or not rested enough can all contribute to having a shorter fuse and emotions spiraling into anger easier. Add in substances like drugs or alcohol and the ability to self-regulate emotion is directly affected. There is also a correlation between depression and angry feelings as well as experiencing any kind of trauma, be it directed to yourself or someone else. While these factors may not lead to anger, they are very often found in conjunction not only with expressed anger, but also with anger that is bottled up inside a person because they choose not to express it. (Quirke, 2012)
Anger can take on various forms. Many people view the anger directly expressed, or in the violent rages of lashing out as the most detrimental. There is also the quiet anger, passive aggressive ways that can damage relationships just as deeply as having the good china smashed against the wall. Anger of any sort can lead to resentment and if not expressed it can erupt into relationships years later and destroy with the weight of the resentment and anger that has festered and grown in all that time. (Enright & North, 1998)
In reading on this subject I found some interesting references to a particular amount of anger that is considered to just be everyday run of the mill anger. The reference though made a good point:
“…in everyday life people have specific difficulties. Living with anger at a spouse you are divorcing, she said is different from working with an infuriating employer whom you dislike, feeling angry with a rebellious teenager whom you love, or transcending anger at an abusive parent who is dead.” (Tavris, 1989)
Dealing with each of these described situations truly is a different kind of anger. So does it matter how we handle the anger? Does the situation really change it? Do the people involved matter?
Get mad, then get over it. ~ Colin Powell

How many times have we heard that expressing anger, yelling, venting, and releasing those feelings are cathartic and helpful to expressing anger? Many cultures would find this type of behavior not only uncomfortable but alarming. Examples of how this is considered appropriate are found just in popular American television shows where one character will vent their anger and rail at the situation that they find themselves in. Then in a simple thirty minute episode, minus the onerous commercial interruptions, we can watch as the anger spilling out is forgiven, forgotten and everyone moves on to the happily ever after. At least until next weeks episode. (Rosellini & Worden, 1985)
So much of our culture is built around expressing the emotions that are just beneath the surface. But is this really cathartic? Is it helpful to vent such rage at the objects of our anger? I would argue that many professionals are finding just the opposite is true. Facing such rage from a family member leads to hurt feelings and can traumatize relationships for ages to come. Anger does not come calling just one time, the ripples echo in the communication patterns around them for some time.
Sometimes it takes as much awareness of emotion as it does in facing an addiction to really change behavior patterns that have been present for an entire lifetime. Finding within yourself the ability to recognize there is a problem is the first step to any change. This is true in emotional work as well.
When we focus on what the source of our anger is and focus on what triggers it we can respond and not react. We can focus on asking ourselves what we want to accomplish in the situation. Just simply taking a breath before raging at that grocery store clerk can mean the difference between solving the problem, and raving only to face the feelings afterward. Managing anger is part of knowing yourself and being successful in expressing your needs and desires without tearing down or hurting those around you. (Lerner, 1986/2001)
Learning to identify our triggers, learn new communication styles, change current ways of interacting, and implement them in the changing face of situations are a few of the ways we can handle anger. Learning a different method of hearing and responding takes time. Even when culture tells us that we should be “nice ladies”, being assertive, and expressing our anger in a way that is productive shows that it is not an emotion that should be labeled bad or inappropriate. It is simply one emotion that we express and by doing so we allow others to help meet our needs. (Lerner, 1986/2001)
One of the struggles with changing how we express our anger though is the responses of others. What do you do when you have always been the quiet one, or the yeller, and you choose to change that response? Sometimes that means that the reactions we have always gotten from family or friends change as well. Sometimes that means shock, or a demand that we not change.
In the case of an alcoholic, there is much anger in the family unit. The cessation of drinking is seen as this grand and glorious goal. Once the alcoholic is sober then everything will be perfect and all the problems will be solved! Unfortunately this is not usually the case. Awareness of family dynamics and the underlying emotions is essential. Taking into account the steps mentioned before, awareness of the change you want made, and what you will do to accomplish it is essential. As is being willing to focus on what we can change, our own reactions and responses. Angry feelings are normal. Learning to accept this and to allow ourselves to screw up sometimes means we have a much better chance to facilitate change in ourselves and our relationships. (Rosellini & Worden, 1985)
Many of these tools focus on moving emotion from the realm of emotion to an intellectual level. Once we have taken that breath, stepped back, we see the emotion, we feel it, but we can handle it as what it is and not let the physiological response drive us. That intellectual ability to ask ourselves the simple questions in the heat of the moment: is the hill to fight and die on? Are your actions appropriate to the situation or over the top? Can you change the situation or people involved in some way? And the question that should be a tipping point is this worth it? Can your anger be focused to be positive and motivate you to change? I’d say there are many situations in history of anger used for good ends. The Boston Tea Party is a blazing example of anger used to create change. Is that the appropriate response to every situation? This is something only the individual can answer, and something the individual must face the consequences of their answer. (Walker, 1976/2010)
Being aware is important. We are making changes. We are focusing on taking that extra breath and what we need to do to facilitate change. Is there anything more that we can do to express anger and still be expressive but moderated?
You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well. ~ Lewis B. Smedes
How do we move past the things or people that we feel have wronged us in a way that is healthy? Forgiveness is not for the person we view as the perpetrator of the crime against us that sparked our emotional response. Forgiveness is for us. So much of the anger and hurt we carry around hurts us in stress, and physical ailments from stress. (Walker, 1976/2010)
Simply by acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes can take the sting out of our anger at a situation. Acknowledging the humanness of others and allowing that they did the best they could in a situation creates the space for forgiveness and a greater understanding. Forgiving others allows us to let go of the burden and weight of the hate, anger, resentment and other bitter emotions that can poison our interactions with others and destroy our relationships. This applies whether it is a store clerk who shorted us on our change, or the child who broke the vase your grandmother left you in her will. Forgiveness helps to release the emotional burden and allows those around us to be human. (Rosellini & Worden, 1985)
This does not mean that it removes responsibility. However, being possessed of the mind of “you are human” means that pointing out to the clerk that your change was incorrect calmly and with receipt in hand is much more pleasant for all involved to resolve the situation than the spittle flying as epithets and personal digs are taken that denigrate the person and do nothing to resolve the issue. Holding to your emotions and helping the child repair the vase, clean it up, or even sharing why it meant so much and why you are upset is bound to build a relationship of trust with the child, rather than screaming and calling them names. (Rosellini & Worden, 1985)
Sometimes you have to let go and forgive because holding on means hurting yourself. In the case of addiction, the addict may not even care or recognize that they have hurt you. They are in their own place on their journey. Their focus may be simply on being sober and their own anger may keep them from making amends for the anger in you. This does not mean that you do not protect yourself. Especially in cases of addiction, there are relapses and behaviors that are dangerous. Maintaining boundaries while still expressing your feelings is a precarious line to walk. Forgiving the addict and wishing them well though frees you to move on and remove yourself from their cycle of addiction and the pressure of their expectations.
What about forgiving ourselves? Can we put these same things to work for ourselves to find the peace of acceptance? I believe so. In fact forgiving ourselves is just another step in recognizing that some need is now being met. We find all of the faults, the emotions, we recognize, we work to overcome, and in the end we forgive and start over. Every single day we find ways to continue to address our emotions, express them, to make amends for others we may hurt, forgive them and ourselves, and then step on again. This is the way of life and of learning to become the best self that we can be.
When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future. ~ Bernard Meltzer
Anger is a dance that can take emotional and physical tolls on us. Anger alone is not anything bad, it simply is an emotional response to not having needs met. Holding on to anger can have long range impact on our health and well-being. Learning ways to cope with anger and to express anger give us ways to move this to an intellectual place where we can make changes and logically address the emotion, not just react. Forgiveness then becomes a way of coping with anger at those around us and with ourselves. We learn to forgive others and ourselves for being human and make it okay to make mistakes. Ultimately our relationships improve and we grow to understand ourselves better. Now if only there were a logical way to deal with the technology and devices in our world. Finding forgiveness for your modem for dropping out on your research paper seems to come a little harder than forgiving spilled milk.
Brainy Quote. (2012). Retrieved from
Enright, Robert., & North, Joanna. (1998). Exploring Forgiveness. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from Google Books Web site:
Fenton, Elizabeth. (n.d.). The Family Tree: The Leading Cause of Anger. Retrieved September 10, 2012, from Web site:
Lerner, Harriet. (2001). The Dance of Anger: A Woman;s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. (Original work published 1986)
Quirke, Michael G. (2012). The Secret Roots of Irritation. Retrieved September 9, 2012, from Web site:
Rosellini, Gayle., & Worden, Mark. (1985). Of Course You're Angry: A Family Guide to Dealing With the Emotions of Chemical Dependence. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers. Tavris, Carol. (1989). Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. Retrieved September 30, 2012, from Google Books Web site:
Walker, Velma. (2010). Becoming Aware (11th ed.) (Ray; Largent. Wood, Ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company. (Original work published 1976)

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