Many of my clients have difficulty tolerating their anger and, not surprisingly, with self-care. That’s why I write about anger a good deal. They get into relationships or take jobs in which they’re mistreated. They’re all about forgiveness and compassion and shy away from feeling wronged—even when they are. Sadly, one of the major reasons that they get into unhealthy situations is that they are not in touch with and fear their anger.
Here’s an example. I was talking with a client about standing up to people and she said that she kept feeling badly for others and didn’t want to be angry at them. I hear this a lot, as if anger is a bad thing. We feel anger automatically when we’re being, were or will be harmed. That’s healthy. That’s how things are supposed to work because recognizing that we feel endangered is vital to surviving and thriving. Anger tells us that we might be facing a physical or emotional threat to self.
I understand why people might be afraid of anger. Maybe they saw it expressed wildly inappropriately in childhood via screaming and physical harm or never at all. Maybe they were never allowed to express anger or were told that it was wrong to feel. Maybe they feared that they would do terrible things if they experienced their bottled up anger. Or maybe they believed that God or someone would punish them for their anger. So, they high-tailed it in the other emotional direction and consciously or unconsciously decided that anger wasn’t for them and that they were going to ignore or suppress it.
Too often, people who end up being victims do so because their anger signal is not transmitting accurately. They want to understand why someone is hurting them, fix the person’s problem, be strong and bear it, or worse, think they deserve to be mistreated. So they switch off their rising anger and shift to feeling sorry or badly for the other person (called reaction formation) which gets them into trouble.
Compassion, empathy and caring are all essential qualities, but they’re only one side of an important equation. Anger at mistreatment is on the other side and it must balance out compassion, empathy and caring if you are to be healthy. All emotions are simply information telling you how to relate to your environment. To engage in effective self- care, you need every emotion. You can’t just choose the ones you’re comfortable with.
If you tend to pick people who hurt you, it’s likely, in large part, due to not experiencing anger at being hurt. In order to stop having relationships with people like this, you will need to learn to experience and appropriately express your anger. Life will not get better until you do. And, for dysregulated eaters, your relationship with food won’t either.