Healing Our Problematic Relationship to Anger Through Healthy Boundaries

Healing Our Problematic Relationship to Anger Through Healthy Boundaries

Society’s relationship with anger is problematic as it’s an emotion that often gets confused with aggression. However, they’re not the same thing. Anger is an emotion that everyone experiences from time to time, and it’s perfectly healthy to do so. However, acting aggressively, while sometimes important for self protection, mostly causes unnecessary pain in the world.

When clients ask me to help them with anger problems, it’s frequently divided down gender lines. While there is some overlap between sexes, men tend to tell me that they lose their tempers too easily, yell, swear, frighten those around them, and sometimes hit–both objects and people. They ask me to help them to get a moment to pause and consider their behavior before they respond because their aggressive behaviors are damaging their relationships, or causing them legal problems.

Women, on the other hand, tend to tell me that they can’t access their anger. They say that people treat them terribly, but instead of becoming angry, they become sad or depressed. They blame themselves. These women feel immobilized by their own inability to get mad enough to set boundaries or create change in their lives and relationships.

I don’t believe that these gender differences in relationship to anger are actually biological. Instead, they are a product of society’s penchant for gendered child-rearing. Boys are taught that they are not allowed to cry; that tenderness, kindness and sadness are not masculine, and that the only acceptable emotions are happiness and anger. Girls are taught that they need to be nice and sweet and happy all of the time, and they tend to be punished more severely than boys are when they become angry or say no.

These gender stereotypes in relationship to emotions are extremely damaging. Boys that buy the message to “man up” (one of the most damaging phrases in the English language), end up unable to access hurt, sadness, kindness and compassion. Instead, they jump directly to anger when they feel any of the other emotions coming on. They believe that if they’re not happy, then anger is the only other acceptable thing to feel.

On the other hand, women who buy the “nice girl” message tend to have problems recognizing when their boundaries have been crossed. They tell me that they know that they should be angry, but they can’t access the feeling. Instead they blame themselves, thinking that they were somehow not good enough, and that if they could just be better, then people would treat them right. However, it doesn’t work that way, and they wear themselves to a nub trying to be “good enough,” (whatever that even means).

In therapy with the angry people, I work with them to pause when they feel the fire of anger rising within them and then feel into what lies underneath. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion that covers up an unconsciously rejected underlying feeling . For instance, instead of allowing feelings of hurt, a person may jump right over emotional pain and straight into anger. Other emotions people tend to bypass in favor of anger include: sad, vulnerable, rejected, and disrespected.

Once these angry people are able to tap into the underlying feeling, which can take a lot of work by the way, I encourage them to verbalize that feeling. Verbalizing it to the other person involved is best, if possible. However, if it’s not possible to tell the other person how you feel, saying to yourself, “Wow. I’m feeling really hurt right now, and it’s OK to feel that way,” is powerful. The more that these people do that, the more that they can override their childhood programming that anger and happiness are the only appropriate emotions.

On the other side of the coin, when I’m working in therapy with people who can’t access anger, I help them to give themselves permission to feel angry. What I’ve found is that these people often have anger and aggression confused. I explain to them that anger is healthy and normal, and that feeling the entire spectrum of human emotion, including anger, is a good thing. I help them to understand that being angry doesn’t have to mean that they behave aggressively. Sometimes, all it means is that they say, “Wow. That made me really mad!”

Then I work with them to understand the importance of boundaries in a relationship. Having bought into the idea that they have to be “good” and “nice” all of the time, they often fail to stand up for themselves when they need to, which is just as damaging to relationships as having angry tirades.

How is it so damaging, you ask? Well, here’s how it works. People that are trying to be nice all of the time tend to allow people to take advantage of them. If you’re thinking that other people shouldn’t try to take advantage, you’re right. They shouldn’t, but they do. Once these opportunists realize that the nice person won’t say no or get angry, they continue to take advantage, but also lose respect for them, leading to treating the nice person even more disrespectfully. If the nice person continues to try to curry favor with the disrespectful one, the relationship can become abusive. However, what often happens is that the nice person eventually builds up so much resentment that he/she lashes out uncharacteristically, or quietly leaves the relationship.

In the end the outcomes of both strategies are the same. The angry and aggressive person ends up alone because eventually people get tired of being bullied. The good/nice person ends up alone because he/she eventually becomes resentful enough about being taken advantage of to leave.

The solution to both of these problems is healthy boundaries. Here is an outline of the differences between healthy and unhealthy boundaries:

A. Collapsed Boundaries (The Good/Nice Person)

  • You can’t so no, because you are afraid of rejection or abandonment.
  • Your identity consists of what you think others want you to be. You are a chameleon.
  • You take on other’s problems as your own.
  • You share personal information too soon, before establishing mutual trust/sharing.
  • You feel responsible for other’s happiness and fulfillment and sometimes rely on your relationships to create that for you.
  • You compromise your values or beliefs to avoid conflict.
  • You tend to absorb the feelings of others.
  • You lose control of your emotions easily.
  • You have no balance of power in relationships. you tend to be either overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent.

B. Rigid Boundaries (The Prickly Person)

  • You are likely to say no if the request involves close interaction.
  • You avoid intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy).
  • You fear abandonment OR engulfment, so you avoid closeness.
  • You rarely share personal information.
  • You have difficulty identifying wants, needs, or feelings.
  • You have few or no close relationships. If you have a partner, you have very separate lives and virtually no shared life.
  • You have difficulty asking for or receiving help from others.

C. Healthy Boundaries

  • You can so no or yes, and you are OK when others say no to you.
  • You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
  • You expect reciprocity in a relationship–you share responsibility and power.
  • You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
  • You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
  • You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
  • You know your own wants, needs, and feelings. You can communicate them clearly in your relationships.
  • You are committed to, and responsible for, exploring and nurturing your full potential.
  • You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
  • You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
  • You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
  • You are able to ask for help when you need it.
  • You don’t compromise your own values or integrity to avoid rejection.

If you recognized yourself in either the collapsed or the rigid categories, don’t be too hard on yourself. Knowing that boundaries are a problem for you is an important first step, and you can start today to work towards learning how to set healthy boundaries for yourself. My boundaries tend to be on the collapsed side, but they’re getting better all of the time, and I congratulate myself each time I say no to something that I don’t want to do, even though my impulse is to say yes, because this is what progress looks like.

You may also notice that your boundaries fall into different categories based on the relationship or the setting. For instance, you may have rigid boundaries at work and collapsed boundaries at home. Or, you may have collapsed boundaries in romantic relationships and healthy boundaries with friends. This is completely normal. As Louise Hay says, “the point of power is always now.” You can start today to change these behaviors and work towards happier and healthier relationships.

Be gentle with yourself as you start to make changes to your boundaries. This is a process. If you find yourself being unnecessarily harsh as you start learning to say no or ask for what you want in a healthy way, just acknowledge it and try again. This could look like, “Whew, that came out a little rough, let me try that again.” Usually people are extremely understanding when you explain that you’re working on a personal growth project.

As your boundaries get healthier, you’ll notice that your relationships with others become healthier, and that you attract healthier people and experiences into your life. It’s worth the work, and I encourage you to get started now.

In Praise of Interdependence

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been working from home because of the COVID-19 quarantine situation.  For the first week, I was elated.  I slept late, worked in my yoga pants, and did little projects around the house between patient phone calls.  During the second week, I was less excited about it, but I was OK.  Then, the third week came, and the loneliness and isolation of three weeks by myself in my one-bedroom apartment hit me hard.  Like a caged tiger, I’ve been pacing around my living room, and peering through the black wrought iron of my security gate out into the quad outside my front door.

So, when my friend, Jeannine, contacted me yesterday and asked me to come over to her place for a social distancing dinner in her backyard, I was so excited I could barely contain myself.  When I got to her place, I had to swallow my need to hug both Jeannine and her husband, Paul.  Everything seemed hilarious.  When the chicken that Paul was barbecuing caught on fire and he couldn’t figure out how to rescue it, I laughed myself silly.  It didn’t matter to me that I might not have anything to eat.  I’d figure that out.  (The chicken ended up being perfectly cooked, by the way).  When we played Mexican Train, I felt nothing but joy and camaraderie, even though I lost miserably all three times.

It got me thinking about the value of community.  There’s a strange push-pull in American culture about needing others.  We definitely have a hero complex.  All you have to do is check out our film-making choices to see it.  How many incarnations of the strong and exceptional person saves the world alone are even possible?  I’ve grown to hate these hero movies.  They set up unrealistic expectations of self-reliance, fearlessness, and invulnerability.

On the other hand, American culture is one of the most extroverted cultures on earth.  Being highly social, overtly friendly, and always having something to say, are highly prized American personality traits.  As a Highly Sensitive Person, who needs alone time to re-charge, enjoys solo creative projects, and freezes around inauthentic people, I’ve felt defective for most of my life.  Telling myself that my need for solitude, my inability to come up with interesting things to say in large groups of people, and my lack of an emotional filter were weird, I’ve spent a lot of time pretending.  It’s only within the past year or so that I’ve realized that being wired this way is OK, and I’ve given myself permission to be my authentic self.  What a relief!

With pressure to be highly social and friendly, but also be a fearless lone savior, I think we’re all a little confused about how much community is the right amount.  I’m constantly struck by how many people tell me that they feel like they should be OK with being alone, and that the deep need that they feel to belong is wrong somehow.  They tell me that it’s a sign of codependence, and that they need to work on their unhealthy coping strategy of being with others to avoid feelings of loneliness.  Usually this comes up while the person is grieving the loss of a loved one.  Three weeks into grieving, people believe that they should be over it already.

This mindset never fails to sadden me.  What a sorry state of affairs to believe, as a society, that needing people is a sign of mental illness.   How terrible to think that grieving is somehow a weakness.  I explain to these people that codependence doesn’t mean what they think it means.  I tell them that codependence is actually a description of people that put their own needs aside in order to support others in an unhealthy and self destructive way.  I’m not talking about self-sacrifice for the greater good.  I’m talking about harming oneself because of an inability to set or respect boundaries.  Codependence is the person in a domestically violent relationship who doesn’t leave and makes excuses for the partner’s behavior.  It’s the spouse of the alcoholic who constantly cleans up horrible alcohol-induced messes, pays DUI fines, and apologizes to friends who have been subjected to drunken rages.

Needing love, community and support is completely normal and healthy.  We’ve evolved over millennia as tribal creatures.  Some of us need smaller tribes than others, but we all have a need to belong, to be understood, and to be loved, and that is a good thing.  Society would fall apart if humans didn’t naturally organize themselves into communal groups.  Where would we be if someone didn’t grow crops and share them with the rest of us?  What would happen if nobody cared for the sick, or educated our children?  It would be a much poorer life, indeed, if we weren’t the interdependent creatures that we are.

Interdependence is the exact opposite of codependence.  When we’re interdependent, we help, support, and care for the people around us, just as they help, support, and care for us in return.  Nobody is harmed in this reciprocal relationship, and everyone’s lives are enriched.  Interdependent relationships are a sign of mental and emotional health.  In order to have them, we have to be able to set the boundaries of what is OK and not OK in how we treat each other.  We also need to be able to respect those boundaries when they are set.  This type of relationship takes maturity, kindness, and compassion, and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of the great jigsaw puzzle of what makes us human.

One of my favorite things about the modern world is the web of global interdependence that allows me to buy goods from across the globe and have them in my home in a couple of days.  I love that I can tap into recordings that were made in Russia or India at the touch of a button, or that I can get on a plane and be in Italy in less than a day.  If I want to, I can buy a book written in another language, and then translated into my own, and absorb the ideas of another culture and another mind.  The more that we share ideas with each other, the more we understand each other, and the more that we see how much we are the same as humans no matter where we were born or which language we speak.

I know that my pacing loneliness is a result of a breakdown in interdependence.  I also know that toilet paper shortages, and the fact that I had to buy flour and yeast on Amazon.com, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else, in order to make the bread that is currently rising in my kitchen, is a result of a breakdown in interdependence.  I fear anything that threatens interdependence and understanding between humans, such as walls between nations, isolationism, or nationalism.

While I understand that sometimes we have to be alone to protect ourselves, to lick our wounds, and to heal, my hope is that these times of isolation are brief, and that we don’t end up as a world full of angsty teenagers hiding in their bedrooms playing video games with “keep out” signs on the door. When the danger of COVID-19 is passed, my hope for the world is that we will be brave enough to re-open to each other as a world full of humans who struggled together through something terrifying. I hope that we can be united in the knowledge that nobody is to blame for it because sometimes shitty things just happen because life is hard.  And yet, it is the hardest times that can hone us into the best humans if we are able to give the experience meaning.  May the meaning be love, kindness, compassion and community.

Below are some links for information about codependence and interdependence.  Two wonderful books about overcoming codependence are Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, and Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody.  Pia Mellody’s book was the first book I ever read about codependence, and it opened up a whole new way of thinking about healthy relationships for me.

Ten Articles About Codependence

How to Build a Relationship Built on Interdependence