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.

Shame: How it Affects us, and How to Overcome it

Over the weekend I went out of town to attend my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party. She was adorable, and I enjoyed spending time with my family, but the drive through LA can be brutal. On my way home, a man on a motorcycle whizzed by me and then flipped me off. I have no idea what I could have done to make him angry. I had been driving in the same lane at the same speed for miles.

Despite the knowledge that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt hot shame flush through my body, and I recognized the sensation as one that I’ve experienced frequently lately. It seems like every time I turn around these days, someone is suggesting that there is something wrong with me.

Whenever I make a comment online, dozens of perfect strangers attempt to shame me by calling me stupid in myriad ways. Partly, I think that people shame others in order to dispel some of their own frustration, but I also think that they do it believing that the shame will teach the other person a lesson.

I’ve seen parents shame their children for the same reason. Children who get bad grades or fail to do their chores properly are often shamed by their parents, who believe that the shame will get their children to behave better in the future.

Unfortunately, these parents’ efforts are misguided. Shame can’t teach anyone anything. Scans of human brains show that the learning centers shut down on shame. No information is getting in until the shamed person’s brain calms down. If the goal is teaching, it is much better and more effective to speak kindly to people, and help them to understand and practice. A relaxed brain is a learning brain.

Brene Brown, the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of unworthiness is profoundly damaging to the human psyche. The more that people receive the message that they are unworthy of love, the more that they believe it. Much of my work as a therapist is helping people to undo the programming of shame.

While shame usually begins as damaging messages of unworthiness from the people around us, over time we tend to internalize the shame and begin shaming ourselves. We believe that we need the shame to motivate ourselves–to keep ourselves from becoming lazy couch potatoes.

However, the research shows that shame doesn’t actually motivate people. The more that we shame ourselves, the more depressed we become, which leads to lower levels of motivation, not higher. Giving ourselves kindness and compassion is a much better way to gain motivation.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have shame, think again. Shame is universal. The only people that don’t feel it are psychopaths. The more that we act like shame doesn’t exist, the more it grows. Speaking honestly with each other about the experience of shame is the only way to overcome it.

Brene Brown talks about shame being like a Gremlin. In the 1980s movie, Gremlins, the little green monsters that wreak havoc are only killed in the end by the sun. Shame is the same. It is only by exposing it to the light that it can be defeated.

I’m not suggesting that you start telling everyone you meet about your shame experiences. Doing that would likely just create more experiences to be ashamed of. Instead, share your shame with people who have earned the right to hear your stories, and have the emotional strength to bear the weight of your pain.

These are people who have stuck with you through good times and bad times, and have shown that they can be trusted with your secrets and your pain. If you can’t think of anyone like that in your life, I would suggest that you find a therapist who is trained to hear your shame stories and can help you shed necessary light on your pain.

There’s an important difference between shame and guilt that I’d like to discuss. While shame is the terrible feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging, which is harmful and leads to painful experiences of disconnection, guilt is the knowing that you have done something wrong that you need to make right somehow.

Shame is the sense of “I am bad,” and guilt is the sense of “I did something bad.” Unlike shame, guilt can help people to rebuild connections. When people realize that they have hurt others, they can apologize and seek forgiveness.

If you regularly speak to yourself in the language of shame, I would encourage you to begin practicing self-compassion. If you’re constantly shaming yourself, your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight mode, which is extremely damaging to your body and your nervous system. In this self-protective state, you will have difficulty learning new things, and your body will likely become depressed in order to deal with all of the stress.

Self-compassion is a wonderful way to begin the process of coming out of a self-shaming mind state. There are three components to self compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) self-kindness, and 3) common humanity.

The mindfulness part is about paying attention to your experience and noticing your self-critical and shaming thoughts. The self-kindness part is really about telling yourself that both you and your feelings are OK. And the common humanity part is reminding yourself that the experience of pain and shame are what make us the same as others, not different.

A self-compassion statement might look something like this: “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now. It’s OK to feel that way. Many people would feel shame in this situation.” You can create a self-compassion statement that works for you as long as it has all three components. It doesn’t take a lot of time to use the statement, and it can dramatically shift the experience of shame, and reduce your stress.

Despite the messages that you may have received over the course of your lifetime, you are worthy of love and belonging. You don’t have to do anything to become worthy. You are already worthy simply because you are a human being. Babies know that they are worthy of love, and so do the people around them. It seems strange to me that people think that at some unknown point in human development this inherent worthiness goes away. It doesn’t. All people are worthy of love and belonging, including you.

For more information on shame, please look into the work of Brene Brown. She’s one of my sheroes, and I highly recommend her book Daring Greatly. She also has two great TED Talks: “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame.”

For more information on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Kristin Neff, who has a wonderful TED Talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

Overcoming Tribalism and Moving Toward Understanding

In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.

What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.

Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.

Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.

While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.

While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.

As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.

So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?

Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.

Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.

In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.

So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.

The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.

The Real Reason that Abusers Abuse: It’s Not Why You Think

One of my therapeutic specialties is helping people to work through abuse trauma. I honed my skills working in a domestic violence shelter, and also with Child Welfare Services, but I find that wherever I go, abuse trauma patients follow.

While there is endless variety in the types of abuse traumas that people have experienced, as well as the severity and duration of their abuse experiences, there always seems to be one underlying theme: a sense of shame and personal responsibility.

No matter how often I hear it, I never cease to be shocked by victims of sexual abuse who tell me that they somehow are to blame for their assaults, or the survivors of domestic violence who tell me that if they could have just been better spouses, their relationships could have been saved. These people tell me that their abusers must have seen that they were inherently flawed or unworthy, and that’s why they were chosen to be victims.

At first I would gently tell these people that they were mistaken, and that there was nothing wrong with them, but I quickly learned that the message that they were somehow to blame for what had happened to them was so deeply ingrained that they couldn’t take in any message that contradicted this belief.

That was when I had an epiphany about abuse. It’s not an action. It’s a process. Abuse is a process where the victims are slowly groomed to believe that they are at fault for their mistreatment. It’s an insidious message that starts out small, and grows over time. Abusers slowly push out other supports from the lives of their victims until the only message that can be heard is “You deserve this mistreatment because you are inherently bad and unworthy. If only you could be better, it would stop.”

Having victims who believe this message serves abusers in three ways:

  1. The victim is constantly trying to please the abuser. As a result, the abuser gets catered and deferred to. Depending on the type of abuse, the victim may also be afraid to contradict or stand up to the abuser, giving him/her the benefits of complete power and control over what should be a mutually beneficial relationship.
  2. It takes the blame off of the abuser for the abuse and puts it on the victim, so that the abuser can feel blameless and entitled to continue the abuse.
  3. It keeps victims from leaving because they truly believe that they are unworthy of respectful love, that they deserve the mistreatment, and that they are lucky that the abuser stays with them.

When people tell me now about the deep sense of shame that they feel about the abuse that they’ve suffered, I say, “Yes. That’s the message of abuse. Abuse says that you are somehow to blame for what has happened to you, and that if you were somehow better the abuse would stop. However, think about all that you did to try to be better and how none of it made the abuse stop. The message that you’re to blame is a lie that abuse tells.”

Usually, they nod and say, “Yes. It was just like that.”

Once they understand the message of abuse, I explain how it benefits abusers to get their victims to believe that they are the cause of the abuse. That’s when the healing begins.

There many of myths out there about abuse, and I would like to address some of them here:

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen because the abuser lost control of his/her temper. Abuse is a process. It is pre-meditated and thought through. Abusers behave the way that they do in order to get the benefits of abuse.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen because of alcohol/drug use. Often, both victims and abusers will minimize abuse saying, “Well, he/she was drunk. He/she wouldn’t do that when sober.” Often in these cases the victim pushes the abuser to get clean thinking that will stop the abuse. If the abuser does get clean, the victim is often shocked that the abuse doesn’t stop. What they had failed to understand was that the abuser wasn’t abusing because of the substance. He/she was using the substance as an excuse to abuse and reap the benefits of abuse listed above.
  3. Victims do not enjoy being abused. They don’t stay because they like it or get some kind of thrill out of it. They stay for any mixture of the following reasons: a) They truly believe that they are bad people and nobody else will want them; b) They have become so isolated by the behavior of the abuser that they believe they have nowhere else to go; c) The abuser has convinced them that they cannot survive on their own; d) They are completely financially dependent on the abuser and cannot see a way to support themselves on their own. e) The abuser has threatened to kill them, take their children, or deport them if they leave, and they are afraid that he/she will follow through on these threats.
  4. Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, education level or sexual orientation. It’s something that happens to people just like you.

If you’ve recognized yourself here, know that there is help for you. Even if you don’t have any money or any family or friends that you can go live with, there are shelters that will take you. The wonderful thing about going to a shelter is that they can connect you to a transitional living program. These programs are specifically designed to provide shelter, food, funding, and education for survivors of abuse so that they can rebuild their lives, including finding a career and learning how to support themselves. Don’t continue to wait for things to get better. They won’t. Pack a bag, take your children, and go to a shelter. Your life will immediately improve and you will be able to take your power back.

Read the book, Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. This is the best book about abuse I’ve ever read. Lundy Bancroft was the director of an abuse perpetrator’s program, and he has first-hand knowledge about the way that abusers think. Any time that I’ve been working with an abuse survivor who has read this book, she/he has gathered the courage to leave, and set down at least a portion of the shame she/he had been carrying. Understanding that abusers abuse in order to get the benefits of abuse is an empowering piece of knowledge.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.

Go to http://www.RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they have resources for survivors.

Survivors of childhood abuse, I recommend getting involved in your local Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) organization. They don’t just help the children of alcoholics. They are a 12 step organization for overcoming the effects of all types of childhood abuse.

Know that you are not alone. There is help and support, and if you access it, things will get better.