By Pulkit Sharma
Anger is a perfectly normal emotion, but childhood trauma or poor parenting can lock us in unhealthy ways of expressing it. Pulkit Sharma offers ways to heal
It is perfectly human to feel angry in response to frustrations and setbacks. More often than not, once we solve a problem, anger fades away, and positive emotions come to the fore. Most of us learn that obstructions are a part of life, and even though anger is normal, it needs to be handled and expressed skilfully to deal with a situation efficiently.
However, there are some individuals who do not learn this lesson owing to faulty parenting, inborn temperament, or severely traumatic experiences. For these individuals the emotion of anger, rather than being a response to something external, becomes a part of the self. As a result, the person may remain on a short fuse perennially, and react to various people and situations with intense rage irrespective of provocation. This anger is pathological, and may lead to several physical, emotional, psychological and relational problems.
While conducting anger management workshops, I have often seen that people react to anger very negatively. They consider it a terrible vice, and try to suppress or shun it. This is the main reason why they fail to be free of it. Anger is not simply a bad habit, but an extremely complex phenomenon that reflects our total personality. Therefore, in order to be liberated from anger we need to understand it deeply and attempt to transform our core self. Let us look at the most common patterns of anger and how to transform them.
Just like all mechanical and electrical appliances have regulators, our mind also has an ability to tolerate and regulate emotions. This capacity varies from person to person, and is developed in childhood when a child experiences consistent soothing from parents. Those who are unable to tolerate intense negative emotions get aggressive easily with little or no provocation, and also inflict violence on themselves and others. Whenever negative emotions come up, these people feel helpless and resort to rage.
In order to break this pattern they need to develop the ability to soothe themselves. It helps to do a written self-analysis of the situation that led to anger and associated thoughts, feelings and fantasies in one’s mind. When you get in touch with your painful feelings, you should comfort and nurture yourself by focussing on all the five senses. Think of yourself as a little baby who needs soothing experiences. Look at beautiful and peaceful images, listen to soothing music, breathe in natural fragrances, eat your favourite food slowly, and cuddle into a soft fabric or take a dip in the pool. It is important that while doing this, you should neither push away the negative emotion from your mind, nor over-stimulate yourself. If you rush or overdo it, rather than soothing yourself, you will become defensive towards the pain. Be gentle and slow to soothe yourself. With repeated attempts over a period of time, you will get better at soothing yourself without doing these specific activities.
Last year a couple saw me for psychological help. The husband was extremely unpredictable in his feelings and responses towards the wife. At times, he felt that she was the best person in the world, and showered her with love and care. On other occasions, he believed that she was the nastiest and most selfish person he had known and got abusive towards her. After some sessions of psychotherapy, we were able to understand that the husband was using the primitive defence of splitting. People who use this primitive defence split the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ They cannot appreciate shades of grey. When their worldview is validated and wishes fulfilled, the other is an angel. The moment he or she differs even slightly, they become a devil. The roots of this defence lie in a tendency to escape from pain magically. The individual hopes that somehow by splitting everything into good and bad, they can always choose ‘good’ and reject ‘bad.’ They fail to learn the basic lesson that everything in the world is a mixture of good and bad.
In order to heal from this primitive defence, the individual needs to repeatedly remind himself that the other does not change so much and so quickly from one situation to another, and that it is actually their internal perception that is at fault. Once they acknowledge this, they need to make repeated attempts to hold on to the ‘good image’ of the person even when they are feeling extremely negative and angry. They need to understand that no relationship can be perfect, and minor disagreements do not mean that the other person does not value them. Open communication where both individuals can share their feelings without blaming each other helps in consolidating the relationship and reducing anger.
A young woman who sought psychological treatment for anger and depression had a hard time adjusting to her job at a public school. She felt that everyone at school wanted to oppress her. She got into heated arguments with her colleagues on several occasions. When I took her detailed life history, we discovered that she had been teased and bullied at school because of being fat. This had traumatized her severely. As a result, she became extremely sensitive to even the playful and benign remarks that her colleagues now passed. She told me that she feared that if someone passed a nasty remark, she would get so depressed that she would never recover again. Just as parts of our body that have suffered injury remain more sensitive to pain, our psyche too quivers when touched at a wounded spot.
People who have been criticized, bullied and abused, fear assault throughout their life.
The solution to this is to look at the past trauma as one of several experiences, and not as a life-defining script. The past should be recognized as over; and need not influence the present. People who have a vulnerability spot need to work on their self-esteem by constantly reassuring themselves of their strengths, talents and positive features. They should realise their potential in all spheres of life. Once the self-esteem is strong, the person does not fear negative experiences as he feels that even if they arise, he will be able to deal with them without a breakdown. This causes him to relax, and decreases his sensitivity towards moderate stress. It also boosts his capacity to deal with severe stress.
There are people who feel extremely undesirable, weak and devalued deep down. However, they wish to deny these feelings by seeking exaggerated importance and admiration from the world. When they are showered with praise, love and approval they feel good. However, if people show any kind of disagreement with their worldview, do not fulfil their needs, or refuse to give importance to them, they get enraged and aggressive.
In order to overcome their anger, these individuals need to confront the negative view of the self that they hold within themselves. They need to understand that this view is flawed, and they do not need exaggerated importance and approval from others to live their life. It helps to remind oneself that one is a very small part of the larger picture of the world, and desire for excessive importance is irrational and often based on experiences of feeling insignificant. This insignificance can never be healed by gaining importance and admiration from the world. One needs to witness the pain, and then gently challenge its foundation. It helps to remind oneself that even if they are not given importance, it does not mean that they are worthless. One needs to remind oneself of one’s unique strengths and build on them.
Close relationships often trigger conflicts because no two people think and feel alike. They may have very different needs and expectations from each other and the relationship as a whole. When people cannot assert themselves in a relationship while keeping the harmony and love for the partner intact, it leads to pain and anger. Often, some people find it hard to communicate anger skilfully to the partner as they love the partner, and do not wish to hurt them. Others cannot express them as they lack effective communication skills, or their personality and value system discourage them from voicing disagreement. To resolve this conflict, they unconsciously deflect the anger on themselves. This results in various types of self-sabotaging behaviours such as neglecting their health, disregarding their safety, and refusing medications. Others withdraw into a shell, underperform and destroy their careers and social life. In some people, the anger generates intense guilt and eventually depression.
The pattern of self-harm can be broken by getting in touch with one’s pain, and learning how to communicate it effectively within the relationship. Both parties need to develop empathy for each other, and acknowledge differences in needs and opinions. Together, they need to negotiate ways in which they can be in the relationship while giving individual space to each other. This often brings down self-harm and various other self-destructive behaviours.
The major impediment in managing anger is our resistance towards it, which stops us from understanding its root cause, and dealing with it. Therefore the first step is to allow it to be. This will help us acknowledge the pain beneath the anger and work on it. Once this pain is understood and dealt with constructively, we are liberated from anger.
Bio: Pulkit Sharma is Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalytical Therapist at Imago- Centre for Self, Delhi
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