Americans have a lot of issues around anger. We pretend like we don’t, but we do.
In the Middle East, people seem angry. Going to the supermarket often erupts in shouting matches over the last loaf of challah. However, truth be told, they just express their feelings more than we American are used to. Here in the West, we may not argue over the challah; regardless, we wash it down with a lot of anger.
As I learned living in Israel, after the hundredth encounter where I thought someone was angry with me, they would say it, they would feel it, they would get it out and then they would be done. It was rough, but it was honest, and it was real. You knew where someone stood. No guessing. No coaxing. You could address their feelings and then move on.
Not in America. I spend half my time trying to guess what someone is feeling, and the other half trying to coax the truth out of them. Over and over I have to beg clients to tell the truth about their feelings.
They are pissed at a friend, but they won’t admit it. They are furious at their spouse, but spend the whole time explaining to me why their spouse was justified in their bad behavior. They are outraged at something a parent did to them as a child, but won’t go there because they have “forgiven” them and put it behind them.
But they haven’t put it behind them. They have buried it within them. It may have happened 40 years ago, but they carry it as if it happened four days ago. They spend so much of their energy pushing it down, packing it away, keeping it at bay, they don’t even realize it actually dictates their choices and dominates their life.
“I’m sorry,” they’ll say, when a little pissed-off-ness slips past the goalie. “I shouldn’t have said that.” “Excuse me,” they’ll apologize when they let their guard down and some indignation spills over into the conversation. “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
But this isn’t true. Of course they should feel this way, not because they need to be angry. I don’t know if they should or shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t even matter what they think. The fact is, they are feeling angry; that is what makes the anger real. That is the only truth I know and the only thing they should apologize for—lying to themselves, denying themselves and pretending as if their angry feelings aren’t there.
There’s only one thing you have to do with your feelings of anger or hatred or fear, or any of the “dark emotions”—feel them. Feel your feelings. That’s it, period. If you are pissed off, then feel pissed. If you are feeling outraged, THEN FEEL OUTRAGED.
It doesn’t make you weak, wrong or “unspiritual” (my favorite excuse of all). What makes you weak, wrong or “unspiritual” (whatever that means) is to bypass the dark emotions, deny the anger or lie about your feelings.
Don’t get me wrong; it doesn’t mean you should act on your feelings. Feeling a feeling and acting on a feeling are not the same thing. Case in point: Jimmy Carter. Back in the day, Jimmy Carter caused quite a stir when he admitted to a sin, the sin of adultery. Or, as he said in his Playboy confessional (which strikes me as more problematic then what he said next), “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Really? Last I checked there was only one organ you can commit adultery with, and it’s not your heart.
Lust unchecked may eventually morph into adultery, but the feeling is not adulterous. That is exactly why we need to feel the feelings when they arise. If you feel them when they are happening, you can then listen to them, learn from them, conquer them and use them—yes, use them. Lust is a marvelous feeling; just redirect it to your marriage. Or in the words of my teacher’s grandmother when talking about his grandfather, “I don’t care where your grandpa gets his appetite, as long as he comes home for dinner.” Take that, Jimmy!
The same is true with anger. A child is abused—anger is justified. Rape takes place—anger is demanded. Someone is murdered—anger is a moral response.
The dark emotions, all of them, have their place within our lives. We just have to learn how to pay attention to them, be honest about them, feel them and use them, like Jewish wisdom master the Koretzer Rabbi: “I conquered my anger long ago, and placed it in my pocket. This way I don’t allow it to consume me. And if I need it, I take it out.”
Feel your anger when it’s happening; don’t push it away to deal with another day. Study your anger as it emerges; it holds critical keys to your unique life curriculum. Learn to conquer your anger and put it in your pocket. Then, when something arises that justifies it coming out, you can feel it, you can use it and you can put it away for another day.
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