How Anger Helped Julie Overcome Anxiety
Updated: Aug 2
This is the final post in the series on anger. Read the first three posts here: When Anger is a Gift, Ways You Avoid Anger and Why, How to Deal with Anger and Set Boundaries. Today I'm sharing Julie's story which reveals a powerful truth you can apply to your own life to help with anxiety. Julie* sat on my sofa anxious and confused. She expressed how she was introduced through a mutual friend at her church to a lovely man named Liam, whom she began dating. She shared how she was having an enjoyable time and was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did they share their faith, which was extremely important to her, but his values and morals also matched her own in very specific ways. She said that he was an attorney and had also earned a doctorate in theology and volunteered in the prayer ministry at church. Julie very much enjoyed their intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical conversations. She was delighted because these qualities in a relationship were desires of her heart. Liam looked good on paper. He was everything she was looking for in a future husband. But she was acutely aware, each time they were together, that she felt no spark, no chemistry. Yet she continued to go on dates with him and hoped the chemistry would come. “I should just give it time,” she rationalized.
Simultaneously, she began to develop underlying symptoms of anxiety. She experienced nausea, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and she was not sleeping well at night. Each time she would describe her dates with Liam, she did not seem excited and spent more time trying to convince herself what a great man he was for her. When I brought this up, she said she felt a tinge of guilt about not being more excited about the relationship. I came to realize in the session that the emotion hidden underneath her anxiety was anger. When I asked her, “What do you want?” she responded, “I don’t know, but I feel stuck and trapped.” She felt as if she had to keep dating Liam, even though there was no chemistry on her end. After more work together she discovered a lie that at a deep level she believed it was her fault that there was no chemistry, so she had to push herself to keep dating him until the chemistry came. After all, he appeared on the outside to be everything she was praying for and looking for in a potential spouse. She also spiritualized her emotions away by saying she should be grateful for this relationship and asking if this was God’s will for her. Therefore, she concluded she must be missing something or doing something wrong. Additionally, the feeling that she was trapped was rooted in shame based on some history repeating itself from her abusive childhood. Because the abusive episodes inflicted on her by her father were unpredictable in nature, and he told her she’d done something wrong, Julie felt trapped. In between the abusive episodes she felt ashamed, believing it was her fault, and was trying to figure out how to prevent the next one from happening. She ran in circles asking herself what she did wrong and how she could fix it. It was the same internal dialogue and unconscious pattern occurring while dating Liam. But as an adult, the reality was that Julie was not actually trapped. But her worry-brain did not know the difference, because at some deep level it felt the same. It was not safe to feel the anger toward her father as a child for abusing her. In her relationship with Liam, the more she ignored her anger, the more anxious she became. Anxiety was the symptom that told her something was wrong. She had internalized and absorbed her anger, which manifested in anxiety. As I mentioned in a previous post, anger is designed to be externalized, felt, and acted on as a protective mechanism by giving it a voice and setting a boundary. Julie had learned to drown out her heart and intuition by coming up with reasons as to why there was no chemistry: “Maybe I am too picky or maybe my expectations are too high.” “Maybe chemistry is not that important.” “Maybe I am not ready to date.” “Maybe my heart is not really open.” Ignoring her true feelings by overthinking was consuming her thoughts, draining her energy, and creating unnecessary suffering. Throughout our sessions together, Julie realized that none of the above scenarios she had considered were true; they were based in shame and a fear of never finding a man she would want to marry. The reality was that she was very much open to dating. There was no block or issue hindering her. And she was certainly not expecting too much or being too picky. Her shame of feeling as if there was something wrong with her was masking what was missing in her relationship: chemistry, joy, excitement. She was doubting herself and not acknowledging that she was wise, strong, and capable of making healthy choices based on her heart’s desires, because at some deep level she didn’t trust them. She said, “I did not realize I was angry with Liam. Even though our lack of chemistry is not his fault, I’m still angry with him.” After acknowledging her anger toward Liam, she was able to identify things he had said to her that irritated her and she had brushed off as no big deal. “I am also angry with God and was feeling ashamed about that. Why can’t he answer my prayers?”
Julie was able to see the connection between her avoided anger and believing she was stuck and trapped. She was also able to see the link between feeling anxious (headaches, nausea, insomnia, and so forth) and saying what she really wanted. Pointing out her guilt over not having chemistry with Liam led her to identify her true desires. She confidently said, “I know what I want now. I want to end the relationship with Liam.” Julie stated how freeing it was once she made the decision to call Liam and thank him for the lovely dates and let him know that she did not feel a spark or chemistry and wished him the best in his future dating endeavors. The wisdom gained from acknowledging and expressing her anger through having a voice with Liam set her free from her suffering related to her anxiety, toxic overthinking, and shame. Julie had gained the tools to identify her anger by not turning in on herself and trying to figure out what she did wrong. She chose to live in the reality of the present moment and not a possible future chemistry. During Julie’s final session, she explained how her previous therapist was not able to help her identify her hidden anger. She said the cognitive behavioral therapy sessions used by this therapist only provided a rational, conscious approach to her dating dilemma with Liam. She said the emotional processing she experienced in our sessions was just as important as identifying her cognitive distortions. In fact, it helped her understand them even more. Her healing went far beyond the Liam issue that brought her into therapy in the first place. She gained a deeper understanding of herself that she could carry with her throughout all areas of her life. Ultimately, addressing Julie’s underlying anger gave her valuable information that will protect her from entering unhealthy situations and relationships in the future, as well as the ability to trust herself and follow her intuition.
Where your anger resides, there you will discover buried wounds that need to be healed and unresolved issues that need to be addressed.
Anger can be channeled into appropriate actions that help you, not hurt you. Anger is an emotion that occurs automatically in your brain and body, which means it is part of how God created you. It is how you deal with anger that makes a difference.
*The example of Julie in this post is a fictional composite based on the author's clinical experience with hundreds of clients through the years. The name is invented, and any resemblance between fictional characters and actual persons is coincidental.
The content for this blog post has been taken from chapter 11 (A Protection Against Cuckoos, The Gift of Anger) of Andrea’s book, The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
The photo accompanying this article was sourced from istock and is in the public domain.