Ways You Avoid Anger and Why
Updated: Aug 2
Did you know anger is a gift and serves to protect you? In the last post, we looked at Kate’s story and how avoiding anger can cause you to lose yourself and become vulnerable to unhealthy relational patterns and lack the boundaries needed for self-care.
You might not realize that your avoided anger is the hidden culprit behind your current struggles. Avoiding anger does not make it go away. You can ignore it, medicate it, or pretend it does not exist for days, even years at a time. But it will show up in some form, such as anxiety, depression, shame + self-attack, episodes of rage, chronic illness + pain, or a general sense of being stuck or trapped in certain situations and relationships.
The truth is, emotion researchers have proven that emotions are biological realities that occur automatically in our brain and body. Emotions (i.e., anger) are not “right” or “wrong” they’re just emotions. It’s important to listen to them because you can learn from them.
Anger is Scary
The most common reason people avoid their anger is because they are afraid to feel and express their anger. You learn unconscious ways to avoid your emotion of anger because of past painful experiences. You witnessed your parents’ fighting in rage and learned that anger equals harm. There were insults, harsh words, and you were left wondering if that fight was going to be the one when all the shouting would result in someone hitting the other or someone leaving for good.
Perhaps growing up you were punished, belittled, neglected, or abandoned when you expressed anger instead of having a parent who created a safe place to validate and process your emotions in healthy ways. Now as an adult you avoid conflict at all costs and hide your anger.
Maybe your parents would argue and when things got bad, someone would storm out or go to their separate rooms and slam the door. Then eventually things get back to “normal,” yet things feel worse instead of better because you’re left confused, and nothing truly gets communicated or resolved. You lived under a foreboding anxiety of waiting for the next terrible thing to happen.
You brought home good grades, did extra chores around the house, and took care of your siblings hoping it would remove stress so your parents would fight less. Yet despite your best behavior their marriage continued to be toxic. As a young person you do not realize your parents' pain and resentment of each other was not because of what you did or did not do. Now as an adult, you have difficultly communicating, expressing your needs, and setting boundaries because as a child you had to be perfect, perform, and please everyone to avoid disrupting the peace and to prevent your parents from fighting so nobody would leave or get hurt.
The fear of emotional abandonment is very real for those of us who grew up in this type of dysfunctional home environment.
Through my own work in therapy, I’ve had to retrain my brain not to associate arguing or conflictual conversations with my husband to mean emotional abandonment.
Disagreements, differing opinions, changing your mind, and jealousy are all a part of intimacy. Relationships require intimacy and intimacy requires emotion. Every time I get angry with my husband, I experience time and time again his unconditional love and how safe and secure our relationship is. That I will not be punished with the silent treatment or abandoned when we have heated, intense arguments.
Perhaps every time you and your partner or a certain family member have a fight you wonder to yourself…my anger might push them to leave this time. I could lose them if things get bad.
On the other hand, for some of you, emotional intimacy in relationships might trigger fear and you become angry inside because you’re afraid the closeness means you will be swallowed up, lose your independence, be controlled, or unable to protect yourself. This is typically a result of seeing this happen to a parent growing up and vowing it will not happen to you too.
You may be in a romantic relationship where you are experiencing that expressing your anger leads to passive aggressive behavior in your partner like rejection, judgment, the silent treatment, criticism, blaming, and shaming. Or you are prone to unhealthy expressions of anger such as hostility, yelling, and rage and you feel ashamed about hurting the one you love.
Another reason why you might fear your anger is because you were taught false church doctrine that anger is a sin. For a list of false beliefs about God and anger and what scripture does say about anger read the pervious post, When Anger is a Gift.
Andrea, I Feel Stuck
In my clinical psychotherapy practice, most of my clients do not seek counseling for anger management issues related to an inability to control their temper. Clients do not say, “I have unresolved anger” or “I am avoiding my deep-seated anger toward my mother when my spouse does not spend time with me” or “I am anxious because of my buried anger towards my boss.” Rather, they struggle with overwhelm, insomnia, depression, and anxiety-related symptoms and tell me, “I feel stuck.”
Stuck is a sign to me that my client is avoiding their anger.
If you keep repeating the same unhealthy behavior and thinking patterns over again or find yourself in one-sided relationships, or you say yes when you really mean no – you will get stuck. Your stuck-ness could be related to a friend, partner, colleague, or family member.
Many clients say to me, “Andrea, what good is it going to do to let myself be angry about it? I can’t change this person. What’s done is done. I just want to put it behind me and move on.”
I explain, “Of course you do. But the irony is that what is keeping you stuck is how you avoid your anger. If you let yourself be angry, it will help you to heal, gain clarity, and the confidence to move on, because it will free up all that energy that you’re using to push those angry feelings away.”
For those of you who grew up in a dysfunctional home, you did not have a choice to be angry, but now as an adult, you always have the choice to be angry and to leave a bad situation when necessary. In more extreme cases, if you’re afraid you’ll end up like your parents who were trapped in a loveless or toxic marriage stuck and unable to leave - seek therapy so you are not alone in dealing with your anger-related fears.
Maybe you have a good relationship with your partner, but at the cost of continually neglecting your needs. Even though you know in your heart your partner does not have the same hurtful traits your parents had, you’re afraid any expression of anger will spiral out of control and create misery.
In either case, be honest with yourself about your anger and what you need, or else you’re going to feel stuck in or out of a relationship.
The first step to getting unstuck is to identify the specific ways you avoid your anger.
Anger is avoided in several ways: Through anxiety, using Thought Defenses, by detaching, and through sadness. Essentially, fearing your anger away, thinking your anger away, running away from your anger, or crying your anger away.
Let’s look at anxiety first. You can cover your anger with anxiety.
These are common anxiety responses to feeling anger that show up in session with my clients:
“I feel tense.”
“I will ruin my relationships.”
“I will become a violent person.”
“I will be abandoned.”
“I’ll say something cruel and hurt someone I love.”
“I will never stop being angry.”
“I will lose control.”
They do not yet know the difference between their anger from their anxiety. I help them understand the anxiety triggered by the anger. I say to my clients: “Do you see how when anger shows up, you become anxious? Your anxiety is covering your anger.” Remember, you did not invite this anxiety, you learned to fear anger growing up. Once you explore what specifically seems to be your anxiety about being angry, you can begin to feel your anger and give it a voice. I might ask:
“What if you really allowed yourself to feel what you’re feeling, without holding it back?”
“What’s the worst, scariest, and most difficult thing that could happen if you feel your anger?”
“What would happen if you let the lid off your anger a little bit? If you allowed yourself to be furious at this person rather than feel anxious?
“You want so much to be angry. What is your body feeling right now? What images toward this person come up with the feeling of anger?” What do you want to say or do to this person?”
It is important to know that what comes out, does not mean you have to say it to them. That is something to be figured out later. The first step is letting your anger out and giving it a voice.
It may feel like you will lose control or hurt someone, but you are only hurting yourself. You will be OK. In fact, the real difficulty is to stay with the anger until it is worked through. The problem is anger can feel so bad that most people want to run from, it rather than stay with it.
We all have feelings of anger. These feelings are not actions. You are not hurting anyone by feeling your anger and it can help you. It’s important to make peace with your anger and learn to listen to it. As my clients’ experience anger in the safe place of our therapy session, they feel safe and known. Anger was not safe before.
I help my clients look at what their anger is telling them and not to fear it, but to embrace it as a God-given gift that leads to healing, freedom from fear, and happy relationships.
Thinking Your Anger Away
The second way you avoid anger is by thinking your anger away. I call these, Thought Defenses. Thought defenses are the specific ways you unconsciously avoid your anger by thinking your anger away. For example, you think instead of feel, and you do not know the difference between your thoughts and feelings of anger. Thought Defenses against anger can look like intellectualizing, rationalizing, and reasoning.
Because of your Thought Defenses, you do not know what you are feeling. It takes practice to see your Thought Defenses and learn to let go of them before you can access your feeling of anger. Your Thought Defenses cover your anger.
Here are common examples of Thought Defenses shared by my clients when I ask them about their feelings of anger:
I feel like leaving my job.
I feel like my spouse doesn’t understand me.
I feel confused.
I feel they did that because of their childhood.
I feel stuck.
I feel like I should just get over it.
I feel betrayed.
I feel like my prayers aren't working.
I feel scattered.
ALL of these are thoughts. Not one of them is a feeling.
For example, when I ask a client how they feel toward their spouse, they respond, “I feel like my spouse doesn’t understand me.” This is a statement of thought rather than an expression of emotion. The underlying emotion to the thought statement in this case was anger towards their spouse.
Expressing anger in intimate relationships creates anxiety for this person due to past painful experiences where they learned expressing anger leads to harm or abandonment. Expressing anger in this case can look like, “I’m pissed at my spouse that every time I share how I feel, he turns it into a debate and somehow it becomes about him…I could just slap him! I can’t stand to be around him sometimes.”
Another client is feeling stuck at work because their boss is treating them poorly. When I ask them, “what are you feeling toward your boss?” they respond, “I feel like leaving my job.” This, too, is not a feeling; it’s a thought. It is what they want to do, not how they feel. This client believes they are being taken advantage of and have anger toward their boss, but they are afraid to feel anger and admit it to themselves because they are fearing it means they are weak or incapable. Or they might lose their job if they say how they really feel because they have no other options and don’t know how to resolve the situation. This person is angry with their boss for setting unrealistic expectations, being manipulative, and by threatening their job.
I say to my client: “If your anger is this strong, there must be a reason for it. Let’s explore it to see what part of it comes from your past relationships, and what part may be justifiable anger toward your boss. Can you go back to your feeling of anger and describe to me what you are feeling? Later we’ll talk over what needs to be done in reality to make your work situation better.
Another client’s mother-in-law keeps pushing her boundaries. I ask, “how do you feel toward your mother-in-law?” A client might say, “I feel confused about my mother-in-law’s behavior,” which is also not a feeling but a thought. Once her anger feeling does emerge, we can explore it.
As the therapist, I respond: “I understand. Maybe if you could just stay with those feelings for a while, you could find out what part of your anger is justified, and what part is the hurt part. We can talk later about how to handle your difficult mother-in-law. But now let’s just stay with how angry you become and what the feelings mean.” This helps the client refrain from overthinking how to fix the issue and puts the focus back on their anger.
Next time you feel angry toward someone in your life, ask yourself what your Thought Defenses are and learn to know the difference between your thoughts and feelings toward this person. Give yourself permission to be angry and express it so you can gain clarity, confidence, and begin to heal.
Crying Your Anger Away
Another way you can avoid your anger is through crying your anger away. Yes, even other feelings such as sadness can be a way to avoid your anger.
For example, a client’s partner has cheated on her with a colleague by having an emotional affair. When I ask my client how she feels towards her partner, she responds, “I feel sad” as tears fall down her cheek. Sadness in this case is the feeling between her and herself, not the feeling of anger toward her partner. The sadness covers her anger. By uncovering her anger and beginning to feel it, she can take the necessary steps to face her greatest fears, find healing and gain clarity on how to handle the cheating partner and what this means for their relationship.
I help my clients understand how their tears are actually them avoiding their anger because in this case it is easier to feel sad than it is to feel anger.
Running Away from Your Anger
The final way you can avoid your anger is by running away through detaching and disconnecting. As soon as anger shows up, you shut down internally or leave the room. My clients will say: “How I dread talking about my anger. I just want to run.” When asked about their anger they might also respond: “I feel detached.” “I feel numb.” “I feel disconnected.” “I feel empty.” “I don’t know.”
Even though they want to shut down, I respond: “It feels like there is part of you that is holding back the anger. I know this is difficult, but can you try to not run away? Can you stay with the feeling of anger? What if you allowed yourself to really have your anger? To let the brakes off a little more?”
As my clients learn to feel their anger by no longer fearing and avoiding anger, they experience relief from anxiety and freedom from toxic relationships and self-sabotaging behaviors.
It takes time to help my clients identify their Thought Defenses that are covering their anger. The same goes for you.
Anger Toward You: Shame and Self-Attack
Many of my client’s unknowingly direct their anger toward themselves rather than the person they are angry with, which can result in symptoms of anxiety and depression and even chronic illness. Most of you spent your childhood and adolescence in an emotionally unstable environment and were made to believe you were the problem. Now, when you get angry, it’s easier to blame yourself even when it is not your fault. I’m not saying do not take responsibility for your role in the relationship or for your actions, I’m saying to show up and use your voice effectively, set boundaries, and express your needs.
A client is upset with her partner for allowing his friends to come over unannounced to their home because she is an introvert and needs her home to be a space where she can fully let down and have privacy. She says, “I’m tired of bumping into one of his friends in the kitchen when I’m trying make dinner. Sometimes I’m even in my pajamas. Also, I don’t want to have a conversation in those moments, I want to be left alone!”
I ask her about how she feels towards her partner, and she says: “He’s so nice and it means a lot to him to be around his friends.” She is offering a thought about him rather than how she is feeling anger toward him. I respond: “I understand. How do you feel toward him when his friends just stop by?” She says, “When I imagine getting angry with him, I feel so mean!”
I respond: “Do you see how as soon as angry feelings come up, you turn them around and attack yourself? So, I’m going to ask you to just put all that aside for now and let yourself have your feeling of anger. We’ll come back later and work on how it makes you feel about yourself.”
Once she learns how she avoids her anger through self-attack she can explore what her anger makes her feel like doing and saying to her partner in the safety of my therapy office. She realizes how living with her self-attack and shame is costing her. She feels relieved and says, “I’m crying because of the years I’ve spent being so hard on myself. I feel lighter. I feel relief.” By having healthy ways to communicate her anger towards her partner she can have boundaries in place to protect her self-care without feeling mean or criticizing herself.
Two additional ways I see my clients turn their anger inward by shame and self-attack is through the defenses of spiritualizing and minimizing. Spiritualizing away your anger looks like: “I should be grateful to God for where I am.” “He is teaching me a lesson.” “God has already done so much for me.” “My faith must not be strong.” “My relationship with God should be enough.” Essentially you are not being real with yourself (and God) about the anger and pain you are really experiencing. Even your anger towards God.
You cannot grow spiritually beyond where you are stuck emotionally. Faith can grow out of anger.
Minimizing away your anger looks like: “It’s not that bad.” “It could be worse” (comparing one’s situation to another’s). “It’s not a big deal.” In this way you are reducing and undervaluing the severity of your anger and its significance.
In both instances, you are internalizing your anger by believing the lie that something is wrong with you.
The ability to tolerate your anger allows you to reduce the shame you feel about your anger and what you really want to say or do to in a relationship with someone who has hurt or upset you. Processing your anger also reduces your tendency to act out your anger in unhealthy ways such as hostility, yelling, and rage. Or by turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms to soothe such as food, alcohol, pills, TV, and social media to numb your emotion of anger.
Give yourself grace, compassion, and permission to be unashamedly honest about how you feel. Remember, anger is not right or wrong or sinful, it’s a God-given emotion that is a gift and serves to protect you when you learn from it and deal with it effectively.
An Exercise for You
Which ways of avoiding anger do you most relate to? This realization is an important first step.
Next, name the person in your life you feel anger toward. Say the specific things that have hurt or upset you. Allow yourself to pause and sit with your anger.
How do you experience the emotion of anger in your body? Make the choice to stay in the moment and feel your anger. What images come up?
While you are alone, as part of this exercise, speak to this person as if they are in the room, and tell them what you honestly think and feel about them and what they have done. What do you say to them?
Consider a trusted friend you can call and share with them how you feel toward this person. The purpose of this exercise is for you to express your feelings of anger by releasing them in a safe environment so they now longer hold you captive.
Anger Heals You
Your avoided anger has always been there making everything harder than it should be. Many people spend decades living in repressed anger and lose themselves. Expressing anger in healthy ways allows you to make room in your heart to love more deeply and more freely without fear of people leaving or hurting you if I get angry. Communicating your anger allows you to feel better afterwards, not worse.
The reality is that experiencing anger in your closest relationships is normal and to be expected. Facing your deepest fears and learning from anger allows you and the other person to develop mutual understanding, affection, tender conversations, and a genuine desire to understand the other person. It's going to take time, and work, and patience with yourself and from your partner to unpack your anger.
Friends say to me, “You and Dan are perfect for each other, you don’t fight. And you’re a therapist!” Of course, we fight. We show our anger differently, but we learn from one another. We treat each other as the most precious and valuable people. Dan is stable and dependable and he's always willing to pursue me with open arms when I hurt him (his unconditional love brings tears to my eyes as I write this). I’ve learned I will not be abandoned or given the silent treatment when I express anger. He’s learned that his anger does not mean he is going to be punished or that he is selfish or wrong but loved even more. We both experience healing from childhood wounds. Healing is hard work and sometimes includes therapy for me.
Deep-seated anger is not something you consciously choose to feel. Often it requires the expertise of a therapist. Someone who treats your story like sacred ground and is committed to help you heal.
Whew! That was a LONG post. Thanks for sticking with it.
Now that you have learned the specific ways you avoid anger, the good news is that you can deal with it! In the next post, I will be sharing practical tips and tools to deal with anger such as how to use your voice, set boundaries, express your needs, and what self-care looks like.
The examples in this post are fictional composites based on the author's clinical experience with hundreds of clients through the years. All names are 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.