Anger in the Family
By Layla A. Asamarai
August 24, 2005
A burning ball of fire, an electric shock that conquers all, a darkness, a mania, an explosion, a ripping of one’s heart. There are many expressions that we use to describe one of the most primal and controlling emotions that humans experience— anger. One of the reasons why I am addressing anger is because as Muslims experience more pain and oppression, the accumulation of unresolved anger has the potential of becoming harmful to the person harboring it and to others.
To begin, let me point out that although anger is natural, that does not mean that it is healthy or worth cultivating. In my work as a psychotherapist with individuals who struggle with anger, I have come to understand the toxic nature of anger. Anger “management” is a societal concept that says “we aren’t asking you to get rid of your anger; we ask that you learn to manage it so it is not a public liability.” This is a very important concept; however, for a person struggling with anger, it doesn’t validate the pain and doesn’t resolve the anger.
Sadness + Frustration = Anger
The story of anger begins in its hidden roots. Anger is what naturally happens when we experience sadness or disappointment. After this sadness stage, if we realize that we cannot change our emotional or life state and fear that our gloom will prevail, we get frustrated! I have found that some clients are afraid of their sadness. They are afraid of crying, some because they’re afraid they will never be able to stop; meanwhile others may be afraid that no one will understand their pain. Sadness is a vulnerable state that people fear; however, without some vulnerability, we become unapproachable and we lose our very human beauty. Sadness attracts people’s natural inclinations towards help and understanding; conversely, anger overpowers the message that is being expressed by the angry person. When a person is shouting on a street corner, people mostly notice the anger and stay clear of him or her. A sad person weeping attracts others to try to understand the story of his or her sadness. A person expressing sadness gets his or her pain attended to; people tell the story of their pain. People observing an angry person will better describe to you how the person yelled and what he or she physically did, instead of his or her plight and the voice of his or her pain.
How Anger Prevails
Now that we evaluate the general premises under which anger is cultivated, let us make use of this understanding. It is often thought that individuals who experience and express greater levels of anger have a nervous defect or are weak and flawed. I strongly disagree with this judgmental approach for understanding why some individuals struggle. For some, the process of letting go to Allah or even to gain the help and guidance of others around us is easier than it is for others. Some have had more supportive upbringings where they could be helped if in trouble and the help was mostly dependable and adequate. However, for those who have not learned to lean on anyone or who have leaned only to fall through weak or absent arms, there hasn’t been a learned process of relieving that frustration and sharing the sadness, and so they are more inclined towards anger. Talking about anger in this way is not meant to ignite one’s pains about the past. Instead it is meant to help to help detach negative judgments about why one person struggles with anger more than another.
You Are Not Your Anger
Anger is not a fixed trait like eye color! It is a learned behavior that was likely in some way adaptive for survival in childhood. Adulthood is about “thrival,” not so much survival, as we are no longer vulnerable to adults as we were when we were minor children. What was adaptive then (in childhood) is likely no longer adaptive in adulthood. People struggling with anger ought not focus their energy on feeling ashamed of the anger, as anger does not define them!
Free at Last
Getting free from the shackles of this destructive emotion requires that individuals evaluate anger’s hold on them. Understanding sensitive issues that trigger a strong frustrated response is vital to breaking the seemingly automatic process in which anger is unleashed. Learning to lean on healthy people and allow others to help you is also vital to finding a healthy way to express frustration. It is always a good idea to practice talking about disappointments and frustrations and to listen to other people’s caring responses. We need to learn to give to Allah issues that we don’t know how to resolve, so that we behaviorally illustrate our understanding of what we can and cannot reasonably do and submit ourselves to a higher and stronger power.
Undoing anger’s ties is not something that is automatic or necessarily easy. It is a process that takes time to accomplish, and because I have seen it happen, I do believe that it is possible. Because undoing anger’s ties takes time, I would encourage the following from the Hadith: Upon experiencing anger, we are encouraged to sit if we are standing; lie down if that doesn’t work; make wudu’ if that doesn’t work; and perform prayer (salah) if that doesn’t work. Through this physical process of submitting our will to our Creator, we progressively release anger’s deafening hold.
I am naturally a supporter of mental health counseling; however, I believe that at the forefront of all healing are therapeutic family, friendship, and community ties. If and when those naturally instilled therapeutic relationships are not enough to support the growth that needs to occur, then counseling is usually a viable option. It is possible to be free of anger. There is no such thing as an angry person; rather, we are all people who at varying degrees struggle with angry emotions. It is to our betterment if we can learn to ban anger from speaking for us, acting for us, and being us! There is so much that we are and so much that we aspire to be, that it is a shame for us to define ourselves by the very emotion that smothers our voices and only extends hurt, fear, and pain to others.