by Harvey Wasserman
Our anger destroys our loved ones
For each man kills the thing he loves – Oscar Wilde
Let me present a radical and difficult idea. Anger, especially rage, has no place in an intimate relationship, no place with children, no place between partners, lovers, husbands and wives.
The intimate relationship between a man and a woman is a setting where rage and anger are totally harmful and inappropriate. What is necessary is the sharing of emotions, as part of clear and honest communication. Since anger is mainly based on fear and emotional pain, partners should be expressing fear and emotional pain. If there is love, the partner will respond compassionately. We care about those we love if they are frightened, we care about those we love when they are in pain. If this does not happen, the relationship is extremely troubled. A partner who cannot respond identifies a doomed relationship. Compassion for your partner’s fear and pain is dramatically healing.
If you have been in a relationship contaminated by deep anger, problems rarely get solved: negative reactions can last for hours, days, months, even indefinitely. In situations where the communication about a problem is clear, simple, honest and compassionate, problems are solved quickly. They are listened to because compassion is the music of love. Content can be heard, but shared compassionate emotion must take precedence over content. Then content can be responded to constructively. You are no longer afraid to speak up. The time of living in the misery of endless, futile, battling anger is diminished, even ended.
There is only one truly legitimate reason for anger, and such anger is called entitlement anger. Let me explain. Anger is devised by nature to raise our ability to enter into combat, or perhaps to flee in the face of an attack on vital aspects of our life. Anger is designed to be there if somebody tries to harm you or your children. Anger is there to help you if someone wants to destroy your means of livelihood. When an angry mother grizzly bear rises on her hind legs to her full 10 muscular feet it is because she is there to protect her baby from a perceived danger. All this is entitlement anger. Most of what we call anger is really covering fear and pain. People feel energised and powerful in anger; gone is the vulnerability of fear and emotional pain. Intimate murderers are deeply hurt; they kill in the anger that buries their emotional pain. If a stranger is angry, that’s just unpleasant. But with a lover, a close friend, a parent, we are open and vulnerable at a very deep level. Anger that penetrates to that level sears our very essence, sears and burns our soul and leaves scars that may never heal.
Rage in relationships is usually, but not exclusively, a male expression. A raging father has devastating effects. Children become afraid of their father. It can produce in girls an antipathy to the entire male gender. Great anger plus intimacy is devastating. The devastated partner looses self esteem and becomes afraid of doing anything that will bring forth the rage. Love and respect wither. Marital fights are usually power struggles, and raging power struggles resolve nothing. Intimacy anger is incredibly powerful and destructive to those who care about you, to those whom you say you love.
In a lot of families that I work with, the father’s anger has been the dominant factor in family life. The wife often is depressed and intimidated. The children’s self esteem is low. They escape from the family as soon as they are old enough. John and his wife and five children came to see me. I was amazed at the ferocity and intensity of John’s rage. He was totally unaware of the intensity of his rage and the devastating effect it had on his family. However, basically he was a caring person, and so he quickly copped on and got his anger under control. He listened more and understood what was happening in his family. He became a sensitive and emotionally reactive father. Great healing took place in the family. After family therapy, I have seen several of the children who were deeply scarred by their father’s earlier “rage parenting”.
With parents who won’t change, if they are addicted to their anger, the family will continue to deteriorate or disintegrate. When the offending parent, the raging, outrageous parent, is aware and shocked at the intense effect their anger has and wants to do something about it, almost immediately that awareness begins to diminish their anger. For a while they are confused and do not know the best way to interact and respond to those close to them. With time and a bit of therapeutic help they find other ways of dealing with family problems and are delighted with a happier communicating and co-operating family.
If you know someone who has problems with intense anger in any situation, or if you have problems yourself, here is a simple exercise which may help: When you are alone allow yourself to bring up or remember a situation that produced intense anger. Let yourself go into it as strongly and powerfully as you can and then look at yourself in a mirror. You may be shocked. Make a tape recording of your anger and sense what it feels like to receive such toxic emotion. The following exercise may also be helpful. Every day when you are alone, let loose your anger for 30 or 45 seconds, feel the full intensity of it. Then drop the anger and let your mind go to some beautiful, peaceful wonderful experience — a beautiful sunset or a field of flowers. Always stay in the positive mental state for at least five or 10 times longer than the anger.
Your anger is deeply encoded in the pathways of your mind. You are attempting to restructure those pathways. Repeat this over and over again for about five or 10 minutes each day. Current research with brain imaging shows that even as we get older there is a phenomenon that is called neuroplasticity. This simply means that the pathways in your mind can be changed. Dramatic awareness makes it possible for those pathways to change. In a small percentage of people anger can be secondary to physical, medical and neurological problems, so a work-up from your General Practitioner may also be useful.
Fear has no place in our lives
We have nothing to fear but fear itself — President Roosevelt
The good news is that there is nothing to be afraid of. The bad news is that controlling fear, moving through fear and eliminating fear, is not a simple or easy task. Decreasing the control that fear has in your life by only 10%, improves the quality of your life 100%. Here are four steps towards eliminating fear from your life:
Step 1: Admit that you are afraid. Many people bury their fears, yet when you are unaware of your fear, it can have massive, powerful control over your life.
Step 2: Don’t be judgmental about your fear. You need to accept it as part of your existence, as something you have to learn to deal with more effectively or to eliminate. No one wants to be afraid: we all come by our fear naturally. If you beat yourself up, if you have contempt for yourself because you are afraid, your energy goes into traumatizing yourself, not into facing this fundamental life concern.
Step 3: Make a heartfelt decision that you will not allow fear to control your life. You will not allow fear to make the decisions that direct your existence. The courage to face your fears comes from fear wisdom. This is the belief that not facing fear is more dangerous than moving forward in the face of this unpleasant emotion. We just want fear to go away.
Step 4: Do anything you can to eliminate the fear that is within you. No one gets through this life without fear. We all have to face fear if we are going to improve the quality of our existence. It is very easy to down your fear in alcohol. The unpleasant sensation goes away, but the fear goes into hiding, where fear has awesome power.
As children we are born without the ability to take care of ourselves or to understand what out world is all about. Negative experiences, traumatic experiences lay down fear pathways in the evolving brain that are much like ruts left by wagon wheels on a muddy road. These pathways have no sense of time. What might have made some sense to be afraid of as a child, no longer makes sense as an adult. Our minds react as if the fear was valid in present time. This timelessness of fear gives it great power. Fear is necessary for children, but it is totally unnecessary in adult life. Children don’t have judgement, knowledge or power. We as humans have such a long period of dependency and helplessness in learning about the world around us that there much time for trauma and false learning to engrave a deep sense of fear.
Imagine that there was a beam of wood on the floor of your living room and I ask you to walk across the living room balanced on that beam of wood. You are very likely to be able to do this. Now imagine the beam was suspended in the air over the Grand Canyon and I ask you to walk across it. You would probably fall off. Did your fear help you to survive? It did not. Fear in the face of danger very often decreases the flexibility and speed of your ability to protect yourself. The Inuit in their traditional culture learn to laugh in situations where we would feel afraid. Their environment is an extremely dangerous one.
Fear is one of the main culprits in human suffering and dysfunction. The more you allow fear to run your life, the lower your self esteem will sink. The more you face your fear, the more you eliminate fears, the more self esteem you enjoy. Decrease fear and your independence increases: your creativity and energy increase. Fritz Perls, the developer of Gestalt psychotherapy, defines fear as your life force, your life energy that has gotten constricted by future fantasies of disaster.
What are we afraid of? We are afraid of loss, of death. We also fear abandonment, embarrassment, shame and humiliation. These are the little deaths, the little murders. Fear is meant for survival, but for an adult it is useless. There is nothing to be afraid of. There are certainly things to be dealt with, but that’s different. Dealing is not fearing.
What can we do about this gremlin of fear? Moving forward in the face of fear is certainly useful but often it will not make the fear go away. Exercise is extremely helpful. Twenty-five minutes of aerobic exercise four or five times a week will almost immediately drop your levels of fear and anxiety. Aerobic simply means huffing and puffing. Meditation has been known for thousands of years to decrease anxiety and fear. I have developed a form of meditation that is effective and simple. Instead of trying to control your thoughts, you allow your thoughts to do what ever they will. Sit in a relaxed and comfortable position. Attempt not to move and attempt not to swallow (you don’t want to do this after eating). Attempting not to swallow sounds rather strange but with a little practice, it’s easy and comfortable to do. This is not an exercise in perfection, so no self criticism if you move or swallow. Simply try not to move or swallow. Take 10 minutes now, attempt not to move and not to swallow. If you feel relaxed, increase mediation to 10-20 minutes twice daily. Breath work is also helpful – send me a note and I will mail you an effective healing exercise.
Sometimes patients stop these exercises before they are healed, yet knowing that they help. Why? From fear of all the possibilities that are now available, and from fear and of moving away from a familiar though troubled life style. That’s how fearful we can be.
The curse of depression
My grief’s so great… here I and sorrows sit – Shakespeare
Have you ever awakened one morning with a feeling of low energy, not really wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to do very much, pessimistic about your life? Your low mood may have lasted a few hours, a day or even several days. If it’s severe depression, you actually may not get out of bed; or you may not be able to get yourself to do anything. The symptoms of depression are: a loss of energy, a loss of interest in many important aspects of life, a decrease in hope about the future. Your mind is pre-occupied with negative thoughts about yourself and your environment. There may be a loss of appetite or massive overeating. Insomnia or long hours in bed are common. You probably stay up late and sleep late.
What causes human beings to descend in that state of hell called depression? There are many. By far the most common causes of depression are when powerful emotions are buried. Emotions are psychological events with biological components. The word emotion translated from the Latin means ‘to move out’. They are powerful sources of energy which if not discharged can cause problems. The most common cause of depression that I see in Ireland is emotional pain. Emotional pain arises when hurt is done to the part of us that loves – our heart. When this hurt is powerful, or beyond our awareness, or not discharged, it shuts down the life force. Emotional pain is not the only emotion that can cause this level of misery. Any of the emotions can. The main emotions are: fear, emotional pain, anger, sadness, love, joy, sex and spirituality. All mishandled emotions can produce depression.
Depression is a universal human phenomenon. There are times of well-being, and times of mild depression in most people, at some time during a year. Depression is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms) not a disease in itself. It has many causes. Depression can be caused by toxins, such as copper poisoning. It can be caused by cerebral allergies, commonly wheat or milk. It can be caused by medical illness, such as hypothyroidism. Brain tumours can cause depression. And brain deterioration can appear first as depression. Epilepsy is usually thought of as causing convulsions of the muscle, but there is a type of epilepsy where the electrical disorder is in parts of the brain that have to do with emotions, and can thus appear as depression. Many viruses, even the common flu, can cause depression. There are genetic depressions such as manic depressive illness. Failure of psychotherapeutic and biochemical treatment of depression is often due to ignorance of the underlying cause.
By far the main cause of depression is psychological. Some of these can be treated with psychotherapy. When a basic belief system at the centre of somebody’s life proves to be false, depression is often the result: “If I am a good loving wife my partner will be grateful”. “I always wanted to be a musician but I’m trapped in a salaried job”. Often the best treatment is short-term use of anti-depressants along with powerful and deep psychotherapy.
Let me give you some examples:
Case 1. This is from my own life. When I reached the age of 40 I went through a mild depression. I was leading a successful life, was a Professor at Yale, had a busy and lucrative private practice, a nice home, great vacations, a wife and two children. Yet at times my energy level was down. I was frequently preoccupied with negative thoughts, including thoughts about death. Finally I discovered why. At the age of 40 I had lived and carried out all the tasks of life that my mother had programmed in me. I had finished my programming. It took me about two years to find new directions in my life that expressed who I, Harvey, really was. Once I did that, the depression disappeared.
Case 2. A 40-year-old handsome and intelligent woman was more than moderately depressed. She had two lovely children and a stable marriage. Her husband was a good man who worked hard, supported her and did not abuse her or the children in any way. But she needed somebody to share her emotions with, a friend whom she could intimately communicate with. This was not her husband. This caused her extreme pain. She descended into depression. In psychotherapy she realised her marriage was totally unsatisfactory. She began a self-supporting career, divorced her husband, not in anger but for her emotional well-being.
Case 3. A 20-year-old brilliantly sarcastic and cynical man came to me. A failed suicide attempt had confined him to a wheelchair. He had just attempted a second suicide. He let slip that he had been a very spiritual and idealistic child but was disillusioned by all he saw. He had buried his spiritual self. Teaching him a few simple spiritual exercises restored him. The change was dramatic. He became pleasant, returned to college, graduated with honours. He moved on to a successful career and a happy marriage.
Case 4. A uniquely Irish depression occurred in a man who was religious and brilliant. It took six months to figure out his depression: “Everything is easy for me – everyone else struggles and suffers.” He felt a true Christian should struggle and suffer. It took a few months to convince him that being gifted – a genius – was nothing to be arrogant or ashamed of, but to be humbly appreciated and used. His depression thankfully vanished.
If you choose to look for buried emotion simply say out loud, “I don’t want to feel my fear.” Pause, repeat with pain, then about anger, love, joy, sensuality, spirituality. If you sense a body or mind reaction that an emotion is strong and well hidden, there are self-help books and treatment programmes that can teach you to release the dammed-up emotions causing your suffering. Research has shown that aerobic exercise about 25 minutes a day produces measurable positive changes in brain chemistry, relieving depression.
A closed heart permits you to function, but removes much of the joy of life, resulting in a kind of mild depression. Place the palm of your hand on the middle of your sternum – or breast bone, about 1/3 of the length of your sternum from the bottom of the sternum. Eyes closed, imagine this place under your palm for one minute- then in the same place imagine a most beautiful scene for one minute. This should result in a strong, pleasurable feeling of happiness – your closed heart that just opened. Repeating this exercise will put you on the path to an open heart.
Dr Harvey Wasserman is a former Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University College of Medicine, who now lives in Ireland and runs a counselling clinic in Galway.