“Rebellion”: I think French Revolution, bayonets, chaos in the streets, the masses rising up in the face of injustices perpetuated for far too long. I imagine overt, gruesome details of foreign movie notoriety – the kind of violence that actually keeps you awake at night, not the sensationalized world of special effects. To me, rebellion connotes class warfare, slave revolts, and the overdue response to oppression and persecution. Rebels seem courageous, romanticized, morally-motivated risk takers (if they’re on the right side of history). They’re the Tiananmen Square protesters of 1989; the Buddhist monks in Myanmar; the Harriet Tubmans and Rosa Parks’ of the world. They believe in a cause more than they fear death, and the status quo won’t do.
But there is a much quieter rebellion that goes on – one that is deeply personal and predominantly subconscious. It is the rebellion that gets expressed through addiction, through anorexia, through procrastination. It speaks through compulsions, emotional outbursts, bulimia, and porn addictions. While the rebellion feels good in the moment, it leaves behind the residue of shame and deflation. Ultimately, it is anything that is self-sabotaging.
The rebellion is the voice that says, “I’m not hungry, but I am going to eat anyway.” It is sitting on the couch while the laundry piles up. It is knowing you deserve better, yet continue to trust the untrustworthy, or put someone else’s needs harmfully before your own. It is going out and buying something every time a hard feeling emerges, zoning out in front of the TV or Internet for hours. It may seem strange that these behaviors are related to anger, because often they’re passive and we associate anger with action. But they’re an ESCAPE from feeling anger (and other challenging emotions). We must ask ourselves, why are we angry? Anger, especially for women, is a challenging emotion that is not socially sanctioned. We all know that an angry woman is often labeled “a bitch.”
- “I feel powerless and out of control.”
- “I’ve always had to be the good girl/good boy.”
- “I go above and beyond for everyone else, and few people reciprocate.”
- “I never got to be carefree.”
- “I was teased and bullied by siblings and/or peers.”
- “The people closest to me hurt me physically, emotionally, and/or sexually.”
- “Society’s norms are too limiting and suffocating.”
- “I’m expected to do everything and do it well.”
- “My parents saw me as an extension of themselves, not as my own person.”
- “I was labeled the trouble-maker and bad kid.”
- “I was never accepted for who I actually was.”
- “My family didn’t love me/understand me/care for me the way I needed to be loved/understood/cared for.”
- “I rarely heard anything nice said about me growing up.”
- “The historical victimization of my people enrages me.”
- “I was left out, excluded, rejected – an outsider.”
- “People took advantage of me.”
- “My life has been one trauma after the next.”
- “No one was there to protect me.”
- “I’ve been constantly disappointed by others.”
- “No one should have to live what I lived through.”
Of course, there may be many other reasons you are angry, and it’s important to name them. Other words related to anger may be: neglected, sheltered, overprotected, needy, critical, parentified, inappropriate, pressured, isolated, misunderstood, violent, invisible, abandoned, manipulated, ignored, trapped, scolded, silent treatment, disappointed, favorites, promises, unsettled, under the influence, fearful, humiliated, and uncertain. Again, some words may resonate more than others.
All of this anger (on or below the surface) gets expressed in action if we can’t verbalize it. Whether it’s internalized or externalized, these behaviors can be very harmful.
The jury is still out on anger. According to Buddhism, anger is a poison and an obstacle to enlightenment. In 12-step circles, anger is a “character flaw” that must be purged. Some therapists believe that expressing anger is cathartic and others believe that expressing it just makes it bigger and more powerful. I don’t know which of these traditions have it right, but, the truth of it is we all get angry. It’s a human emotion that even the most enlightened cannot escape. What I do know is that we must be able to acknowledge it, and then manage it. So, how can we do that?
One of the strategies I talk about quite a bit is separating the feeling from the behavior. The feeling is anger; but the behavior may be yelling, drinking, rationalizing it away, sulking, being self-critical, throwing a tantrum, or physically hurting property or someone else, to name a few. Feeling angry is so often conflated with resulting behaviors that people often dismiss as “bad.” But anger can be very informative – it can let you know when your needs aren’t being met, or when you need to set a boundary with someone else. It can let you know where your limits are, or where you disagree. From an evolutionary perspective, anger shuts out pain both physiologically and emotionally, so it’s been a very important and useful tool in protecting ourselves.
So, if we are able to interrupt the automatic feeling to action response, we have more choice in how we deal with anger. Imagine you are angry – now what can you do about it? By no means is this a comprehensive list, but some ideas are as follows:
- Give yourself a “time out” – get some physical space, fresh air, and whatever else you need to calm down.
- Speak up for yourself, if the situation warrants it.
- Move your body by walking, stomping, kicking, etc (as long as you are not hurting others or property.)
- Write an email or letter, without sending it.
- Notice how “angry” feels in your body, without judging the sensations.
- Give yourself permission to feel angry, so that you can decide what actions to take.
- Have compassion for yourself in this challenging state.
- Talk to a friend or therapist who won’t be afraid or dismissive of your anger.
- Notice what your impulses are when you get angry, so you can also see it in reverse (For example, if every time I am angry I drive to the casino, then when I’m on my way to the casino, I can be pretty sure that I’m dealing with anger in some way or another.)
There are many other emotions that are similar to anger, so you’ll want to watch out for these equally as often: frustration, resentment, irritation, rage, annoyance, fury, defiance, and upset.
Ultimately, this anger exploration should give you more choice around your rebellion. The ultimate goal is to respond rather than react, and I’m sure with a little observation, you’ll understand yourself and your anger a bit better which will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling life.