Transforming anger

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: May 16th, 2000

In my interviews with children and teenagers, I always ask, "Can you tell me something that makes you happy?", "Can you tell me something that makes you sad?", "Can you tell me something that makes you scared?" and "Can you tell me something that makes you angry?". I worry when a child or teenager tells me that they aren't supposed to get mad. I use to believe that I wasn't supposed to get angry. It was okay to be happy, scared, or sad but not angry. I would get frustrated to the point of tears but never angry. I didn't realize how much I was suppressing anger until I was diagnosed with cancer during medical school. The gift of my having cancer was that it allowed me to get angry. I also learned how to start saying No, instead of Yes, to everything. It was the beginning of my establishing boundaries for myself.

Raising a child is another gift that puts one in touch with anger and the importance of making boundaries. Being a parent is a chance to re-experience our own childhood--both the good and the not so good memories. It is an opportunity to work out our own issues that we never fully resolved. Edna Cooper recently wrote an article about anger. She said that if you can "figure out what makes you crazy (or angry), then you can figure out where you got stuck in your own development".

The next arena for anger was in my marriage. A wise woman once shared with me that what feelings we don't own in ourselves, we often marry. Frequently in our intimate relationships (spouse to spouse, parent to child, adult sibling to adult sibling etc.), we confront our own shadows - those negative feelings or desires in ourselves that we haven't accepted or acknowledged. The time of intensely confronting our shadows often comes in our late 30's and early 40's when we really start to look at our lives and try to find meaning. It is easy to blame the other for our own shortcomings.

I recently realized that one can't begin to transform anger until one first learns to recognize it and experience it in one's own body. Anger can be a friend, our own barometer, that lets us know when something is just not right or a need is not being met. Often, if we look closely at what makes us angry, we find that our deeper feeling is hurt. Often, when we have hurt feelings, it is because we are afraid. When I am angry at my child for not doing what I ask, my feelings are hurt because I don't feel valued, and behind that hurt is the fear that I am an inadequate mother. Once we are in touch with the underlying fear, we can understand and forgive ourselves and then the anger can be transformed. When we forgive ourselves, we are then free to forgive others, and we are no longer stuck in anger. One of my teachers during my fellowship training always said, "when you feel yourself getting furious - GET CURIOUS". This advice is a good way to start transforming our anger.