Anger is the first emotion to appear after a loss, and it reappears often during the healing process. Anger is essential to healing because it provides the energy we need to accomplish our work of grieving. In fact, nature automatically gives us the gift of anger-energy whenever we need it most: every time we have a problem.
If we understand and manage it well, anger is one of the most valuable resources we possess for solving our problems. However, we do not manage it well, we can create new problems.
Anger is usually mismanaged by people who believe that this emotion is a harmful force. It is not. Anger is neutral, neither harmful or helpful. The energy it generates is like the energy of gasoline: It can be used constructively or destructively, depending on how it is managed.
People who understand their anger and know how to manage it to recover from crises usually also find success in other areas of their lives. In contrast, people who don't understand anger usually hurt themselves and others by mismanaging their anger-energy--by displacing it, by wasting it on vindictive obsessions, or by converting it into depression, alcohol abuse, or physical illness. Such abuse of this natural resource wastes precious lives.
Before anger can be well managed, it must be understood and recognized. This chapter concentrates on how to manage the anger of grieving by illustrating and discussing the following topics:
Katie and I had been friends since we first met at a birthday party several years ago. Though we saw each other only a few times a year, we enjoyed each other's company each time, sharing wonderful conversations.
Katie always greeted her friends with a hug, and she gave great hugs--warm, solid, sincere, and comforting. She also embraced with her smile, her nurturing face, and her melodic voice.
At work, Katie was in charge of a production department, and for twelve years, her unit had consistently produced well. She was as self-assured in her profession as she was with her friends, and this confidence benefitted her supervisors and subordinates alike. Under her management, her department never generated problems for upper management. Equally importantly, she dealt evenly with those she supervised. Whether she praised them or criticized them, her subordinates knew her to be fair.
When Katie called me one autumn afternoon, I knew immediately that she was distressed. A taut wire had replaced the music box in her voice.
"Can you see me?" she asked. "Now?"
"Of course. What's wrong?"
"Okay," she clipped, ignoring my question, and hung up. Her non-response told me she had a serious problem. I guessed that she would have started to cry if she had said more. But Katie losing control? I had never imagined her in this state. Automatically I speculated, preparing myself: She must have been brushed by death.
When Katie arrived at my office, I hesitated, waiting for her to speak. She said nothing. No hug, no pleasantries. She sat down silently, concealing her eyes from mine.
I closed the door and crossed the room to my chair. As though she were hiding a grotesque secret, she tightened her face, damming up her emotions and thoughts. No sound, no gesture, no tears.
This scene didn't match my mental image of Katie at all. As I observed her, I changed my guess. "She must have been raped," I thought. What else could make sunny, warm Katie change so radically.
After watching her struggle for a couple of minutes, I asked her, "What is it? How can I help?"
When she finally opened her mouth to speak, the dam burst and her tears gushed. She quickly dropped her head to hide them. The only sounds she uttered were stifled sobs.
I was bewildered. While she wept, I asked myself what I could do. I wasn't Katie's psychiatrist, I was her friend. As I watched her, I hoped a friend was all she needed. Yet even friends need information before they can help.
"Katie, I need to know what happened."
Three times she started to raise her head to speak, but each time she quickly retreated. I could see that her eyes were swollen and red, and her face was distorted and curiously pale. I hurt for her.
I wanted to hug her, to comfort her, but I sensed that giving in to that impulse would only comfort me. So I waited.
"They fired me."
Weeping reclaimed her.
Fired? Katie? My image of Katie didn't allow for this possibility. She was too competent, too successful, too productive. I knew then why I'd guessed she had been raped or brushed by death. For her, losing her job was just as traumatic.
I was perplexed. Then my perplexity yielded to anger.
"You must be furious," I said.
She stopped sobbing instantly. She even stopped breathing for a moment. Finally, she looked at me through reddened eyes.
I'd made contact. I pressed forward, hoping to break through her defenses--which weren't defending her at all, but were holding her hostage and torturing her.
I was her friend, but my experience with my own healing propelled me to confront her.
"You must be furious," I repeated.
It was Katie's turn to be perplexed. She had expected a gentler expression--an "I'm sorry" perhaps, or other words of sympathy. Her quizzical glance at me expressed her surprise and disappointment.
I was relieved. The spirited Katie was back--the Katie I knew so well. And her tone of voice betrayed that she was indeed angry. Finally, we could talk.
Deliberately, I started to lecture, hoping to fan the embers of her rage.
"When adults say they are hurt, they actually mean they are angry. But they're afraid to say so. Admit it. You are angry!"
"I'm not angry! How can I be angry--I'm not a violent person!"
Casually, I replied, "You sound angry." For the moment I ignored her protest about violence.
She paused a few seconds and then picked up the gauntlet. "Maybe at you," she said, looking me squarely in the eyes.
"Nonsense." I taunted her deliberately.
"Look . . . I'd hoped you could help me . . . you're a shrink . . . but you're attacking me. . . ."
Her mouth was a machine gun, and she was firing wildly. I took her hits gladly, delighted to hear her defending herself.
". . . What d'you think you're doing? . . . I've got enough problems without this. . . ."
Eventually, she quieted. Her tears dried and her face lost its distortion.
"Seems I have helped," I observed.
"Sure you have," she soured her words. "Thanks a lot!"
We were on different wavelengths, of course. Katie saw me as an adversary--though a trusted one. If she hadn't trusted me, she wouldn't have shown her anger to me. Her unconscious mind knew that I wouldn't judge her the way she judged herself.
She still hadn't noticed that she really did feel better, though, so I pointed it out to her.
"Look at yourself now. You've stopped crying. You're in control. You're defending yourself." I paused briefly, then went on.
"You're Katie again! Not the jellyfish that washed up here a few minutes ago."
A few moments of strained silence passed while she digested my words. Then abruptly, we laughed together, the tension broken.
Borrowing from my image of her, Katie had found her self-image again, and she was delighted. So was I.
Katie wasn't naive about the politics of business. In previous conversations, we had laughed together about what we called the "Ghengis Kahn School of Management." She also knew that the self-indulgences of this VP would ultimately hurt the company. Yet, even though she knew this, she wanted to punish it even more.
She started directing her mental resources into making a plan for revenge. She sounded the conventional call to arms in our society: "I'll sue the bastards!"
She grinned, relishing the thought of retaliation.
Guessing that Katie was afraid of her anger, I started talking about it.
"Don't try to hide your anger--it's not shameful. Anger is natural . . . normal . . . healthy.
"Besides, getting angry is automatic--you can't control it. This is true for all humans. And, like it or not, you're human.
"You get angry every time you have a problem. And getting fired is a big problem."
Katie listened intently, silently. Her eyes told me she wanted to hear more. I addressed her belief, shared by many, that angry persons are violent and unlovable.
"Don't be afraid of your anger--I'm not. I don't expect you to be violent.
"Besides, look at us right now. You've shown me your anger, and I still think you are lovable."
Katie smiled, knowing I was right. Then she nodded for me to continue.
"There's no reason to be ashamed of your anger, either. As a kid, you probably learned that you shouldn't feel angry--most of us did. But as adults, we don't have to think and act like children. We can be sensible about our emotions.
"The most sensible thing we can do with our anger is to use it to solve the problem that caused it in the first place. Your anger energizes you. Use this energy to help yourself. Manage it well, and it will serve you well."
I sat back in my chair, sensing that this idea intrigued her. After all, she was a professional manager.
"I've heard of managing anger. But, how do you do it?" she asked.
"Think about this: I really enjoyed seeing you express your anger by counterattacking the company, but it's very important to maintain your perspective. Otherwise, you might squander your time and energy. So ask yourself if suing the bastards will make your life better."
"It'll make me feel better!"
"I'm sure it would--in the short run. But think long term. What about your career?"
"Who wants a career? You work hard, give your all to the company. Only to be stabbed in the back."
"What do you mean?" she asked, intuitively sensing my next statement.
"Your anger exists to protect you, to help you live a good life. Instead, all day, you've been using it to punish yourself."
Then I listed five ways she punished herself, counting them on my fingers.
"You beat yourself to a pulp.
"You shamed yourself with everything from incompetence to stupidity.
"You battered your self-esteem by telling yourself that you were weak and helpless.
"You disabled your strength by labeling yourself a victim.
"By turning your anger against yourself," I concluded, "you were well on your way to creating a full-blown depression."
Katie considered this a few seconds, and then asked, "What do you mean by `depression?'"
Before I responded, I thought about how to answer her question so she would understand immediately.
"Remember how awful you felt when you came in here? You couldn't think straight about anything. You couldn't stop crying. You felt helpless and hopeless. You felt worthless. You were certain you had no future."
"How could I forget?"
"That's how it feels to be depressed.
"If you had continued to try to hide your anger, you would have continued to turn it against yourself. You would have been the victim, not of the company, but of yourself."
Katie absorbed my words. Then I explained how anger turns to depression.
"You might have felt like that for years--for as long as you denied your anger and turned it against yourself."
Katie nodded with understanding. Then I finished answering her question.
"That's depression--anger turned inward."
"First, I want you to notice something that just happened. When you came in here, you felt depressed. You didn't feel angry. Then, after I provoked you, you felt angry. But you didn't feel depressed any more. Right?"
Katie frowned and turned her head a bit, as though to look to the past. After a few seconds, she looked back at me with bright eyes.
"That's right! I hadn't noticed." Then she chuckled.
"The first lesson is, you can't feel angry and depressed at the same time.
"Lesson two: It's better to feel anger."
"I won't fight you on that one," she said, and we both laughed.
Then she asked, "That was easy. So, what's next?"
I stopped smiling. "This may sound insensitive, but it isn't. You want to punish the company right now, but some day--soon, I hope--you'll be grateful that they fired you."
Katie smirked in response, challenging me with her eyes to prove this.
"Getting fired is a great opportunity," I continued. "I'm only telling you what you can't yet see for yourself. Right now, you are preoccupied with your loss. You're focussing on the past, not the future.
"In the future, you'll know what opportunities have been opened to you today."
Katie looked skeptical, and I understood her disbelief.
"Don't just accept this on faith. Prove it for yourself. Keep a journal. Write in it at least once every day. Use it to talk with yourself. Write your thoughts, feelings, observations, daydreams. Anything. Everything.
"Then, from time to time, review what you've written. Watch your progress. See how your attitude changes."
"I'll keep a journal . . . ." she said, smiling softly, appearing to want to believe in her future, but still skeptical.
". . . But I still want to sue the bastards!"
We laughed together again.
Then I added the clincher: "As long as you are consumed with punishing the company, the company will control your life. You will commit yourself to suing the company, not to rebuilding your life."
Katie exhaled loudly through flared nostrils, indicating that she grasped this idea.
Living for the Future
As it turned out, Katie did two things over the next few weeks. She sued her former employer for unlawful termination, and she proceeded to look for new career opportunities.
After about four months, she called to bubble exciting news to me: She had started her own management consulting business, and she had developed her first two clients. Clearly, she had put her anger-energy to good use.
She thanked me for suggesting the journal. She had started writing in her journal about her thoughts and feelings about her lost past, but she gradually changed it into a plan for the future: It evolved into her business plan.
And she told me that, after reviewing her journal, she wondered why she had stayed in her old job so long. Her writings helped her to realize that she was grateful for losing her old job--that her getting fired was an opportunity, after all.
Also, one day after she was interrupted by a phone call from her lawyer, she realized her lawsuit was a burden to her. She told him she had lost interest, and instructed him to use his discretion to conclude her case as quickly as possible. That ended her "looking backwards."
Katie grew after her loss. Her self-image reached new boundaries, and her self-esteem flourished. She relished life. She had no regrets. She wasn't ashamed, angry, or sad. She wasn't depressed. Because she managed her anger well, she healed successfully. These things would have been impossible if she had not used her reasoning mind.
As with Katie, reasoning is our main tool for managing our anger. This begins with understanding the management tasks required. Though the idea of managing anger is used frequently, the terminology is odd, because our emotions are automatic, and we can't manage them. We can, however, direct our actions to take advantage of our emotional energy. Thus, anger management actually means energy management--harnessing our anger-energy to work for us.
Because behavior, not emotion, has the potential to harm, it's important to distinguish the emotion of anger from the actions you take when you are angry. If you are like most people, you can identify the emotion of anger as readily as you identify the emotion of joy. You can also identify the actions you would like to take.
For example, suppose you have a neighbor, Mike. One day, without asking your permission, Mike ties his dog to your front porch, and leaves for an extended vacation. He obviously expects you to care for his dog while he is gone.
Anger invades your conscious mind. You think, "That makes me mad!"
You may also think, "I could kill Mike for doing this." At this point, you've identified the emotion of anger as well as one of the actions you could take.
However, killing Mike would create more problems for you, to say nothing of the problems it would create for his loved ones. Yet, your anger and your impulse are real. Denying them would be ridiculous. Besides, you have many other alternative courses of action that can solve your immediate problem and prevent it from happening in the future.
For example, you could exercise your instinct for revenge by taking his dog to a kennel, and having the bill sent to Mike. This would encourage Mike to care for his own dog in the future--particularly if you select the most expensive kennel in town. Chances are, Mike would "never again" foist his responsibilities on you.
Your anger and your original vengeful impulse to kill Mike came from your emotional mind, but your plan for revenge came from your reasoning mind. The emotional mind and the reasoning mind are products of distinct parts of the brain, and one part of the brain can't do the work of another. Thinking uses your reasoning mind, whereas feeling uses your emotional mind. Since you don't think with your emotional mind, you must use your reasoning mind to manage your anger. That's how you can avoid creating new problems.
Your reasoning mind and your emotional mind are radically different in the ways they operate and in the things they can do. The emotional mind is served by the limbic system--the part of the brain we share with the other mammals. The emotional mind is relatively primitive, and it's responses are quite limited. When we are confronted with a problem, the anger generated in our emotional mind presents us with only two alternatives: fight or flight.
The emotional mind has an important role in solving problems. It can tell us that we have a problem and how big the problem is. It can also supply us with the energy to solve the problem. However, our emotional mind can't tell us what our problem is or how to solve it. It can't analyze situations, invent new ideas, or anticipate the consequences of our behavior.
In contrast, the reasoning mind is the product of the forebrain--the part of the brain that is unique to humans. Its responses are flexible and well suited to solving problems. As a result, we aren't limited to fighting or fleeing as potential problem solving behaviors. Our reasoning mind can identify our problem and decide how to solve it. It can evaluate situations, develop useful solutions to problems, and anticipate likely consequences of our actions. That's why we must use the reasoning mind to manage our emotional energy and direct our actions.
Managing your anger during grieving requires several reasoning tasks. To manage well, you must expect anger with its energy and impulses for vengeance, recognize the anger, harness its energy, and direct our actions toward constructive use, for example, solving the problem that created the anger in the first place.
Expect anger when you have lost someone or something important to you. This loss automatically creates anger.
Recognize your anger by its signs: You can't sleep, your appetite is poor, you are impatient and irritable. You can't relax. You aren't motivated to do your usual things. Instead, you are energized, ready for action. You feel like doing something active. Don't be distressed by these symptoms of healing. Welcome them. They mean that your anger-energy is ready to harness for work.
Harness your anger-energy. Gather it and mobilize it. Don't waste it, or dissipate it needlessly. You will need it to solve your immediate problem, or to prevent future problems. The amount of energy generated by a loss depends on the size of your problem. Knowing this, prepare yourself for a realistically scaled management task. If your problem is small, you can laugh it off. If your problem is large, be assured that you'll possess sufficient energy to accomplish major changes in your life.
Finally, use your reasoning mind to direct the work of solving the problem. Discover the roots of your problem. Create alternate solutions for the problem and sort through these alternatives to find the solution that is most likely to succeed.