The hidden cost of suppressing anger

I grew up exposed to a lot of anger, resentment, and hostility of varying degrees, to the extent that I concluded the emotion of anger was inherently destructive, toxic, and undesirable.

Plenty of spiritual teachings support this view. An enlightened person is supposed to be beyond anger, and the Christian tradition is split on the question of whether anger is ever justified.

In my own circumstances expressing anger resulted in ridicule, shame, disapproval or escalation of conflict. So I learned at an early age that anger was not only unpleasant but also fruitless.

I’m in uncharted territory as I now learn that anger is in fact a normal part of our emotional landscape. Anger is an emotional defence-system. It guards against unfair treatment and protects us from abuse and injustice.

Seeing people use and express anger in dysfunctional ways, coupled with the inefficacy of my own anger, convinced me to disable, disregard, and suppress it. My solution was simply to avoid anything that might trigger anger, or require anger.

If I don’t like how I’m being treated, it’s up to me to change it, challenge it, or leave. What’s the point in adding anger to the mix? So I thought.

The hidden cost

Suppressing anger and avoiding triggers of anger comes with an enormous cost.

I had to become hyper-vigilant to possible external threats because I didn’t want to rely on my natural defences. It took a lot of mental energy to be aware of potential dangers and always prepared for them.

At the same time I was continually internally vigilant to my own actions and emotions, trying to avoid anything that might trigger anger, resentment, hostility or conflict.

The internal and external vigilance took a lot of energy, and kept me perpetually focused on negative scenarios.

But perhaps the biggest cost of disavowing anger is that I cordoned off whole sections of my own self, censoring aspects of my personality and feeling that might cause offense or conflict with others.

Borrowing an analogy from Chesterton: it’s like a playground near a cliff. If there’s a big strong fence by the cliff, the children will happily play right up to the edge. But if there’s no fence, the children won’t want to go anywhere near it.

For me anger was the cliff, and in the absence of a strong fence I’ve avoided going anywhere near it, avoiding even the possibility of conflict in my everyday life, vastly overestimating the likelihood of conflict and the risk of just being myself.

To avoid causing offense I’ve tried to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s exhausting, and impossible anyway because we can’t control who we offend or how. And it’s come at a cost to the full expression of my personality, and been an enormous drain on my inner resources.

Relearning anger

I’m becoming familiar with anger now as the other half of my complete personality.

Not that I want or need to be angry, but I do want and need the freedom that comes from making peace with anger.

I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they draw a distinction between healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger; I’m also beginning to see how my early confusion came from witnessing people redirecting their anger inappropriately as well as expressing it destructively.

It’s okay to be angry, it’s normal and healthy. But anger is neither an excuse nor a justification for how you act when angry. And in fact the better we are at expressing anger in healthy and constructive ways, the less of a big deal anger becomes.

If you’ve grown up with parents whose anger translates into violent outbursts or simmering hostility or cold resentment, the whole concept of healthy anger might seem like a contradiction in terms.

It takes time and familiarity to relearn anger and see that in its essence it is not ugly or violent or dangerous.

In its essence anger is an advocate for your rights and a champion of the good you deserve. It exists to serve your own wholeness and integrity, and it can serve you in assertive actions and words more effectively than aggressive and destructive behaviours can.