Anger is a very powerful emotion that can be used in many positive ways to motivate us toward change, to strengthen us against our adversaries and to protect us against pain. Anger warns us that there is a problem or a potential threat. At the same time, it energizes us to face the problem or meet the threat and provides us with the power to overcome the obstacle. Anger can empower those who have been tyrannized or victimized, imbuing them with the courage to stand up to their oppressors, to leave an abusive situation, and to stand on their own. But, sometimes we get stuck in our anger and are unable to move past it. How do we avoid becoming as destructive as those who have harmed us? How do we get past our anger so we can move on with our lives? There are two healthy anger styles: assertive and reflective. Both are positive ways of addressing the problems that anger can signal or the underlying emotions that triggered our anger in the first place. Both are also positive ways of moving past our anger.
When we adopt the assertive anger style, we communicate our distress to the person we are upset with in a direct way. We don't blame, we don't emotionally abuse by using sarcasm or by belittling the other person, and we don't belabor the point. By being assertive in this manner, we optimize our chances of being heard which is what we all need in order to get past our anger. We also take a stand by asserting that we will no longer tolerate any such behavior in the future. This empowering gesture takes us out of the victim arena and this also helps us get past our anger.
When we take on the reflective anger style, we focus on what our anger is trying to tell us about a situation, another person or about ourselves. We discover and address the underlying emotions under our anger and, most important, we view our anger as a teacher. We focus on what we can learn from our anger and from the experience and on how we can prevent a similar situation from happening again. In spite of our best efforts to handle our anger in an assertive or reflective way, sometimes we remain stuck in our anger, unable to move on, unable to forgive. Why does this happen, why do we remain angry? We tend to remain angry because:
We still feel threatened by the other person. If the other person remains a threat, either because she continues the same behavior or because she refuses to admit that she did anything wrong, forgiveness can be extremely difficult. In these cases, remaining angry may serve as protection against further harm. We still feel unacknowledged by the other person, either because he was too busy defending himself, or because he never seemed to be able to put himself in our shoes and really understand our feelings. We feel the other person has not taken sufficient responsibility for his or her actions. If the other person has not admitted the fact that he or she has inconvenienced, disappointed, or harmed you, it is difficult to forgive. This is especially true if the problem has not been rectified or restitution has not been made when needed.
We feel we need to be apologized to. Psychological research, as well as anecdotal evidence show that when people apologize for something they have done to hurt us, we find it easier to forgive them.Several studies have shown that remaining angry, obsessing about revenge and constantly reliving a painful incident is physically and emotionally stressful, while forgiveness is healing to the body, mind and spirit. Over the past decade, Robert Enright, Ph.D. of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has investigated the nature of forgiveness. He and other researchers have found that those who forgive someone who has hurt them seem to reap significant mental health benefits. The act of forgiving appears to be one of the basic processes that keeps personal relationships functioning, according to studies of long-married couples.
Carrying around a desire for revenge or a need to avoid someone is not healthy. Hostility and aggression are linked to a host of health problems including increased risk of heart attacks and a compromised immune system. Forgiveness is not a self-righteous or Polyanna-like turning of the other cheek or a condoning of abhorrent behavior. Neither is it forgetting. The most important component of forgiveness is empathy. Forgiving requires us to acknowledge the other person's actions as harmful, but then being able to empathize with them. If we can understand the deep pain from which hurtful actions inflicted on us often arise, then we can be compassionate. In that act of compassion, we move from the role of the victim and see beyond.
Beverly Engel M.F.T. is the author of Honor Your Anger: How Transforming Your Anger Style Can Change Your Life. A psychotherapist for over 27 years, she has appeared on Oprah, Donahue and Ricki Lake. You can reach her at www.beverlyengel.com.