Getting angry about being told not to get angry

I’m reading a book that talks about the way families deal with emotions and how it can affect us, and the subject of anger came up.

Now, in my family when I was a child there was a clear division: my dad and my brother would express anger; my mother and my sister would not. I, as the youngest (and much younger than my siblings), watched the way everyone else behaved and made a choice: I’d shout and express anger like my brother and my dad, rather than being “nice” and quiet like the other female members of the family.

Much much later, as an adult, I finally learned to express my anger better, more constructively. I learned to say things like “I’m angry because…” and explain. I learned to be assertive rather than aggressive. I learned to stand up for myself without trying to hurt the other person.

And now, as an adult, I post stuff online and now and again I post a rant, a grumble, an expression of annoyance – just to vent feelings, just to get it off my chest. And what I find super annoying is when someone responds to one of my rants with something like: you really shouldn’t let it get to you, keep calm and rise above it… And I’ve just realised why: because I’m hearing the voice of my mother, who didn’t know how to deal healthily with anger and the message I got from her was: it’s not okay to get angry, and it’s definitely not okay to express anger.

And I think: no, mum, you were wrong. Getting angry is a natural reaction to stuff that people do that you feel is wrong, hurtful, anger-making. Sure, we do sometimes get angry over petty things, sometimes our anger shows how selfish we are (how dare someone take my toys) but that doesn’t mean it’s never ok to get angry. If someone deliberately, maliciously, treads on your toe and keeps treading on it, then not getting angry is just not human. And even if they tread on your toe unintentionally, it still hurts and the immediate reaction of anger is natural – it’s just that hopefully you’d calm down once you realised they didn’t mean to.

My dad tended to express his anger by shouting. Perhaps not ideal – he didn’t explain himself well, he didn’t try and help us understand his point of view, nor did he engage in dialogue with us to see why we had done whatever it was that annoyed him. But at least he did vent his feelings, and two minutes later he’d be calm again.

So when I vent feelings of anger and someone tells me I shouldn’t get angry, I feel that’s the voice of my hopeless mother telling me not to do the very thing my dad used to do, the thing that he did and found helpful – releasing the feelings so that he could feel calm again, instead of seething quietly under the surface and trying to ignore the anger.

Recently I got annoyed with a friend who responded to one of my vents with a call to react graciously to whatever it was because taking offence doesn’t teach anyone anything worthwhile – I’ve now calmed down enough to look at this again and say: I disagree. I believe that by expressing my feelings I am teaching people that it is actually okay to get angry and to express anger (and that it’s entirely possible to do that without being horrible about the people who made you angry, calling them names or wishing bad things on them). And in a world where there are people who, like my mother, try to teach others that anger isn’t okay, I feel this is an important lesson to pass on.

14 thoughts on “Getting angry about being told not to get angry

  1. I wonder if context — both in terms of what sets a person off and who that person is around when angry (which might not be the same thing) — should be considered.

    My girls are emotional. They enjoy riding their emotions and because they’re twins they feel very comfortable riding those emotions roughshod all over each other. When they’re both excited about something, the level of over all room energy shoots way up. It’s almost tangible. There’s singing and dancing and high fiving and noise, noise, noise. When they’re both upset with each other, I kid you not, these 13 year olds will be throwing each other around the room, pulling hair, screaming, wailing, hitting, and yelling all kinds of stuff about how the other one did something wrong.

    I used to get really upset with them and try to get them to calm down, deal with each other more civilly, etc. But I soon realized they WANT that level of high energy emotion. They use it, loudly and publicly and then, within a matter of minutes, it’s all over. They’re done. It’s resolved one way or the other. And they’re back to their normal level of emotionality. The problem is, they leave a wake of destruction in their path. They don’t yell at me. They don’t get angry with me. But I’m left emotionally (and it sure feels physical as well) weakened.

    My son is much more even keeled. He’s willing to talk things out more often. But when he gets angry and starts showing it (angry eyes, sharp words, lots of “You don’t understand!”s, slamming doors, etc.) it tends to last longer (closer to 30 minutes or an hour). There are even times when he’ll explain that he’s not mad at me, but he’s still angry and showing it. In the end, I’m just as drained by his anger as I am by my girls’.

    I say all of this only to suggest that though we all feel anger, and though we all have ways that we prefer to exercise it, even when there are times when the anger isn’t even remotely directed at us, anger in a room can still affect other people negatively. The worst is when someone is angry and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to help or change their situation. I feel like I get all of that negativity without any chance or opportunity to stop it or fix it or remove it from my presence (except to walk away from it all, which is what I generally end up doing).

    We’ve been dealing with a lot of anger in our house lately. (With three teenagers and an overworked husband, it’s to be expected.) It’s really been taking it’s toll on me. I’ve been breaking out in hives. I sometimes can’t seem to catch my breath. I’m constantly walking on eggshells. I have to watch what I say and what I do. I feel like I’m caged by others people’s anger. Some of it is anger with me, but most of it isn’t. And yet it still is destructive to me. :-\

    Perhaps the best place to express anger that just needs to be expressed is away from others?


    • no need to apologise. I can see how painful it is for you, I can just imagine from what you’re describing. I wish I had some great bit of sage advice to offer about how to deal with the situation you have at home, I do feel for you :(

      and I take your point about how sometimes it can be really hard for people watching, and I know this from my own experience, I know how I can feel sometimes when I hear someone expressing anger in a way I’m uncomfortable with, or in a context where I don’t feel it’s appropriate.

      now, when you’re dealing with your own kids, it can be appropriate for you as a parent to try and teach them better ways of expressing their anger, to try and set boundaries as to how they do it; but when you’re responding to an adult, I don’t feel that’s appropriate (unless you’re maybe in some position of authority, or maybe you’re their therapist or something). When I use my blog posts or G+ posts to vent anger – and I really don’t think I do it in a particularly crazy out-of-control sort of way – then it’s nobody’s business to tell me I shouldn’t. Just as I (hope) I wouldn’t tell someone else not to express their own anger, even though I might feel really really uncomfortable with what they’re saying and/or how they’re saying it.

      If someone is very very full of anger and I feel I can’t cope with being around them too much, then unless it’s family you’re sharing living space with then I think the answer is to walk away. Or maybe, if it’s a very close friend and you feel there’s value in trying to say it, you could talk to them about needing to do something about their anger issues. But I don’t think I’m that sort of person, am I? Do you think I express anger too much? You’ve been reading my posts for long enough.


  2. Here’s my take on anger: If you are angry, it is perfectly alright to express it. It is best if you are able to explain why you are angry but the important part is that you are expressing an honest emotion. Let it out! Don’t bottle up your emotions because your family or culture tells you that you should do that. We do a disservice to people when we imply or state that they should hold in their emotions. I really don’t think it is healthy to do so.


  3. I tried to think of a post in which I felt like you were angry and nothing popped to mind. More often than not, your venting comes out as an explanation, not as anger. (Oops! Did I just tell you you’re not doing it right?! lol! Actually, I think your way is the proper way and everyone else is doing it wrong.)

    Venting can be cathartic, but it should also somehow move the conversation/situation forward in some way. Otherwise it’s detrimental. I think a proper vent expresses that there’s emotion behind an issue, but it also explains why.

    But I know people who vent in order to “let off steam” but their real purpose behind it is to make sure everyone else feels their pain. They have a hard time stopping. They’re not open to discussion about the topic. And they tend toward sarcasm and condescension. I think people would call both “venting” but they’re pretty different in terms of vector.

    You seem to do “good” venting online, from what I can tell.

    As far as my family goes, I would say there’s a fair amount of anger that’s not necessarily venting. It’s just carried around with them like a cloud. It’s inside them, outside them, wearing them down, eating them up. And there’s not really anything that can be done about it. We’re in various situations right now that we just have to knuckle down and get through. There’s a few action steps we can take, but not a whole lot. And we’re taking the ones we can. But we have to get from A to B and live with the anger in the middle. What’s so hard for me in particular is that it’s not my anger, and yet it’s affecting me physically. I’m fine with them all venting when they need to, I just wish they’d go out into the woods and do it there where I’m not around. :-P


    • Thank you, it’s good to hear that my venting is good venting – and I do know that other kind, I’ve come across it and it ain’t pretty.

      Re your children’s anger – it does sound like it would be helpful if they could find a way of doing it elsewhere, going into the woods sounds excellent actually. It sounds like they enjoy the anger, like they’re thriving on having anger parties and maybe they need to learn that it’s not ok to expose other people to that, that it can really wear other people down. When I talked about it being ok to express anger, I didn’t mean this kind of stuff – I meant a reasonable, healthy expression, getting it off your chest and moving on.


      • They definitely get it off their chest and move on. The problem is that I’m left awash with their emotions when they’re long done having them. They explain themselves, express their anger, and are over it within minutes. It appears to be very therapeutic for them. And they don’t hold on to that anger (generally). But that spike in emotion is very stressful for me.


          • I’m an introverted feeler and that’s my third function. I don’t particularly enjoy feelings. So even people displaying intense happy emotions can be unsettling for me. It’s not an anger thing, it’s an emotion thing. I have emotions. I feel things. But they’re my feelings. I don’t feel like it’s right of me to ooze my feelings out over other people.

            I’ve learned, though, that there are people who looooove oozing around in other people’s feelings and they feel like if I’m not oozing my feelings out on them I’m somehow holding back or not being close with them. So I’ve learned some times to ooze. But I really don’t like it. I find it to be rude and insensitive. I only do it because I know they don’t view it that way and they actually want it. And I certainly don’t do it often. Only when seriously pushed. (And then I tend to feel rather put out by them pushing me.)

            I suppose to the extent that you feel like people shouldn’t tell you how not to emote, I feel similarly in terms of not liking when people tell me I should. My internal response to something like that is often, “Who are you to tell me to smile?” or “Who are you to tell me to cry and let it all out?”


          • ah yes, I should have realised that it’s not about anger specifically, it’s about expressing emotions. I know you’re uncomfortable with that. And I totally agree that no one has the right to tell you that you *should* express emotions when you don’t want to.


    • It’s not “ha-ha” funny, just written in a light hearted way. Skynner is a therapist, and Jon Cleese had therapy with him and found that he learned so much useful stuff through it, he felt it was worth writing a book that would explain these principles in laymen’s terms, make it accessible to everyone. So they co-wrote this book. A lot of it is in the form of dialogue – Cleese asking Skynner some dumb laymen questions and Skynner explaining it patiently.


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