The other day a patient posed a simple, but troubling question: “What am I supposed to do with all this anger?”
This guy had plenty of good reasons to be angry. His childhood was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
But that all happened decades ago. Both his parents were long dead. He wondered if he was wrong to still feel this way – if it was time to move on – forgive and forget.
I didn’t think so. I told him what my first therapist, Lena Furgeri, told me years ago when I asked for advice on how to handle my roiling emotions:
“Keep coming,” Lena said, “and keep talking.”
You can’t just forget your feelings. And I’m not a great fan of the term “forgiveness” either. I’m not even sure what it means.
There’s an interesting documentary, from 2006, called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.” It’s about Eva Mozes Kor, a woman who, as a child, was tortured by Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz, during hideous experiments he performed on prisoners.
Eva Mozes Kor says she “forgives” Mengele for what he did to her.
This statement has triggered controversy and outrage. You don’t forgive a Nazi. Mengele was a monster.
Or do you? This leads us into a metaphysical morass, attempting to chart the contours of sin and forgiveness. Perhaps the Catholic Church can attempt such a mission, but that’s not my job as a therapist.
My work is comprehending human emotion. And I know you can’t just forget anger because you decide to “forgive.”
Anger must be metabolized.
The focus is not on the person who caused your anger, or his actions.
It’s about you – and your emotions.
To metabolize anger you must not fear it. You must contain it – feel it, study it, learn from it – but not succumb to the temptation to go unconscious and act on it.
When you act unconsciously on anger you “act out” – discharge aggression. Or you act in – shutting down and refusing to act.
It is tempting to act out (or in) because discharging aggression feels good.
We don’t often own this truth. But pay attention when you hear that something bad happened to someone you don’t like. You’ll catch the corners of your mouth pulling up. You are smiling – a primitive simian indicator of pleasure. Unconscious sadism is a powerful force. Smashing things is fun. Violent movies are fun, too. Most of us are angry most of the time, about something. Anger co-exists with other emotions, and it doesn’t have to have a logical explanation – it just is, and it gratifies you.
There is a good evolutionary reason why discharging anger feels good . It’s the same reason sex feels good: because the animals who were aggressive (and enjoyed sex) lived to reproduce and pass on their genes.
But in the modern world, discharging anger can get you into trouble. “Losing your temper” – a euphemism for acting out unconsciously by discharging aggression – is like getting drunk. It might feel good at first, but there’s always a hang-over. We all know how easy it is to vent anger at the person who happens to be nearest to you, usually the one who cares the most and least deserves this treatment.
The mass unconscious discharge of aggression is commonly known as war. At some level, it feels good too. And leads to untold horrors.
That’s why metabolizing anger is a better strategy. You put the anger into words, and start to understand it. This process converts raw emotion into communication.
The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.”
Feelings are like that – even anger. You have to trust them. Let them in. Let them happen.
No one can say when you will be ready to move past these feelings – that is up to you. But the organic process – the metabolizing of feeling – is necessary and unavoidable.
Eva Mozes Kor may or may not have forgiven the horrid Dr. Mengele, but she has metabolized her anger, turning it into words that achieve good for mankind. She has devoted her life to speaking publicly on the events of the Holocaust, teaching the importance of tolerance and understanding.
In this regard, she resembles another angry person who metabolized his anger to make the world a better place: Martin Luther King.
Dr. King felt a passionate anger at the injustice of racial segregation. Like Eva Mozes Kor, he chose not to act unconsciously and discharge his anger in violence. But he didn’t forgive and forget either.
He metabolized his anger into words.
Don’t fear anger.