By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
When I was a kid I loved magnifying glasses. They seemed like a magical portal to a secret world: like Alice in Wonderland drinking the elixir which made her shrink and grow, magnifying glasses changed everything. Ants went from simple black specks to armored warriors. Grass became a complex, mysterious world of sharp edges and shadows. Sunlight went from general brightness to burning laser. I yearned to someday own an old fashioned, wooden handled magnifying glass.
I’ve come to think of anger as a type of magnifying glass. If that sounds random (and it probably does) bear with me. Anger offers—demands–we pay attention to our core values. We get angry when we believe that something or someone is threatening our core values. Anger magnifies our emotion to get us to pay attention to and protect our values.
Now there are folks out there who get mad at everything and everyone: the weatherman for predicting rain, the government for collecting taxes, the neighbor for taking too long to pull in their trashcans. To these folks I’d say get therapy (but not me, I don’t enjoy your kind). They also are responding to a perceived threat to their value system but like a rescue dog who bites when frightened, they lack the emotional wellbeing to tell when they should and should not feel safe.
I’m addressing this blog to the vast majority of us who are not constantly (and tediously!) angry, but who struggle with recognizing anger as a useful tool in navigating relationships. Typically, we feel angry when we feel duped, taken advantage of, disrespected, or mistreated in some way. Likewise, we feel angry when these things happen to someone we care about. Anger holds in its flaming heart the certain knowledge that we are WORTH something, that we are precious and worth protecting. Healthy anger is the safeguard of self-esteem.
Seen through this lens, anger is a useful reaction to a threat to the safety of connection between people. Anger is fuel propelling us with courage to stand up for ourselves, to set boundaries, to name the thing that we cannot and should not ignore. Anger is a wicked cool sword that cuts through the bullshit of pandering and placating to show us our own raw truths.
Skillful communication of anger protects relationships by protecting boundaries. If I don’t allow myself to be mistreated, I can stay safely connected. If I let myself be mistreated I either have to give up my safety or I have to sever the relationship. Anger is the opposite of apathy, and apathy is the opposite of love. Anger and love are inextricably wound into all of the relationships we treasure because every deep, long term connection involves imperfect people. All of us make mistakes, have blind spots and character flaws, lack complete understanding and inevitably fail one another at different times.
So if you want love in your life, be prepared to sometimes be pissed off. Be prepared to piss off the ones you love. Allow the experience to slow you down, just like a magnifying glass in the hands of a curious kid. Anger springs from your deepest values and offers lessons about areas of yourself that you need to refine: your expectations, your boundaries, your capacity to hang in there and stay respectful. It teaches you how to meet the world without being a doormat. Anger gives insight into your own code of fairness. When you or the ones you love are angry, don’t run away, but rather magnify the moment. Be prepared to listen and to speak your truth.