From Anger to Forgiveness: A Practical Guide to Breaking the Negative Power of Anger and Achieving Reconciliation
By Earnie Larsen
If this is not the golden age of the self-help movement, it's hard to imagine what would be. Anyone interested in self-improvement or enlightened self-management of difficulties that range from codependency and inner child or adult child issues to shame and low self-esteem can find educational material nearly everywhere. And beyond all the print and audio material, there are seminars, college classes, treatment centers, programs, and self-help groups of every imaginable description. A friend recently commented that never before have there been so many opportunities to spill the beans.
The point of all this self-improvement activity obviously goes beyond mere bean spilling, however. The goal is freedom. The purpose is to find a way to shuck off the debilitating, painful issues that ride so many with their sharp spurs. And this is the problem for many people involved in the self-help movement: Where is the payoff? Where is the freedom?
Relief Versus Healing
By now, the enormous and still growing self-help movement has acquired enough history to provide a context for us to examine. A common sentiment we hear from people is gratitude for all they have gained, yet frustration at still being stuck so far short of their goals. People frequently talk about the difference between relief and healing. Relief is the experience of finding some measure of peace, even euphoria, at discovering that there is a safe place to talk; that there are people who care and will listen. These are people who have been in the same places and felt the same things. There is even greater relief in knowing that there are steps we can take and principles we can live by that can help ease our discomfort, whether it is as simple as a stone in our shoe or as painful as a sword through our heart. We can find much relief in the self-help movement.
Healing, though, is a different proposition. Healing is the experience of reclaiming something that is missing from within our deepest selves. Healing requires that we treat the cause of our pain rather than simply put on a bandage to protect us from further harm. Healing means not trying to turn away from and erase the past, but in a real way breaking its power: controlling our present-day emotions and responses. Relief and healing are two very different realities.
One woman accurately expressed the predicament by saying, "While I was rowing like mad for shore, I think someone slipped the anchor overboard." Quite a picture! How many of us are rowing madly for shore while an anchor is holding us fast to the ocean bottom? What might that anchor be? For many, what prevents healing and mocks the frantic row to shore is anger that has not given way to forgiveness. The anchor is repressed anger. Forgiveness is the act of pulling the anchor up. In recovery, repressed anger stands in the way of forgiveness like an invisible barrier. We may not even recognize it, but that barrier blocks many of our valiant efforts at self-help. When we can't forgive, we are limiting ourselves. We become fixated on our inability to achieve real intimacy, and we become spiritually stagnant.
Working on Our Anger
Many people claim to have already done extensive "anger work." The adult child movement greatly heightened our awareness of the need for addressing our anger and grief. All too often, though, this anger work only fed an already dancing fire. Many times the result was to make people even more achingly aware of the rage, hurt, and injustice of the past. Many times the anger work stopped right there, and the result was little more than "scab picking." And everyone knows a frequently picked scab will never heal. Even though we can feel great satisfaction in venting our longtime frustration, the journey cannot end there if healing is our goal. The journey from pain to healing is a much longer trip than the journey from pain to temporary relief.
One man told of sneaking into a church one dark night and lambasting God with every insult he could think of. He blamed God for his wife's cancer. He was especially angry since she contracted the disease shortly after he had undergone treatment for alcoholism. In his mind, God should have given him a break after he had "done the right thing." Whatever the validity of this hurting man's theology, his late-night shouting session with God did give him some relief. He said, "It sure felt good to get all that misery off my chest," but it also gave him no small amount of guilt.
The problem with such hit-and-run dealings with anger is that they don't get us anywhere. The relief doesn't last long. Whatever the basic dynamic of anger is or was, it still remains after all the shouting has exhausted us, leaving us hoarse and weak. And, of course, hurling verbal bricks of insults at God or anyone else has nothing to do with forgiveness. So what else is there for us to do but keep rowing for shore, wondering why we never get closer?
Effectively working on our anger takes more than just recognizing that we are angry, although we do need to start with recognition. But we also need a thorough understanding of the dynamic of anger, the manner in which anger is still acting out in our daily lives. Once we've done that, we need to know the steps required to move past our anger to forgiveness. Then, if it is possible or appropriate, we can make an attempt at reconciliation. This full-fledged program is a far cry from merely "picking the scab."
Recognizing Our Anger
One of the most difficult aspects of moving past our anger to forgiveness is that so often we don't see that we are angry. Since it's invisible to us - although usually not to those around us - we take no action against it. The first task then, as always, is for us to know the enemy.
The following twenty-five-question examination may serve as a magnifying glass as you look for the fingerprints of repressed anger that may well be smudging up your life:
1. Are you habitually impatient?
2. Are vou often frustrated?
3. Do others seem constantly to "be in yourvway"?
4. Are you usually on your guard against being cheated?
5. Do you feel a more or less constant pressure to prove yourself?
6. Are you habitually fearful of somehow being "caught"?
7. Does it seem (or feel) that someone is always watching you?
8. Do you secretly resent others' success, feeling that yours is never recognized?
9. Are the negative things in your life more obvious to you than the positive?
10. Do you habitually find a lot to complain about?
11. Do you often feel insecure, believing that others are superior to you?
12. Are you afraid you will end up with less than you need?
13. Do you habitually expect bad things to happen?
14. Is it hard for you to "go with the flow"?
15. Is it often difficult for you to stand up for yourself?
16. Do you secretly believe that your feelings are not important?
17. Do you usually keep your preferences to yourself, often deferring to what others want?
18. Do you feel your needs are often minimized or ignored altogether?
19. Do you have temper tantrums?
20. Do you regularly tend to overreact?
21. Is it hard for you to accept that others care about and love you?
22. Are you frequently afraid that somehow you are "missing out" on what counts?
23. Are you often disrespectful to those with less power than yourself?
24. Does the intimacy of others somehow make you uncomfortable?
25. Are you often sad?
Count your "yes" answers. Multiply that number by four. The closer you are to one hundred, the clearer are the fingerprints of anger on your life, whether or not you're aware of it.
Any unchallenged, unrecognized anger is a powerful core inside us, and its effects reach out in many directions. Repressed anger creates systems which guarantee that we continue the situation that caused our anger in the first place. This is why recognizing our repressed anger is such an important step on our path toward ultimate freedom. The strands that lead us from our present hurt back to its source are easy to miss. Hidden beneath the cover of years, the source of our pain often lies buried, but it is still incredibly potent.
It's no accident that "somehow" people marry individuals who enable them to duplicate situations they resented in childhood. It's no accident that, after many years of living, people continue the same patterns, making the same decisions they swore they would never make again. We are incapable of real change when we don't understand the source or power of our old patterns. We don't have a choice about what we don't understand.
If you scored high on the twenty-five questions, how clearly do you see the origins of your anger? How clearly do you see the system of roadways that invariably carry you to the same destinations? How evident is your need for relief and healing from being trapped in this exhausting labyrinth of misery in your life?
Stages of Anger
Most of us have heard the saying, "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck." This point is true enough. But though anger is anger, not all angry people are in exactly the same place. We may well be in very different stages of dealing with our anger. Following are six different stages we can experience on the journey between anger and forgiveness. Thinking about these stages can help you identify your position on your long walk home to healing.
Angry, but don't know it.
Anger wears camouflage and a variety of masks. All anger doesn't show itself in rage-ful tantrums and plate throwing. Legions of furious people think they don't have anger issues because they don't blow up or foam at the mouth. But anger may be the strongest dynamic in their lives, and their greatest barrier to happiness.
Angry, and do know it.
Some people fairly reach for the ceiling when the question, "Do any of you feel you have a significant amount of repressed anger?" is asked at a meeting. They know something is wrong. They know all too well there is an angry cauldron burning in their bellies and an aching in their heads.
Angry, but not ready to do anything about it.
Change is essentially a spiritual journey that goes beyond the merely rational or logical. Spiritual changes can't be "decided" or "ordered up." People are ready when they are ready - not before. Many people know or suspect they are angry, but they are not ready to grapple with it. Right now they see their anger as too savage, too dangerous. Or they may still find too much comfort wallowing in the anger, too much sweetness in justifying all the damage that was done to them. And, of course, if they are not ready to deal with the anger, then neither are they ready to deal with forgiveness. Since in all things there is some trade-off, they are opting for the consequence that befalls everyone who will not forgive: resentment.
Angry, and ready to do something about it.
These folks have passed over the first two hurdles toward the freedom of forgiveness. They have recognized their anger and have risen above all the reasons to stay caught in that anger. These people are on their way to healing.
Ready to do the work, but don't know how.
Such people are champing at the bit to get rid of their anger, but they don't know what to do. They may not even know there is such a thing as "anger work." Perhaps they are discouraged by seeing others who have done ineffective anger work and who appear to be more damaged than before they started. Yet they know their anger is an unacceptable barrier to progress. But how do they start? What do they do? Where do they begin?
On the journey, but moving slowly.
There are those who have moved down the path toward forgiveness but aren't there yet. Life is a continuous process. Progress, not to mention arriving at the goal, is never instantaneous. The journey from anger to forgiveness is extremely hard work, but justified by achieving the goal. For those people who decide to continue the journey, a great reward awaits.