Anger Management Courses - Ungrieved Losses as Clues to the Roots of Anger

by James A. Baker
(December, 2010. Recovery Today)


anger managementI hate the holiday season. It was never a really great time for me growing up because my family was really messed up and there was always a lot of fighting. My parents tried to do better during the holidays but something would always go wrong and there would be another fight. I told myself it would never be that way when I had kids, except now I do have kids and my marriage is on the rocks because I can't control my anger. I may not even get to see them for Christmas, which makes me feel terrible. I am such a screw up. Can you tell me and my family?

No Joy in Jacksonville

Anger Management Courses - Ungrieved Losses as Clues to the Roots of Anger


Dear Jacksonville:

It sounds to me that part of your anger might be connected to your efforts to "fix" the family you grew up. It is not unusual for people whose family of origin was broken or dysfunctional to make all sorts of vows about how they will do better when they grow up. They don't realize that not only are these vows very hard to keep, but they are very often the result of trying to find healing for pain that was created a long time ago.

I often say that anger is a secondary emotion; it often comes as a reaction to fear. It also comes as a reaction to the pain of loss. When you lose something or someone important to you, the emotional pain of that loss is called grief. We are familiar with this type of pain when it comes from losing a loved one, but similar types of pain can come from losing a job, going through a divorce, undergoing some kind of trauma (especially in childhood), being forced to move from a place you loved to live, or losing respect or status due to some kind of public failure or humiliation. The list goes on and on. Growing up in a dysfunctional home where you didn't receive the kind of love and safety you needed is right at the top of that list of losses.

When we encounter this kind of loss, it sets in motion a level of emotional pain that can be very debilitating and can last for months, even years. This kind of emotional pain is called the grief process, and it cycles over and over again through several stages. The first stage is called shock and denial, as confusion and numbness set it and you tell yourself, "No, this isn't really happening. It can't really be true." However, this stage eventually gives way to another stage - anger.

Anger Management Courses - Ungrieved Losses as Clues to the Roots of Anger

At this stage, you find yourself thinking, "NO, this isn't right, it isn't fair, they can't do this to me, I WON'T accept this. I am going to stay angry until someone comes back and fixes what was broken or replaces what I lost and make it all better again!" Another stage can also quickly begin to arise - depression. Depression says, "My life will never be the same. I can't go on. What's the use? I won't ever feel happy or normal again. Everything is just hopeless." Shock, Denial, Anger, and Depression, along with another stage called Bargaining and Magical Thinking, comprise the main transitional cycles of grief before the real stages of recovery - called Sadness and Acceptance - finally begin to grow and people move forward again into a normal life. Successfully working through the grief process so that the pain of the loss doesn't dominate your thoughts and emotions anymore can take a long time, maybe even as much as two years for something major like the loss of a loved one. But some people get stuck in the grief process - usually at the point of anger or depression - and they can stay there for a very long time. They may eventually forget the reason they are angry; all they are aware of is that the world hasn't treated them very nice, so they protect themselves by staying on guard, and staying angry. Sometimes angry, depressed people are still waiting for "someone" to come back and fix what was broken, or replace what they lost, before they are willing to let down their guard and rejoin the human race. And then there are those, like yourself, who try to "fix" the pain experienced long ago by trying to make sure nothing like that ever happens in your family now. Sometimes we try too hard, and we fail, and we get angry and we feel like screw ups all over again.

Anger Management Courses - Ungrieved Losses as Clues to the Roots of Anger

Taking a Grief Inventory

Get out a sheet of paper and make a list of all the times in your life when you can remember experiencing any kind of loss. Just think of all the times you were really sad or really scared or really hurt or embarrassed or ashamed. It might be helpful to take this inventory in stages: Ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, 18-24, 24-30, 30 to present.

Anger Management Courses - Ungrieved Losses as Clues to the Roots of Anger

After the inventory

Study this sheet and ask yourself if remembering any of these events still makes you angry. Do any of the times when you experience anger now remind you in any way of how you felt or reacted to the losses you experienced then? All you can do now is what you could have done then, if anyone had been around who knew how to help you; you can grieve. My definition of grief is to let yourself feel the pain of that loss until gradually, over time, it doesn't hurt quite so bad when you think of it. That anger is still stuck in your heart, saying, "No, I won't accept this loss and I won't let it anything like this happen to me again because I don't want to ever feel this bad again." So stop protecting yourself from the pain and just let yourself think of it and feel it, process it, accept it, and realize that you don't have to be afraid of it any more. You may need a counselor or trusted friend to help you with this.

There may be nothing I can do to help you and your family be well in time for Christmas, but I can promise you this: learning how to grieve - learning how to face the fear of loss and feel it till you conquer it and get the grace to heal and get on with your life - will set you free from the old shame and anger you have been carrying around. That in itself will lay the foundation for having a better Christmas this time next year.