A few years ago I was uncomfortably sitting in my in-law’s living room with my husband. My discomfort was rooted in being a spectator to a heated argument my mother-in-law and father-in-law were having. Their emotions were boiling hot. Their voices were loud. I wasn’t sure whether I should look away, sneak out of the room, or leave the house. I looked over at my husband, and he seemed fine. He wasn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable in the least. That’s when I began to realize something about myself and my upbringing. I have no memories of seeing my parents fight or seeing either of them particularly angry. In fact, if I search my whole immediate family, I come up with very few examples of expressions of anger. As a result, my anger muscles are somewhat underdeveloped. It’s an emotion I do my best to avoid, but that’s not always a good thing.
Here’s what I’m discovering. If I am incapable of expressing anger, then my emotional repertoire is incomplete. Every emotion has an appropriate time and place—as well as both healthy and unhealthy modes of expression. Love can be contorted into lust or lead to infatuation or codependence. Anger can motivate change, inspire independence, or dispel illusions.
Some feelings are much more enjoyable and popular. Anger, like sorrow, is an emotion many shy away from because it’s uncomfortable. However, it is that discomfort that gives it power. If nothing made us anxious or angry, what motivation would we have to make big (perhaps frightening) changes? Sometimes we chase the positive, but other times we need those more difficult emotions to guide us away from something dangerous, inadequate, stagnant, or destructive. Whether it’s been a job or romantic relationship that wasn’t a good fit for me, it was usually my more uncomfortable emotions that finally motivated me to step away.
I remember one relationship in particular that I’d been allowing to sort of ebb and flow ambivalently. The final straw was when I realized I’d rather be alone for the rest of my life than continue to be in a relationship with that person. My discomfort ultimately gave me the push I needed to initiate a clear-cut breakup. And once I stepped away permanently, I could see that it was the right decision.
Emotions are neither good nor bad at their core. Sadness is as healthy as happiness. Every feeling has its appropriate season. To deny an emotion because we’re afraid or embarrassed to express it, or because we think it’s wrong, is to deny a part of ourselves. It’s unhealthy. It’s dishonest.
Emotions are never wrong. You are entitled to feel them all. It is harmfully imposing your emotions onto others that you need to be careful of.
Feeling is the easier part. The challenge some of us struggle with (especially with those emotions of a heavier or darker variety) is finding appropriate and healthy external expressions for what is happening in our hearts and minds.
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We are emotional beings. We can’t pick and choose our feelings. We hope to be happy more than we are morose or mad, but one mood isn’t enough. Life is more complicated than that. To be true to ourselves, we must not suppress our emotions. To love ourselves well, we must explore and express our feelings in healthy and productive ways. To deny our inner reality is to do damage to ourselves.
How you explore your emotions will depend on what type of person you are. Some prefer to talk through their emotions with a trusted listener. Others of us (like me) have conversations with ourselves and write in our journal. One of the useful tools I learned through my church was the idea of emptying my emotional jug. The basic premise is that we are all vessels full of emotions. If we don’t pour them out, they start to leak out, and they may leak out in ways that hurt us or those around us.
Emptying the emotional jug is simple. Whether talking with another person or writing in your journal, ask yourself four questions and take your time answering each one:
- What am I angry about?
- What am I sad about?
- What am I worried about?
- What am I happy about?
On any given day you’ll have more answers for some and less for others, but it’s important to spend time on each question.
Why is the importance of anger often underrated? Why do certain emotions have such bad reputations? It’s usually because they’ve become synonymous with certain acts. Even emotions can be stereotyped. However, it isn’t the feelings themselves we need to renounce. It is the immorality these feelings tempt us toward that we must be wary of. Anger, for instance, is often confused with a lot of other (much less productive) things.
Anger is a wholly internal experience. It is not license to impose your wrath on another human being. Anger is not hatred or prejudice. It is not an insult or a judgment. Anger is not slinging words of ridicule or throwing a punch. It is not an excuse for abuse, though it often plays the scapegoat. Anger is the feeling, not any act it may motivate. At most anger is an accomplice, though it sometimes takes all the blame.
Anger is important. It’s informative. When I peel back the layers of my ire, I often find a whole ecosystem of emotions that I might have overlooked. For example, when I see a car driving recklessly, my anger is really a shield for fear. Anger can also be a bully sent to fight battles for insecurity. Sometimes anger is a cloak worn by jealousy. When someone’s actions anger me, it is my job to look inward for the reason. Is something (or someone) I value being threatened? Has one of my boundaries been disrespected? Am I really just angry? Or are other emotions at work—perhaps more subtly?
It isn’t fruitful to fight a feeling. If we spend too much energy avoiding an emotion then, in reality, that emotion owns us. All obsessions are dangerous, whether they are preoccupations of pursuit or avoidance.
If there is an emotion you have difficulty expressing, ask yourself why. Were you scolded (directly or indirectly) for expressing this emotion as a child? Are you afraid of what others will think? Do you worry your anger will push others away or your sadness will make you look weak? Once you get at the root of why you are avoiding or stifling your emotions, you can start to work towards expressing them in healthy and productive ways.
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Face your feelings. Each one has something important to relate. Enjoy what is enjoyable. Endure what isn’t pleasant. However always, when it comes to an emotion, take a probing look at it. Everything you feel is a lesson about yourself. And to love yourself well, you must know yourself well.
For me, facing my emotions meant both spending time in silence and solitude (sometimes with my journal) as well as finding a therapist I felt comfortable being vulnerable with. I’m still learning, but I try to enjoy my happiness without worrying about when it will come to and end. And when I’m feeling sad or angry, I try to face it, get to the root of it, and do the work of living through it.
While it is true that every emotion has a level of importance, I can’t conclude without conveying one caveat: Just as it’s unhealthy to extinguish an emotion, it’s also ill-advised to let it burn beyond your control. A feeling isn’t carte blanche to act however you want to. Emotions can be teachers or motivators, but they are not excuses. Your emotions are not licenses to speak and act however you please. They are meant to illuminate your values and inner self for others (and yourself) to see. They are not justifications for acting cruelly or violently.
Like me, you may need help to process your emotions in a healthy way. There is no shame in that. If you find yourself unable to handle your anger, anxiety, or sadness, or are in any way overpowered by your feelings, you may benefit from professional help. If your emotional reality has become a burden to you, there is no need to suffer alone. Seek out a support group, a mentor, a religious leader, or professional counselor. Like with any relationship, not everyone will be a good fit. Find someone you’re comfortable being open and honest with. In the right environment, you’ll feel challenged as well as safe. You’ll be given the tools to process your emotions in healthy ways.
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[Feature Image: A black and white image of a person with long curly sitting outdoors by the street. They are facing the camera with a solemn look on their face. Flickr.com/RaulLieberwirth ]