President, Lefkoe Institute
December 13, 2010
The first time I really allowed myself to experience my anger I fainted.
I was about 36 and had successfully suppressed my anger since childhood. And there I was in a group therapy session, hitting a mat with a stick with foam wrapped around it, screaming: “Mom, I’m really angry at you.” When I started the exercise I was only mouthing empty words, but then at some point the words became real and the anger surfaced. It terrified me so much that I literally passed out on the mat.
I fainted the next couple of times I tried that exercise, but eventually I was able to experience anger toward my mother that I had never allowed myself to experience. And I was able to remain in an upright position.
Although there probably aren’t many people who first experienced their anger in exactly the same way I did, there are millions who are terrified of experiencing their own anger or being in the presence of the anger of others. Many people get in touch with that anger in therapy or some personal growth course, and millions never do.
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In addition to the fact that suppressing your anger is suppressing a part of yourself—in other words, having a part of you be unknown to you—suppressed anger has been implicated in serious illnesses, especially heart diseases.
So if you want to discover why our anger is so scary that we need to hide it, even from ourselves, and if we want to be able to experience anger without fear, read on and let me explain how we can do that.
The Primary Source of Our Fear
The primary source of our fear of anger is three specific beliefs and two conditionings. The beliefs are: Confrontation is dangerous, If I’m angry I’ll lose control, and Anger is dangerous. And the conditionings are: fear as a result of someone’s anger or potential anger and fear as a result of a confrontation or the possibility of a confrontation. There can be a several others relevant beliefs and conditionings, but it is my experience that when these five have been eliminated, most of the fear we have of our own anger and the anger of others will be gone.
The source of these five beliefs and conditionings is almost always a childhood where one or both parents frequently displayed extreme anger. (I’ll explain why some people frequently express anger in a minute.) If we are terrified by the anger of our parents as a child, the typical reaction is the five beliefs and conditionings I listed.
The group therapy I described above helped me get in touch with my anger and allowed me to experience it instead of suppress it so totally that I didn’t even know I was feeling it. But my fear of anger did not disappear totally until I eliminated the five beliefs and conditionings many years later.
Now what about people who aren’t afraid of anger, but who themselves are angry a lot and express that anger as verbal or physical abuse? What is the source of that?
People Who Get Angry Easily
Kids want affection, attention, and acknowledgment. When they repeatedly can’t get what they want, they are likely to feel powerless. Also, frequently being told: “Just do it because I said so” can produce the same feeling. This leads to the belief I’m powerless.
This is a basic self-esteem belief that makes us feel out of control and insecure, because if we are powerless then we don’t have the ability to do what we think needs to be done. In other words, on a subconscious level we know our survival is always at stake.
When we form such a belief as a child we need to find some way to deal with the ever-present anxiety it produces. When we form a negative self-esteem belief as a child we need to develop some strategy to deal with it. For example, if we conclude I’m not good enough or important, the most common survival strategy is the belief: What makes me good enough and important is having people think well of me.
And the most frequently-formed survival strategy when one concludes I’m powerless is, The way to be in control is to have everything be exactly the way I want it to be.
Think about this for a moment. Imagine you needed to have everything be exactly the way you wanted in order to feel in control. And if things weren’t exactly the way you wanted them to be—or if someone didn’t listen to you—you would feel powerless, which would lead to a profound anxiety. What would happen when someone or something kept you from having things the way you wanted them to be?
You’d feel lots of anger, probably rage. You would be angry at whomever or whatever you feel is making you feel powerless. And if it’s a child or spouse, the rage can easily turn into verbal and/or physical abuse. (This explains people like O.J. Simpson.)
(If you form the belief I’m powerless and don’t ever form the survival strategy belief, instead of exploding in anger you are likely to be a typical “victim.” You will always be talking about how people and events are “doing it to me” and you will allow people to take advantage of you.)
Based on over 25 years of experience I am now fairly certain that underneath all anger is a sense of powerlessness, because if you could do something about the situation you wouldn’t feel angry. And if the two beliefs I mentioned above were eliminated, a large part of one’s anger would be dissipated.
It’s amazing to think that merely getting rid of a few beliefs and conditionings could minimize one of the major sources of heart disease and getting rid of a few more could halt the epidemic of child and spouse abuse. Just one more example of the power of beliefs in our lives.
Morty Lefkoe is the creator of The Lefkoe Method, a system for permanently eliminating limiting beliefs. For more information go to http://recreateyourlife.com.