Yesterday we learned that the best defense against relapse in long term recovery is personal growth. Today we want to look at one way that we might implement that in our lives by learning how to turn anger into something positive.
There are really only a few “core” emotions that you have to concern yourself with in recovery and anger is a big one. The reason for this is that anger can be so dangerous when it comes to relapse. It is the perfect excuse and just the right state of mind for someone to throw away their hard work in recovery. Therefore we should take special care in dealing with anger and use every resource that we can find in order to better control it and minimize these potential damages. Obviously we do not want to relapse just because we get upset.
The first step in protecting yourself from anger in recovery is to understand it. Once you understand the anger then you can communicate about it to the person who needs to hear it. If you relapse in recovery due to your anger then it will almost always be because of your anger with another person. Therefore we need to be able to process our anger and communicate it to others in order to get some relief for ourselves. If we keep the anger bottled up inside then it will drive us to drink or use drugs, simple as that.
Learning to deconstruct your angry feelings and see what lies beneath it
When I was in long term treatment a therapist spent several months teaching myself and others how to deconstruct our feelings. She taught us among other things that anger is actually a secondary emotion. It never occurs by itself just for the sake of anger, it can only follow another emotion. Supposedly the two core emotions that anger might spring from are FEAR and HURT. If you are afraid or hurt by someone then this might lead to anger.
Therefore whenever we were in a group setting and someone was trying to work through their problems or issues we were taught to deconstruct our feelings to see what was really underneath them. For example maybe you are still stuck in addiction and your family tells you that if you keep drinking they are going to throw you out on the street. You get angry at this and a huge fight erupts.
Now if you are attempting to deconstruct your feelings and see what is really going on, you would have to look beyond your anger and see what was really causing it. In this case it looks like you had a great deal of fear based on the threats that your family made to you (throwing you out on the street).
In another example you may be angry when someone calls you names or insults you. In this case, the anger is a secondary emotion because you were first hurt by the insults. The HURT is the primary emotion and the anger is secondary to that. You don’t just get angry for no reason and in fact the only reason that anyone ever gets angry is because someone or something is “playing with their emotions”–causing them to be either scared or hurt.
This is the theory that I was taught during long term treatment and it seems to get pretty darn close to the truth. When you deconstruct your emotions in this way you can see that your anger really is being caused by another emotion.
So after you learn how to uncover your anger and see what is really going on beneath it, what do you do with it? How can you get some relief now that you have identified these emotions?
The key is in communication.
Communicating in order to reduce or eliminate your anger
If someone hurts you or scares you and this causes you to become angry, what happens to that anger? Basically there are only two options: you keep the anger inside of you or you let it out. If you keep it inside of you then this is extremely bad and will likely lead to relapse.
On the other hand, many people in addiction (and outside of addiction for that matter) get into all sorts of trouble when they let their anger out in a negative way. If it comes out violently then you may hurt other people to the point where you could suffer serious consequences. Obviously we do not want that either and it does us little good to be clean and sober if we are stuck in jail. So we need a healthy way to process our anger and then communicate it to others.
Now let us go back to our example where your family member threatened to throw you out of the house. This caused you a great deal of anger and you want a healthy way to process this anger.
If you just keep it inside and never communicate about the anger then what happens? The anger just continues to fester because you feel like you have been mistreated. You cannot get any relief because there is no outlet for this injustice that you have experienced. Someone threatened you, it scared you, and you felt that this was unfair or unnecessary or both. If you just keep this inside then it will slowly eat away at you and potentially cause you to relapse if you are trying to stay sober.
The only way to get relief in a case like this is to communicate with the person who caused your anger. Most people intuitively know this and therefore they go back to the cause of their anger and they “let the other person have it.” As I pointed out this can come out in a very negative way and it can lead to even greater problems if there is violence or more fighting involved.
Therefore you need to learn to do 2 critical things in order to communicate your anger effectively:
1) Cool down period – before you communicate with the person. Do not go to them when the anger is fresh and “hot.” Let yourself cool down first. If you try to do this while you are “hot” then it will just turn into fighting or bickering. This is not what we want. So make sure you give yourself plenty of time to cool down first.
2) Communicate only the feeling that was underneath the anger. So in this case you would simply state: “I was scared when you said you would throw me out.” Or in the other example: “I was hurt when you insulted me.” Then let it sit there. So often when we try to communicate in this manner we go way overboard and we over explain ourselves and this just gives all sorts of openings for arguments. If you do exactly what I outlined here (just state the emotion that was underneath your anger) then you shut the door to all of that potential drama. It is almost impossible to argue against your feeling.
In other words, you are simply stating to your family member that “I was hurt when you did X.” That’s all you say. That ends it. How can they argue with that? They can try to tell you that you are not really hurt, but this is ridiculous as they can never know your true feelings. They cannot deny you your feelings, just as you cannot deny them of theirs. So if you say that you were hurt then you were hurt.
So you are not flinging opinions around here, nor are you giving all sorts of reasons and justifications. If you do either of those things then you open the door for all sorts of counter-arguments. If you just state your primary emotion (hurt or fear) then there is no room for a counter-argument. The person cannot deny you of your feeling.
Now you might believe that this is not as good as having a long dragged out fight in which you yell and bicker with each other and argue over reasons and justifications and throw your opinions back and forth. But what this really does is to reduce the communication down to the bare minimum in which you are only communicating that which will bring you relief.
So we have simply eliminated all of the extra noise that usually goes into a confrontation like this. We have eliminated the opinions and the arguing and the justifications. All that is left is the idea that you want to communicate your feelings with the other person. They hurt you (or scared you) and darn it, they need to know that. This is the only thing that can bring you any relief in terms of lessening your anger. They have to know that they hurt you in some way. If you cannot communicate this to them then you will continue to be angry.
First you have to cool down so that you can be level headed and rational (rather than emotional and wild). Then you have to go to the person who is the cause of your anger and tell them that they either hurt you or scared you. If they try to argue back with you then you can just let it drop, you said your peace, and they know that they hurt you. That is all that you want for them to know.
If they try to blow up at you when you tell them this then you simply drop it and walk away. You have said your peace and if you do not say another word then they are going to think about what you said and they will understand that they did hurt you in some way. This is all that you need to communicate in order to get some relief. Do not allow them to drag you into a yelling match about it. Simply state your peace and be done with it. All you need to convey is that primary emotion, whatever was underneath the anger.
I worked on this technique for several months and maybe even a full year before I really saw the value in it. Perhaps because I am male I did not really want to examine my feelings, talk about them, or even acknowledge them at all. Some people will not even want to admit that there is another emotion underneath the anger! But of course there always is, and understanding this and then communicating about it is the key to your emotional health and stability.
This is the first and most important technique for processing and dealing with anger. If you have anger in your life and it threatens to steal your sobriety then you need to use this technique in order to get some relief. If you cannot figure out how to use this technique then I would find someone (either in recovery or a professional of some sort) who can help you to process and work through your anger. You cannot afford to walk around with anger burning inside of you and expect to stay clean and sober in the long run. Sooner or later you will need to learn how to process that anger and get it outside of you. Leaving it “on the inside” will destroy you over time.
Having a physical outlet in order to reduce anger and frustration
This is not something that is obvious or easy to observe in the short run. It is also something that seems like an awful lot of work for a reward that might be questionable at best for most people. Therefore I am sure that many people will dismiss this idea as being a waste of time. For me it has been more than worth it though.
The idea is to use a physical outlet in order to better manage your anger and frustration. I am not sure if there have been any hard studies done on this or not so all I am going by is my own personal experience. But what I can tell you is this: having a regular exercise routine seems to go a long way in reducing my overall level of frustration.
There are probably several reasons for this that can be difficult to pin down.
One of those reasons has to do with the mental and emotional benefit of regular exercise. This is a big deal and it is not the sort of thing that you can convince someone of if they do not exercise. The only way to experience the mental and emotional benefits of exercise is to get into the habit of exercising regularly. In fact, that may not even be enough because the changes are slow and subtle enough that you may not even notice. The only way to really notice is to be in the long term habit of exercise and then suddenly sustain an injury that prevents you from doing so for a period of time. This is exactly what has happened to me in the past and therefore this is exactly why I know that these subtle benefits of exercise actually exist.
After becoming comfortable with distance running as a regular exercise routine, I suddenly sustained an injury and could no longer get a workout. It is only then that I notice that the normal day-to-day frustrations that might start to accumulate have no release valve any more. When I was exercising I never noticed these frustrations but after I was injured it caused me to realize just how valuable my daily exercise was.
Now I am not suggesting that everyone has to become a distance runner in recovery, I am only suggesting that you can benefit from having a regular physical outlet for your frustrations. It is a subtle effect but it is definitely there and I have observed it in my own life based on the example given above.
The win-win out of all of this is that regular exercise and fitness has other obvious health benefits as well. It is not like you have to make a big sacrifice in order to get this frustration-reducing benefit. In fact the exercise would be healthy for you on a number of different levels.
I believe there have been a few studies done that show a correlation between regular exercise and emotional stability, now that I think about it. When you finish an intense workout you are somewhat “immune” to the threats of the outside world. You are charged up from your workout and external problems matter less. The exercise helps to center you in a way that could be described as both spiritual and emotional.
As a strategy for controlling anger, you could do a lot worse. At least exercise has additional health benefits as well.
Using anger as motivation to achieve your goals
This one is trickier and I think it works best if you are trying to use this technique when the anger is not directed at a specific person.
If you have anger and it is directed at an individual then you need to go back to the beginning of this article and read up about how to process and communicate your emotions. That is the only way you are really going to get relief if you are dealing with this personal level of anger.
However you may have anger or frustration that is not directed at an individual, but instead is directed towards an organization or a group of people. A prime example of this might be your place of employment. It is not uncommon to be frustrated and angry with your entire workplace.
So what can you do? Use this frustration to spur you into action! That is what I decided to do at one point and it was one of the most powerful decisions that I have ever made during my recovery. At some point you have to say “no” to what you are experiencing in your life and then take action in order to find a different path.
This might mean that you finally sign up for classes at school that you have been putting off forever. Or it might mean that you explore your job opportunities and start handing in applications at other places. Or it might mean that you start creating your freedom in a more entrepreneurial way. Whatever the case may be, the solution is almost certainly to take ACTION and if you use your anger and frustration to help motivate this action then you are doing things right!
Helping others with their anger
One final idea that you can use is to help others with their anger. Obviously you can do this most effectively after you have learned how to process and deal with your own anger. If you can use the techniques in this article and explore using them in your life then you can find out what works well for you and what does not.
Then you can help others in their life journey who may be struggling with anger. This will provide a huge benefit to you as well because now you will have a good feeling that comes from helping others out in a profound way. If you teach someone else who to reduce anger and frustration in their life then this will have very positive long term effects.
Don’t let anger get the best of you. Learn to control it by using these techniques. Learn to calm down and process the anger before you try to deal with it. This is one of the most powerful techniques that you can learn to help prevent relapse in early recovery. Anger trips up a lot of people in recovery….don’t let it get the best of you!