Anger is a normal, healthy emotion. It’s also one more thing that people in all forms of recovery tend to take to extremes. Many of us bottle up anger, only to find ourselves occasionally lashing out. Others of us have a tendency to redirect the anger we have with others toward ourselves.
For as complex as humans fancy themselves to be, our behavior is generally based on the conditioning we experienced in our childhoods. We form simple but powerful associations. The child who sees anger expressed as violence learns to either emulate or implode. The child who is taught that anger is unacceptable learns to repress, and to experience anxiety.
We tend to conceptualize “anger management” interventions as something only folks who are impulsive and aggressive need. Worse, what’s generally taught in classes and group therapy is how to not be angry.
There is nothing at all satisfying about punching a pillow.
For most of us, our anger is a product of not feeling sufficiently in control. Through the process of recovery we discover that the only thing we need to control is ourselves. Unfortunately, most of us learned self-control through unhealthy means.
A vital and foundational piece of early recovery is learning how to identify, experience, and express our full range of emotions. We find that we are raw as we “thaw” emotionally and often experience our feelings as overwhelming.
The key to managing ourselves is regulating emotions and choices. Yet, we have a tendency to judge our feelings, thoughts, and memories. This is inherently misguided. Anything that is happening only internally, is by definition, not hurting others and therefore ought not to be subjected to moral judgement. Feelings aren’t wrong, they simply are.
Any emotional state that is seen as unacceptable or experienced as unsafe has the potential to undermine our recovery. If we learn to identify what we’re feeling, we can choose to withhold judgment, allow ourselves to experience it and work through it. The key is to always respond and never react. Responses are conscious choices and reactions are usually unhealthy emotional reflexes.
The bottom line with so many aspects of recovery: If we can move away from condemning ourselves, we become free to judge what is healthy and what is not and choose accordingly. Most of us are so accustomed to fighting losing battles for self-control that we continue to do so even in recovery.
I promise that ultimately you can have far greater self-control through self-acceptance than you could ever have by subjecting yourself to constant scrutiny. The choice is to move away from being our own worst enemy and toward self-respect and fairness. Think of it as the Golden Rule in reverse.
Ultimately, we exchange rejection of self for resolution of internal conflicts. We can allow ourselves to feel angry without reacting hurtfully. We can allow ourselves to feel what we feel and still maintain healthy self-control.
Bottom line: Recovery is a process of learning about ourselves and developing an identity that is free of substances. Progressively, we come to regulate, trust, and accept who and how we are, making adjustments as needed.