Why does our relationship with anger shift so dramatically later in life?
As children, we found anger was something that made everybody uneasy. Parents and teachers repeatedly tried to train us not to be angry. Our negative emotions were not acceptable. As we grew, our caregivers typically responded to our anger differently, worrying more about what they were experiencing than what we needed or wanted.
Of course, children want their parents to love, accept and approve of them. So they begin to curtail their feelings — pushing them down inside until they are buried. We learn to live apart from them, negating any time we think those feelings may not get us the approval we crave. As a result, we create what famed psychoanalyst Dr. Donald Winnicott called “the false self.”
The false self is the person we think our parents and other important people will accept and love. Creating a false self is a clever coping skill, but it comes at a devastating cost. The more we deny our true feelings, the less we are able to get in touch with them, and the less we know what we really feel. This false self is the person we present to the world. Over time, it becomes a role we play.
Here’s an example of how my experience followed this pattern:
After many painful interactions with my mother, I began to change my behavior to get her attention and developed my sense of humor. On the outside, I was constantly in a good mood, laughing with people, making jokes, even if I didn’t think either the jokes or I was very funny. I was really good, and you could never tell that I was seething underneath. That became my false self. In therapy, I came to see that I might be laughing, but I wasn’t feeling happy at all. But changing the way I was behaving seemed really scary. I thought, “What if I’m not funny? No one will like me. If I’m not the life of the party — or making somebody else feel like they are — I will be alone, rejected.” On the other hand, I didn’t like myself when I saw how dishonest I’d been with others and myself. Little by little, I began to discover a more authentic self and share her with the world.
We become so conditioned that we believe if we slip from behind the mask, it’s all over for us if someone disapproves. Any deviation becomes a source of guilt or shame. But because this creation isn’t true, the longer we confine ourselves to playing the part, the angrier we become.
Sometimes, we develop a false image of ourselves in response to childhood experiences. Victimhood thinking is one of them, and it causes a great deal of anger. Having a victim mentality takes its toll on every area of your life, because energy follows thought. We become victims any time we don’t believe we have a choice. But we always have power in any situation, even if it’s simply choosing how we think about it.
Thinking like a victim (“Only bad things happen to me”) creates negative energy in your body. But thinking like a person in charge of your life (“It’s a great day; I’m looking forward to it”) gives you upbeat energy. When you are positive, people are happy to be around you. But when you’re negative, people will avoid you because you become an "energy drain."
One of the most important lessons we can learn is to use anger in a way that generates good things in our lives by re-framing the anger we feel. It’s also one of the most important lessons we can teach our children.
The single greatest influence on the course of our lives is our family of origin. Until and unless you consciously choose to question and change your responses both inside yourself and with your family, you will continue to behave in the way you were raised. Examine your feelings from childhood thoroughly — especially things that make you feel angry, stuck, or frustrated. Doing this enables you to control your life more completely and give your children the healthiest possible future.
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