I feel like I am a failure as an adult. I am 28, but emotionally, I feel like a teenager or a child. Sometime in my growing-up years–blame it on my family, my school, the Catholic Church, whatever–I got the message that anger is forbidden, and letting someone know that you’re angry is especially wrong. I grew up in a loving but strict household where Mom and Dad’s word was always law, right after the Bible, and I was an overachiever of the highest degree, always trying to be the best at everything and feeling inadequate if I wasn’t good at something. I repressed a lot of my disagreements with my parents and kept a lot of information from them in the interest of being a “good daughter.” To this day, I am afraid to disagree with my parents, even though some painful family issues are arising and/or getting worse. My beloved grandparents are starting to fail physically and get forgetful, and my mother treats them like children, although they are still relatively sound. There’s been animosity between my mother and her brother and his family for years, but no one has the courage to discuss it. I’ve always loved my uncle and his family, and I have been forced to hear the complaints from every side. To top it off, my favorite cousin, who is my aunt and uncle’s eldest daughter, is dating my ex-boyfriend. I am angry with her, but I have to deny it for the sake of her happiness and the family’s peace. My mother told me I had no right to be angry, and yet she is still angry at my cousin about this. That’s just a short list of ways that I have not been permitted to express anger or disagreement, with family, friends, employers, strangers. I am tired of having to hold it all in. Two weeks ago, I was in the emergency room with chest pains due to an anxiety attack (all tests came back OK; doctor told me it was muscle strain or pleurisy). I’ve had several other attacks, I have headaches and other pain frequently, my menstrual cycle is out of whack even with the Pill, I’m obese because I stuff down anger with food, and I think I may be developing an ulcer. All my repressed anger also is making my mental health problems worse. I want to be able to disagree with my family (and others) in a respectful way. I want to let them all know I won’t tolerate backbiting or other cruelties. I want to tell my mother that I love her, but I love my grandparents too and don’t like to see her treat them the way she does. I want to be able to tell my father (a Vietnam vet) that I am against war because I respect veterans and active members of our military, not out of disrespect. I want to tell my cousin that I am angry so that I can start truly forgiving her. Please help me get started. I don’t want to hurt anyone with my anger, but I don’t want to end up getting hurt myself.
- ‘Anne’ is the pseudonym for the individual who writes this relationship advice column.
- ‘Anne’ bases her responses on her personal experiences and not on professional training or study. She does not represent herself to be a psychologist, therapist, counselor or professional helper of any sort. Her responses are offered from the perspective of a friend or mentor only.
- Anne intends her responses to provide general information to the readership of this website; answers should not be understood to be specific advice intended for any particular individual(s).
- Questions submitted to this column are not guaranteed to receive responses.
- No correspondence takes place.
- No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by ‘Anne’ to people submitting questions.
- ‘Anne’, Mental Help Net and CenterSite, LLC make no warranties, express or implied, about the information presented in this column. ‘Anne’ and Mental Help Net disclaim any and all merchantability or warranty of fitness for a particular purpose or liability in connection with the use or misuse of this service.
- Always consult with your psychotherapist, physician, or psychiatrist first before changing any aspect of your treatment regimen. Do not stop your medication or change the dose of your medication without first consulting with your physician.
You are already getting started. Your analysis of your problem is clear and you have an understanding of what needs to occur. At this point you need help to move beyond an intellectual analysis of your problem into a concrete plan for how to make improvements. And I am pleased to say to you that you are very much on the right track with what you want to accomplish. Nothing in this world comes with a guarantee, but if you are successfully able to make these changes, you will be a freer person. More importantly you will have become a person in your own right, and not merely a reflection of what others (“my family, my school, the Catholic Church”) wanted you to be. Anger is a part of your body, mind and soul. It is a normal and completely healthy thing. Like anxiety, it is an emotion that functions as a compass for us, helping us to know when we are in danger and when others have intruded on us in ways that diminish us. It is certainly possible to abuse anger, but the scenarios you are describing are in no way abuses of anger. They are rather, expressions of healthy anger, where anger is helping you to know when your boundaries have been transgressed. This is healthy anger; the anger which helps you to be a better person. There are a few things you can explore if you want to become more of your own person. I suggest you read and study up on ‘Assertiveness Training’ so as to learn the difference between passivity, assertiveness and aggression. You are passive at present. Passivity (being dominated by other people’s wishes) is one extreme of a dimension. The other extreme is aggression (dominating other people). In the middle is assertiveness (not allowing yourself to be dominated by others, but also not dominating others). When people are raised up to be one of these extremes (either dominant or passive) they are typically unable to comprehend the middle option and they struggle with understanding how it can be possible. That is normal. With practice and a willingness to make mistakes, it is perfectly possible to learn how to be assertive. You can read about assertiveness on the Internet (try starting with Clay Tucker Ladd’s Psychological Self-Help) or in books, but you are probably best off working with a therapist and/or assertiveness group training program. The reason is that actually being assertive requires learning how to tolerate angry emotions and the inevitable reprisals that will be generated when you challenge how you handle your family members and other relationships. When someone starts ‘fighting back’ they are almost always challenged. Your family may try to shame you into submission, or more aggressively intimate you back into your own ways. You will benefit from the support of others while you learn how to do this on your own. This is all part of what can be termed, “growing pains”. You have developed your own ideas only your family system hasn’t made it easy to express them. Worse, you’ve internalized your family’s ideas about not expressing yourself so you are censoring yourself. It will hurt to challenge these beliefs, but ultimately, not as much as it will hurt if you don’t. Good luck.