For a long period in my life, I used drugs to snuff out my emotions. I’d utilize any tool I could find to achieve this suppression, but heroin seemed to work the best for me. I would do anything to avoid feeling pain and being honest with myself. Avoidance is a response that I learned through experiences in my childhood, and it has affected me negatively in my adult life. You can read more about this in a previous column.

I no longer use heroin to deal with painful emotions. This dramatic change has left me scrambling to learn new ways to manage these feelings and my response to them. One response to the emotional pain that I’ve struggled with, is anger.

My anger has exploded on co-workers, loved ones, strangers. Sometimes the anger was justified, but it was never helpful. I’ve spent hours inside my own head thinking about how someone has wronged me or caused my anger, only to make the feelings intensify.

Beneath all of our anger lies hurt. Have you ever stubbed your toe on a piece of furniture and then instantly became angry? You placed the furniture where it stands and you’re in control of your feet, so who are you angry with? It’s a response to the pain you felt. It works the same way with emotional pain.

Almost everyone who suffers from addiction has trauma in their past and struggles with how to process the pain from those events. Not everyone with trauma struggles with addiction, but many people, including myself, do. Struggling to navigate feelings of anger are common in addiction recovery.

Anger, like all emotions, doesn’t just disappear when we suppress it. Suppression of anger has always caused me to build up like a pressure cooker until I explode. Instead, I’m trying to understand it differently as a secondary emotional reaction, so I can make better decisions in emotional situations.

I locked my anger up in solitary confinement with my other emotions during a decade of drug use. Letting it back into the world has proven challenging. 

UNDERSTANDING ANGER AS A SECONDARY EMOTION

What is the emotion that’s being overshadowed by my anger?

This is one question that has recently helped me take a step back and think about why I feel the way that I do. Typically, another emotion, like fear or sadness, can be found underneath the anger. Fear includes things like anxiety and worry, while sadness comes from the experience of loss or disappointment.

You may fear something or someone, but more often the greater fear is that of having your ego damaged or of being abandoned. Understanding the root causes of anger is the first step to addressing them in a better way.

I recently experienced something personally that would have normally sent me into a rage. My first impulse was to become angry, which is normal and maybe even justifiable in this situation. The problem is that when I allow anger to take the wheel, it can be almost impossible to regain control. I will burn the entire house down while I’m still standing inside of it. The consequences of my anger are almost always worse than the reason causing it.

Instead of completely letting anger take control, I asked myself the question above. What emotion is being overshadowed by my anger? I realized that I was covering up sadness and my ego was damaged. I wanted to blame another person for causing me to feel the way that I did.

In the year 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in seven political debates aptly referred to in our history books as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Douglas was up for re-election in the United States Senate and Lincoln hoped to defeat him. These debates happened a few years before Lincoln would become President, and slavery was a very hot political topic.

During their first debate, Lincoln passionately expressed his hate for slavery and even expressed his hatred for the attitude of being indifferent towards such injustice. He then paused and made a statement regarding Southern people who supported slavery at the time.

“They are just what we would be in their situation,” he said.

Lincoln realized that sometimes the actions of people are merely the result of their own circumstances. I’m not trying to compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 and my personal daily struggles, but this one sentence has stuck with me. It’s helped me to look beyond anger, being strict with my own emotional responses while being forgiving of other people.

The hard truth is that your circumstances don’t care how you feel about them, and sometimes people in your life don’t either. As that old and seemingly not attributable saying goes: Holding onto anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Every situation is made better with a calm mind. Without the ability to control your anger, you become a prisoner to it.

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