Published on August 20th, 2013 | by Nichole L. Nelson
Betty and Don are divorced. Don has the kids on the weekends. One day, Betty and Don’s daughter, Sally, cuts her own hair in a short style. When Don brings her home and Betty sees her hair, she slaps Sally across the face. “Get up to your room!”
When the little girl is upstairs, Betty screams at Don, “You can’t even watch them for a second. It’s like leaving them with nobody!”
“Who knows who he had watching her,” she wonders to her second husband when Don leaves, “A secretary? Another whore?”
The real reason for Betty’s anger reveals itself: her repressed anger about Don’s affairs.
Betty and Don are characters on the period drama television show Mad Men, set in 1960s America. I relate to Betty because I learned the same unhealthy responses to emotions that she did, even though we grew up in different eras.
Believing strong emotions to be unladylike, Betty’s mother raised her not to express them. Betty’s husband and friends tell her that since her life is great (according to them), she should be grateful and that’s that.
I have heard the same teachings my whole life. In response to sadness: “There’s no reason to cry.” In response to anger: “Stop being so negative!” These kinds of dismissive or judgmental statements are called invalidation and can lead to the repression of emotions. Repression is the act of blocking emotions or desires deemed unacceptable by the conscious mind.
I was so afraid of being judged that I repressed my emotions so well I never knew when I was feeling sad or disappointed or hopeless or angry. I was lucky if I cried once a year. Crying is still such a foreign act to me, that when I do cry, I feel not just shame but fear. I feel like the earth is going to open up and swallow me. I feel like I am going to die.
Like Betty, I tend to repress my feelings and pile them on top of other repressed feelings until I have created a volatile stew that boils over out of necessity.
Anger is such an overwhelming emotion because it’s our body’s way of saying, “Enough! This has to be dealt with immediately!” It is a necessary and helpful emotion, as long as we know how to process it, rather than just reacting blindly out of anger, which harms ourselves and others.
Like Betty, I never considered counseling until it was absolutely necessary. But I am so thankful I did, because in counseling sessions I learned some valuable techniques for dealing with emotions, including anger, before they pile up.
Techniques for Dealing with Anger
One technique is mindfulness, that is, being aware of your environment and your response to it. To practice mindfulness, ask yourself every few minutes, what is happening around you? How do you feel physically? What is your body doing?
Signs that you are angry are that you are clenching your fists, frowning, knitting your eyebrows and breathing heavily. Your heart is thumping, your brain is on fire with countless negative thoughts, and you may be fighting the urge to throw something or yell—or you’re already in the act!
It can be difficult to rationalize when you’re in fight mode, so practice deep breathing techniques. Try breathing in as you count to four, holding your breath for four seconds, and then exhaling over four seconds. This automatically slows down your pulse. Do it for as long as you need to until your heart rate and breathing are back to normal.
Once you’ve calmed down, you can begin to analyze the problem using your Wise Mind. (That is, by rationalizing while fully taking into account your emotions.) Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Keep asking why until you have gotten to the root of the problem.
Betty is crushed by her husband’s unfaithfulness because she feels inadequate. She is afraid he will not always be there. Then she worries that her children will also suffer because of his selfishness and carelessness. Betty’s inner dialogue could look like this:
Why do I feel angry? Because Don has proven that he is unreliable in the care of our children. Why does this make me feel angry? Because it’s not fair they should suffer for his wrongdoing. This reminds me of how he neglected us in the past. I feel that nothing has changed.
Once Betty has come to these conclusions, she could realize that she is not truly upset with her daughter. She could deal with her feelings of pain or fear by realizing that Don’s actions are not a reflection on her.
She could talk to Don at a more appropriate time and say something such as, “I don’t feel like you are paying full attention to the kids when you have them over. Please assure me by telling me what you plan to do differently next time.”
It’s too bad Betty quits seeing a psychiatrist. She loses out on coming to valuable conclusions.
I’ve learned that emotions have a physiological effect and need attention. Acknowledging my concerns when they crop up will help me deal with them more effectively than if I ignore them, because ultimately they won’t be ignored.
If I let myself cry, guess what? I don’t die. The earth does not open up and swallow me. Because as powerful as my emotions can feel, they are normal and they pass. It is perfectly safe to face them head on when they arrive. It is even beneficial, as this allows me to deal with one issue at a time.
The times I have remembered to use the techniques above when I’m angry, they have worked to calm me down. With enough practice, as in anything, they become second nature. Try them yourself, seek professional guidance if you need it, and notice the change in your behavior, health, and relationships.
Then pass the knowledge on! Let’s create a society which is less the realism of Mad Men and more the idealism of the 1960s—an ideal which acknowledges and utilizes, instead of belittles and hides, emotions.
Image from a photo by Ilker via Stock.Xchng.
To discuss this post and to see some links to further reading about the healthy expression of anger, see the related blog post What to Read When You’re Angry.