Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Felt angry lately? If you’re human, the answer is probably yes. So the better question is: What did you do about it? Something? Nothing? The wrong thing?
It’s only human to get angry. In fact, you’ve been getting angry since before you were even aware you could get angry. Like that time when you were a few days old and you howled until the milk was delivered. Anger is just one more emotion along a whole range of emotions that are part of being human.
Here’s what’s ironic: while anger is an emotion that comes naturally, it is also the emotion we often have the most trouble feeling and expressing, and it's also the emotion we often have the most trouble dealing with in others. We live in a world where we often witness anger that seems to get out of control, leading to outbursts of emotion and hurt feelings, or worse.
Life challenges bring up a lot of emotions, including anger. Living with a chronic condition, or living with someone who is living with a chronic condition, can certainly bring up a lot of anger. Whether the anger gets expressed or not, and what happens if it does, is complicated to say the least.
When chronic conditions cause anger
Here’s an example:
Joe was recently diagnosed with a chronic condition. The symptoms of the condition, as well as the treatment, have resulted in his having to make some major changes to his diet, as well as modify his activity levels, and go on a strict medication regimen—none of which he welcomed. Even with sticking to his treatment plan, Joe has good days and some bad days. Joe’s wife, Ann, has been a constant source of support, every step of the way.
Recently, Joe woke up on a Saturday morning not feeling himself, and told Ann that he was going to have to “beg off” on helping her with some chores and grocery shopping they had planned.
When Ann asked him how he was feeling, Joe wanted to tell her, "Frustrated…no, angry." He couldn’t help but think about how useless he sometimes feels when he can’t get out and do his yardwork and how unfair life can be. But Joe was concerned about “venting” on Ann. He didn’t want her to think he was angry with her.
So instead, he held up his hand as if to wave his wife away, and answered “I’m fine.”
Ann knew Joe wasn’t fine. But she didn’t want him to think she was trying to push him into talking when it was clear he didn’t want to talk.
And so they didn’t talk and, instead, Joe sat in front of the TV while Ann did some shopping.
Joe’s fear of expressing his anger affected him, his wife, and their relationship. Joe held in his anger when he might have felt better if he had talked about it. His wife, Ann, felt like she was being pushed away when all she wanted to do was offer support. And Joe and Ann missed an opportunity to connect and maybe even have a better day.
Have you ever felt like Joe? Or like Ann?
Tips for talking about anger
Feeling angry doesn’t mean you are angry at your partner. It just means you’re angry. And talking about anger doesn’t have to lead to a blow-up.
Here some ideas to help you communicate when your anger is holding you back:
Own up to your anger. Communicating about anger starts with talking to yourself. Don’t deny your own feelings. If you’re feeling angry, admit it to yourself. “I feel really angry,” or “I am really ticked off.” Feel the relief.
Get clear with yourself on why you are feeling angry. Often, you can identify what is making you angry. Something that happened or didn’t happen. Something that someone else did or said. Situations that feel out of your control. Other times, you just feel bad about the challenges of chronic illness and want to vent. Whatever the reason is, be aware of it.
What’s bothering you may not actually be what’s bothering you. It’s only human nature to make a mountain out of a molehill, to focus a lot of attention on something that is easier to wrap our minds around, like getting mad about waiting too long for your doctor when what you are really mad about is having to go to the doctor in the first place. So ask yourself: “What am I mad about? Is this what’s bothering me or is it something a lot bigger?” When you ask this question, you are also giving yourself the chance to get some perspective on your anger, to recognize the difference between a mild annoyance and a catastrophe and something you can change and something you can’t.
Anger sometimes hides what’s really going on. Also keep in mind that it can be a lot easier to feel angry than it is to have feelings like sadness, fear, or disappointment. So ask yourself: “Is it anger I’m feeling, or feelings that I am not so comfortable with?” You might decide you’re not so angry after all.
Express your feelings with the “I word.” Start out the conversation with your partner by expressing how you feel. It can be helpful to use “I" and not “you.” Make the conversation about how you feel, not how you assume the other person is feeling. Take responsibility.
Focus on the issue. Talking about your anger with your partner will be a lot more productive if you focus on the specific issue you are angry about. A bad day when you had plans to do something. Something they said or did that caused you to feel hurt. Another change you have to make to accommodate your condition. But not everything that has made you mad over the last 10 years. Consistently talking about angry feelings as they arise will help you to avoid the big build-up that can lead to an explosion.
Let your partner know what you need. Sometimes we just feel angry because of the challenges of life. No one knows this better than someone who is living with a chronic condition. You may need a little time to vent and get support. Other times, the issue may be one that needs to be addressed with action. Your partner can’t read your mind. So tell each other what you need. The best way to promote peace is for everyone to be aware of each other’s hot buttons, and what everybody can do to either avoid pushing them, or how to get back on track after they have been pushed.
When someone is angry at you
When you are on the receiving end of anger, here are some ideas that can help:
Listen. When your partner directs anger toward you, your first reaction may be to put up a barrier or to become defensive. Try to remain calm and open. One way to do this is to remind yourself that they may be having a bad day and need to vent. But it may also be possible that your partner needs to say something that, once you become aware of it, can promote more peace and harmony in your relationship. Listen and learn.
Help your partner identify the issue. Your partner may not be crystal clear about what he or she is angry about. One way to help keep the anger from escalating, and potentially help your partner to identify what is bothering them, is by asking a simple question: “How can I help you?” This shows you are listening and care. And by asking it, your partner may be able to identify what’s at stake or to realize they simply need a listening ear.
Talk. Listen. Understand. Don’t expect to solve. Anger doesn’t always lead to a solution. Sometimes the lack of a solution is what leads to the anger in the first place. Be okay with sharing feelings and understanding each other. Be okay with acknowledging each other’s anger. Recognize what is in your control and what is not in your control, what can and can’t be changed, where you agree, and where you agree to disagree.
It’s not okay to make someone else feel like a punching bag. And you don’t have to feel like one. Sure, chronic conditions introduce lots of challenges and frustrations, but at some point, it may be necessary to gently let your partner know you are willing to help, and listen, but that you aren’t there to be verbally abused. Repeat as needed.
Compassion is a boomerang. Show love to yourself by feeling how you feel and not denying your own emotions. Show love to your partner by being willing to hear how they are feeling, even when the conversation isn’t so easy to listen to. That’s compassion.
So how about starting the conversation with “I love you.”