It was my first job as a physician. I was 32 years old.
In that job I functioned as a psychiatric consultant. Thus, while I had clinical expertise, I didn’t have formal authority at any of the places I worked.
I can’t remember now what exactly happened: Someone said or did something that vexed me. It made me worry about how staff might (mis)treat patients. But who was I? I didn’t work for that agency; I was only there two days a week.
“I don’t feel like I can say anything,” I sighed to my boss.
My boss took a sip from his drink and leaned forward on the table.
“Maria, it’s okay get angry,” he said. “Sometimes you need to let people know that you’re angry.”
When we’re young, we often don’t believe that we can contain our anger. And, in some ways, that’s true: We don’t contain our anger because it is unfamiliar to us. There are different flavors of anger: Sometimes it simmers just beneath the surface of our skin while the flames roar in our ears. Sometimes it explodes and tears, words, and fists fly from of our bodies. When we’re young, these flavors are novel and strange: What is happening? What am I supposed to do with this? It’s empowering and overwhelming and frightening all at the same time.
We also don’t believe that we can contain our anger because we often don’t know how. It’s a skills deficit. Our anger propels us to do different things because anger is uncomfortable. We say (or scream) things. We break things. We cry. We bury it within us. We focus the energy of anger into other things. We avoid it.
As we age, we get to know our anger because it keeps coming around. There’s no way to avoid it, though that doesn’t stop us from trying. Most of us recognize the different flavors over time; we even learn what flavor we prefer.
Many of us also learn that our anger won’t destroy us. The sharp edges of anger cause us pain, yes, but we know that the edges will become dull and the pain will recede. That never happens as fast as we wish; we grumble with annoyance and impatience as the days, weeks, months—maybe even years—pass. The anger burns, but its flames do not kill us.
We also learn that when we share our anger with others, whether we intend to or not, we often make ourselves vulnerable. Those who must work or live with us learn what our buttons are and how we react when they press them. Sometimes our distress makes them laugh at us. Indeed, there are people who will use the vulnerability within our anger against us. Many others, particularly those who care about us, learn more about who we are and appreciate us more, despite our anger.
Not only does our anger let other people know who we are, but it also tells us who we are, too. Sometimes we don’t like what we learn about ourselves when we’re angry. Other times, our anger reminds us and reaffirms what we value.
And sometimes you need to let people know that you’re angry so they learn what matters to you.