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Anger and Alcohol

Recently I was speaking at a CLE program about lawyers, and chemical addiction. I talked about the need to understand the signals one gets from the dashboard of the physical/mental/emotional vehicle that we call the self.

After the program I talked with a lawyer who told me that the only emotion he was aware of regularly experiencing was anger. I think this lawyer had hit on what may be the major emotional issue of the 1990’s  the difficulty people have in dealing with anger.

Anger and its aggressive expression can serve a lawyer in either a functional or dysfunctional way. Anger can be used as the source of energy for the lawyer’s successful aggressive strategy when an attorney sees real injustice. But some attorneys seem to run on anger all the time to get anything done. Over time, undifferentiated aggressiveness exacts a toll. Anger may become difficult to turn off, and thus becomes a way of being rather than just an emotion. Lawyering can be the profession of choice for individuals who thrive directly on anger, and those who have the opposite problem of being afraid to deal with their own anger.

If one has repressed one’s own anger and is out of touch with what causes his or her negative emotions, then it is easy for that repressed anger to come out directed toward someone else. In such a case one uses the aggressive nature of the profession as a way to escape one’s own negative feelings.

Alcohol is a ready way to release anger and aggression. For some individuals, alcohol allows them to get angry, and vent. We can go to the football game, and drink, get mad at the referee, and generally act in a fairly outrageous manner. Our culture accepts drinking as an excuse for venting emotions that would otherwise not be appropriate. For others alcohol allows them to feel released from their pent-up anger. People may also drink to avoid anger, drown their woes, or forget their anger.

There is a common misconception that venting one’s anger in some outwardly aggressive manner is a proper way to handle the emotion. However, this is quite incorrect. In fact, the venting of one’s anger may simply aggravate the anger, and reinforce a pattern of dealing with emotions that tends to obfuscate what the emotional signal is really all about. This is where anger ceases being an emotion, and becomes one’s whole being.

The emotional signal of anger is neither bad nor good. It is simply a signal by the body of how the world is being experienced. Often if one gets mad over some little thing, it is clear a clear sign that another emotional issue has been displaced, and is trying to get attention. The whole key in dealing with anger is to understand what the signal is all about. Although the initial feeling of anger is automatic, what we do in response to that feeling is a matter of choice. Too often we go into a conditioned response of either avoidance or acting out without understanding what our self is trying to tell us about its experience of others and what is happening around us.

Retention of anger, or resentments, are just as counterproductive as blind acting-out. Holding a grudge against another person does not affect that person; rather it affects the person holding the grudge, often eating away with such physical effects as high blood pressure, headaches, and ulcers. It has been said that “harboring resentments is allowing someone whom you don’t like to live rent-free inside your head.” The use of alcohol can be a way to nurse the grudge, to provide comfort to the discomfort that the repressed anger has caused.

Unresolved anger is also a fundamental way to isolate one’s self. And alcohol is the great way to feel good about one’s own isolation. In fact as alcoholism progresses the drinker usually tends to drink more, and more in isolation.

We work in a profession that often runs on anger or resentment. We do so in an environment of wonderful technology that has created the expectation that certain things will happen and that they will happen quickly. Technology has lowered our frustration levels, and caused us to demand instant gratification. Alcohol complements this since it is an instant gratifier and mood changer.

As a profession we need to learn how to pay attention to our emotional messages, and not to act on them without thought, or let them automatically run our lives; we need to understand how we are feeling. If we don’t know what the dash light of anger means when it is flashing, or it seems to flash all the time, then maybe we ought to talk with a professional about what is going on. If we use alcohol to cope with the flashing light then our best bet is to talk to someone who can help. If you need help finding some to talk to just call PALS at 1-800-720-PALS.

– by Don Carroll

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