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Anger The Drug

“Anger is liquor to the “dry drunk” alcoholic.  Once anger comes in, just like alcohol, it has to wear itself out; it goes through the body just like liquor.”  These were the words of a PALS volunteer to me recently.  They struck home.  I have been working with lawyers and judges dealing with alcohol issues for almost 12 years now, and my friend’s statement confirmed my experience both with alcoholic lawyers and lawyers suffering from depression. Anger can be a powerful drug.  Like other drug addictions, once you are hooked, you cannot “just say no.”  Anger has become an addiction.

While the problem of anger is not limited to men, in this article, I will focus primarily on the impact of anger on men.  It is worth noting that as more and more women become members of our profession, studies show that issues once thought of as being primarily male symptoms (e.g. Anger being a symptom of male depression.) are beginning to be seen just a prevalently among female members of the profession.  In a sense as gender equality becomes more of a reality in our profession, so do we find the types of life problems lawyers encounter becoming distributed more nearly equally among all of us.

There are healthy aspects of anger.  Like most human emotions, that at first blush seem troublesome, anger has a very important purpose.  It is a way our body quickly gathers resources to defend itself in a time of crisis.  It can provide the energy needed to get out of a bad, unhealthy situation.  It can provide the incentive to us as lawyers to right wrongs, to work for justice.  The problem of course is not the healthy, constructive use of anger, but the destructive use of anger. Learning how to use anger healthily, to process our anger in a constructive way, is important for us at any time in our life.  But anger that becomes addictive is often anger that hits men in mid-life.

The problem of anger is, for a lot of men, a developmental issue.  At mid-life most men have to come to terms with some form of pain.  It is the situation that the alcoholic faces at whatever age he gets sober.  The dry drunk is the alcoholic who is not willing to face that pain, who avoids the work embodied in the 12 steps to gain emotional maturity.  Without the actual alcohol, without the tools of 12 step work to gain maturity, the alcoholic is in bad need of something to medicate his pain.  If not alcohol, his drug of choice may be anger.

The situation is similar for most men, alcoholic or not, at mid-life.  We have to face the pain of divorces, the pain of not becoming quite the lawyer we wanted to be, the pain of limited financial success, the pain of children who are not successes, the pain of parents who die, the pain of sacrificing for our career and losing our personal lives, or the pain of becoming estranged from a belief system that previously nurtured our lives.  Most men are not taught as young men how to deal with the pain of loss. Often times the success that we have had as good students in high school and college, the very success that has led us into law school, has allowed us to avoid some of the painful experiences many of our peers suffered earlier.  The result is that when we encounter pain at mid-life we are unprepared to deal with it.  Men who do not transform their pain transmit it.  Pain which is avoided – un-suffered pain – becomes anger.

In addition to the situational losses (such as loss of a loved one) that cause pain, at mid-life there are some inevitable painful life processes that must be confronted.  Two especially are important.

First, men at mid-life must confront the fact that their lives have become restricted. We live in a world in which a man’s prime value is to defend his country and provide for his family.  These are important and honorable roles, but they do not make a complete person. They do not feed the part of the man that is a little league coach, an artist, a musician, a story teller, a Sunday school teacher.  You can be a well known lawyer in your town, have an attractive wife, a nice house on the golf course, vacations in the sun and feel a profound emptiness.  Most men have sacrificed some important part of themselves by mid-life in exchange for economic security and gaining a foothold in the profession.  This is a loss.  Maybe a necessary one, but a loss nonetheless and unless it is honestly suffered, it may stay lodged in our throats as depression and anger.  The first step to healing this is that men must stop being dishonest with themselves and each other.   They must permit their unhappiness to become conscious.  They must suffer their loss and grow in the process.  The irony is that less is always more, for we grow through losses.

Second, men must have suffered the emotional loss of no longer being mothered. In Jungian psychological terms, a man must have dealt with his mother complex.  The greatest psychological influence in a man’s life, under normal circumstances, is his mother.  Because of the enormous power of this maternal influence, men who do not consciously come to grips with its effect on them remain trapped in it.  Being trapped leads to anger.

This trap has several aspects.  First, by being unwilling to take an honest look at the power of the feminine in their lives, men will allow it to have an even greater power.  Fear of this power then drives men to seek either to please women or to dominate them, or both.   Whichever way this goes the man is apt to become angry.  By pleasing, he may become passive aggressive and express anger in that way.  Or, he may use anger as a way to try to dominate and control.  Another aspect of the male unconsciously ceding too much psychological power to the feminine, that he then must defend against, is an overvaluation and fear of sexuality.   Sex defies easy definition and most of all it is a profound mystery, but the misuses of sex are obvious.  For the man who has become cut off from the feminine qualities of himself and sees life as a cold, difficult process, sex may simply be a narcotic, like anger, that fleetingly allows him to escape his own pain of un-acceptance.  Sex as an expression of love presupposes an equal partnership, not a relationship where power must be held by the man to protect himself from his own unlived inner aspects and the loss of maternal nurturance.

Ironically men, who have become addicted to alcohol and other drugs and have sought treatment or AA, have an advantage over men who have not.  They have been forced to confront their pain.  Of course if they do not, then their need for the medication of anger is even greater.

Anger is only visibly a problem for a few of the lawyers who are troubled by it.  We become acculturated at an early age to suppress anger.  Usually by five years of age, we have learned that expressions of anger are unacceptable to others.  And of course, this is good socialization. Many expressions of anger are inappropriate.  The problem is that the small child often learns that having the feeling of anger itself, not just a destructive expression of it, is inappropriate.  Often high achievers, like lawyers, learn this lesson implicitly.  So it is important to look at some of the ways hidden anger is expressed.  The list could be much longer but here are some of the signs of hidden, unexpressed anger.

  • Smiling when you are sad or upset
  • Always being late
  • Digestive tract problems
  • Depression
  • Being tired all the time
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or awaking and difficulty going back to sleep
  • Sarcasm and cynicism
  • Grinding of teeth or jaw
  • Getting sleepy at inappropriate times
  • Excessive irritability, especially about inconsequential things
  • Procrastination

The first step then in dealing with anger is to become aware of it.   The second step, which in many ways is the hardest, is accepting it.  Often we want to skip some part of the maturing process.  We feel like it is childish of us to really believe that we are still angry at our mothers.  No shortcuts with anger.  The more awareness and acceptance of it are avoided, the more in control of you it will be.  The third step is action.  We need to take some action that will discharge the anger in some way that does not hurt you or others.  We need to take action in ways that will allow us to feel, without fear of being overwhelmed.

In summary let’s review what we know about anger.  Anger is a normal consequence of suffering loss in life.  By mid-life, we all have suffered some major situational and developmental losses.  If we have not suffered them consciously then chances are we have buried our anger.  Hidden anger is insidious and can ruin our enjoyment of life and that of those around us. For those who have not dealt with life’s maturing issues of loss, then anger can be a way to medicate feelings.  One can in fact get drunk on anger and stay drunk on anger for lengthy periods of time.

Healthy Anger – a signal that something is wrong

  • a response of moral outrage

Hidden Anger  –  a defense against experiencing loss

  • a way to avoid intimacy
  • a way to seek to maintain the illusion one is in control
  • counseling with a therapist is often required to address     underlying issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms

Narcotic Anger- a chronic habit used to avoid experiencing feelings of loss or shame

  • if it turns into rage and physical and emotional violence, it may require behavioral therapy to minimize danger to others
  • often acts in normal addiction cycle that is self-reinforcing
  • often requires support from a self help support program for a person to be able to address underlying issues
  • counseling with a therapist is often required to address     underlying issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms

Getting rid of an accumulation of buried anger and resentments is one of the most important tasks to live a life of freedom.  The Buddhist would say that through the acceptance of pain that underlies anger we free ourselves from the attachment it holds over us.   Whether one seeks help in therapy, a self help support group, or Buddhist practice, the process of coping with the anger – that un-addressed would destroy us – can be what ultimately frees us.

– by Don Carroll

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