Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program.
- I’m terrible at expressing my feelings.
- I always hold things in.
- I’m a conflict avoider.
- My girlfriend says I always want to sweep things under the rug.
- I tend to either under-react to problems or over-react to them. I’m not good at the in-between.
- When a problem comes up with my husband, I just clam up.
- When I’m really upset, all I want to do is escape.
Of all the emotions you can have, one is probably the most challenging. It’s an energizing, activating feeling that pushes you to act. I’m talking about anger, of course. Every therapist has heard statements like the ones above many, many times. Anger is powerful and it can be confusing. No wonder so many people have so many problems expressing and using their anger in the way it’s meant to be expressed and used.
3 Ways Your Childhood Affects How You Deal With Anger Now
1. What did you learn about how to handle anger by observing how your parents handled theirs? If you grow up with an explosive parent, you may either end up emulating that (thinking it’s the right way) or you may decide you never want to be explosive, and end up over-correcting to the point that you hold your anger in.
2. Was there room for your anger in your childhood home? Sadly, for a large number of children, anger is not an acceptable emotion in their families. Perhaps in general for all family members, perhaps for only the children, and perhaps for only a particular child. Regardless, an intolerance for the emotions of the children in a family constitutes true Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. CEN teaches you to repress and hide your feelings. It sets you up to minimize and avoid your anger.
3. Did you learn the emotional skills needed to be able to accept and use your anger? In order to use the energy your anger gives you to protect yourself — the true purpose of anger as an emotion — there are a number of skills you need. Did you have the opportunity to learn them in your childhood? What did you miss out on, and why? Perhaps you observed unhealthy anger patterns in your parents or perhaps you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Either way, it is likely not your fault that you didn’t learn them.
The Anger Skills
Anger is nothing more than a message from your body accompanied by the energy required to act on that message. The message is:
“Take action. Threat — or harm is near. Protect yourself.”
In order to listen to the message your body is sending you when you feel angry, you must be able to perform some complex skills simultaneously. They involve managing the energy that comes along with your anger so that you can use your brain to process it.
Consider these questions to ask yourself to help guide you through that process.
- Exactly what am I feeling? What words describe this feeling best?
- Why am I feeling this way? What caused it?
- Do I need to take action to protect myself or help resolve my anger?
- If so, exactly what action should I take? Do I need to distance myself from someone? Do I need to talk with someone?
- If you need to say something, how do you express it?
One very common result of growing up in an angry home, a repressive emotionally neglectful home, or any other type of home that fails to teach you the anger skills is this: you do not have the opportunity to learn the words that you will need throughout your adult life to express your angry feelings.
This is especially important because there is something almost magical about putting your anger into words, even if it’s only for yourself, in your own head. And the more specifically and accurately you can name what you are feeling, the more relief it gives you. For most situations the word “anger” is not specific enough. In most situations, you can do much better!
For example, let’s say your friend Adam offered to help you move and then did not show up. He neither calls to explain nor apologizes and seems to just blow it off as not a big deal. You are having some feelings.
After processing through your anger by asking yourself all of the questions above you could put the label “anger” on it and then either say nothing; or explode at him accusing him of not caring about you and being selfish.
Or you might label your anger with some more nuanced words, like: “I feel disappointed, unimportant, hurt, forgotten, left in a lurch, bugged, unconsidered, fuming and miffed.” These words provide the springboard for what action you should take. You realize that if you do not talk to Adam, it will leave you holding these negative feelings and will damage your friendship going forward. So you tell him you must talk with him about something. Then later, when you meet up, you say:
“Adam, I was counting on you to help me move. It was so thoughtful of you to volunteer to come and help! But then when you didn’t show up, I felt really miffed and forgotten. When you didn’t call to let me know you weren’t coming it was just so disappointing. I feel like you left me in a lurch without consideration.”
This rich, feeling-based and vulnerable description of how you experienced Adam’s actions is far less likely to damage your friendship because it is so honest and real.
When you talk with someone in your life this way it is a test of who that person is. Will Adam apologize and admit his thoughtlessness? Become so uncomfortable that all he wants to do is escape? Or become defensive?
One thing is for sure: as long as you express your anger in a genuine and vulnerable way, his response says very little about you, and everything about him. So, no matter what happens, you now know him a little bit better as does he now know you.
Use the list below to put words to your anger. Use them often, and use them well. They will open doors to healthier, richer relationships and a more expressive and genuine you.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is usually invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out you can Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens, how it affected you as a child, how it stays with you through your adult life and affects your adult relationships, and how to heal see the books Running On Empty and Running on Empty No More (links to both books below this article).
Have an anger word that’s not on the list? Suggest it in a comment! Let’s see how many we can get.
52 Ways to Say You are Angry
- Pissed off
- Worked up
- Fighting mad
- Morally outraged
This article first appeared on PsychCentral.