Moving from anger to forgiveness is a healing experience
Adults who grew up with alcoholic parents probably have plenty to be mad about. As children, they were virtually powerless to stop the forms of abuse and neglect they often suffered. They couldn’t express their anger or outrage in a healthy manner. Instead, many either acted out their anger by getting into trouble or reacted inwardly by converting anger into shame, depression or low self-esteem.
It can take years of hard work to discover how deep the wounds really go. If anger isn’t eventually dealt with responsibly, it can be a major block to personal growth.
Unresolved anger is often a factor in addictive and compulsive behaviors and relapse. Holding on to old anger can cause people to avoid conflict, procrastinate, and give up their needs. It can poison relationships and prevent true intimacy. It breeds bitterness, resentment, mistrust and fear.
“People who carry around a lot of resentment tend to be more reactive to day-to-day situations,” said Rosemary Hartman, supervisor of the Hazelden Family Program in Center City, Minn. “If a driver makes a slight error in judgment on the highway, some people may react by screaming or shaking a fist at the driver–not because of the actual occurrence, but because they have a huge bank of anger inside that is tapped with the slightest provocation. Family members or significant others also become the recipients of repressed, misplaced anger. If people blow up at their boss, they probably won’t last long on the job. Spouses and children tend to tolerate that kind of behavior for a longer period of time.”
Many people have a lot of anger inside them, but they don’t realize it. Accepting that we are angry and identifying the reasons why helps us begin to let go.
“If your heart was broken because you always wanted to be hugged by your mother and father and they were never there, or you experienced actual abuse, you’ve got a valid gripe,” said Earnie Larsen, a workshop leader and author of From Anger to Forgiveness. “But once you understand and acknowledge that, you need to work through the anger and move beyond it to forgiveness and reconciliation. Otherwise, you’re just stuck in a cycle of resentment and bitterness.”
The people most likely to hang on to anger are those who come from dysfunctional families–people who didn’t get their feelings validated as children or who were forced to deny their feelings. “Anger is the emotional response to perceived injustice,” Larsen said. “It is always a justice issue. It’s thinking or feeling that ‘I don’t count,’ or ‘My thoughts aren’t important.’”
An important part of recovery for alcoholics and adult children of alcoholics involves doing the “anger work” and moving towards forgiveness. The first stage in this process is to understand the incidents that still trigger anger.
Larsen and Hartman offer other practical suggestions:
- Understand that addiction is a disease. This awareness is helpful for people who grew up in alcoholic families. Knowing that hurtful things were done out of addiction, rather than out of malice, helps people begin to forgive.
- Become willing to forgive. Without the willingness to forgive or work out a relationship, nothing will happen.
- Learn communications and assertiveness skills. These skills give people an outlet to express anger and other feelings in a nondisruptive way.
- Ask for help from a Higher Power. Tapping into a power greater than ourselves can help overcome long-term resentments and rage. Prayer can help people let go of self-pity and thoughts of revenge.
- Detach with love. We’re less apt to be angry when we let go of responsibility for other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors and concentrate on our own issues.
The benefits of successfully dealing with anger include serenity, self-confidence, healthier relationships and recovery. It’s not a one-shot deal, but a process that continues throughout our lives.
“Sometimes, I hear people say, ‘I want to be able to forgive once and for all,’” Hartman said. “But it usually doesn’t work that way. If people are working on themselves, if they have a good spiritual base and remain willing to forgive, they won’t be interested in staying angry. They will be able to let go of anger a lot sooner.”
Alive & Free is a health column that provides information to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is created by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services on addiction.