Often when sitting with clients I hear them get stuck where many of us do — they want to tell someone they are angry with them, but worry about sounding mean. In fact, this assumption that being angry is mean often stops the person from even considering talking to a friend about their feelings. Women clients, in particular. often say something to the effect of, “I was so mad I was like ‘you are not listening or respecting my decisions’.” At that point I often ask how the person responded to that statement, and the client will say, “Oh no, that is what I wanted to say, but I could never say something so mean. I was just thinking it in my head.” I cannot tell you how many times I have fallen for this. The thing is that what these women are saying is completely rational and understandable, but they see it as too harsh or mean.
When did angry and mean get merged together? How did we get to a place where expressing a righteous feeling of anger means you are hurting someone?
I can remember being in middle school and talking for hours on the phone with friends. A lot of the conversations were about someone who was not on the line. We would analyze their behavior, talk about what made us angry and then hang up pretty satisfied. It often felt like talking about our anger was the same as expressing our anger. I had a vague instinct when we were chatting that there was some avoidance going on (don’t ask: as a kid I had a pretty intense intuition), but had no idea what else to do. We learned that talking to someone else about our anger was nicer than telling the person themselves. I am pretty sure this was reinforced in popular culture as well with soap operas, and teen favorites like Beverly Hills 90210 (my favorite at the time of middle school.)
But what if we separated out being mean and being angry? According to Thesaurus.com being mean is synonymous with callous, dangerous, evil, malicious, nasty, vicious, and vile. Synonyms for angry are- annoyed, bitter, exasperated, heated, impassioned, irritable, offended, and outraged. These two words mean completely different things. One can be angry and not be mean. One can be frustrated with someone without being mean. In fact, what if telling someone you were angry with them was not a mean act, but rather not telling them was considered mean?
By avoiding sharing with people when we are angry we do not allow ourselves the opportunity for the blissful experience of repair. Repair happens after two people have a disagreement or rupture in their relationship. The repair is when the people come together and talk about their feelings honestly and openly. Often these are the most intimate connected moments of a relationship.
By avoiding telling someone how they made you angry you may avoid some short-term discomfort, but you will lose the gift of longer-term repair and growth.