"At some point in recovery we must stop paying lip service to change and start to make positive changes in ourselves wherever we possibly can."

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Episode 144 -- August 30, 2021

Four "Cant's" and Four "Cans": Dealing with Anger in Recovery

When we're new to recovery, many of our emotions are out of whack—for all kinds of reasons. Learning to feel all our feelings is a new experience for lots of us, and anger can be a scary one. Authors Gayle Rosellini and Mark Worden are here to help.

The following excerpt, from their book Of Course You're Angry: A Guide to Dealing with the Emotions of Substance Abuse, focuses on the fact that our experience with anger likely started within our families—among the people we were closest to. The work of right-sizing our anger response, letting go of regret, and making amends has to do with accepting what we can and cannot own about our past.

Whether we're in a Twelve Step program or not, our path to recovery will involve revisiting the difficult moments in our lives and making some kind of peace with the past—including both the people who have wronged us and the ones we've hurt. Rosellini and Worden help us understand that anger won't go away on its own, and reasons to be angry won't disappear, but how we choose to process and act on our anger can and will change. That's the promise of recovery.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

For most of us, the crux of our anger recovery plan—our plan to acknowledge, accept, and cope with our angry and aggressive feelings—is that old standby, knowledge.

Insight, motivation, and behavior change spring from knowledge.

But let's face it: No matter how much knowledge we have, we will never attain total serenity. Why not? Because total serenity is not a normal state of being. Sometimes it's right and proper for us to feel anger, fear, guilt, or sadness.

For example, if someone we love dies or if we're laid off from a job we like or if we cause harm to another person, it's normal for us to experience distress.

Our problem as recovering people is that we tend to blow our negative emotions out of proportion. We get angry or resentful over small incidents. And we stay resentful for a long time. We tend to brood about the wrongs done to us by people and circumstances, even if we don't show our emotions or talk about them.

That's all part of addiction and dependency. We use our substances and behaviors to blot out and control our emotions. We attempt to numb ourselves against reality. And make no mistake here: We're not doing this because we're weak. Many of us face a reality filled with pain, problems, and hardship.

Problem Solving and Serenity
Our goal in recovery is to learn how to face these problems with dignity and a reasonable sense of perspective. Amazingly, once we begin doing that, much of our distress lessens. We become better able to cope with our families, jobs, frustrations, and disappointments.

Even though we may never achieve the serenity of a Buddhist monk, we can become happier than we are now. The Serenity Prayer is a valuable guide, teaching us to pray for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change the things we can change, and the wisdom to tell the difference.

But as with most guides, following it is easier said than done. At some point in recovery we must stop paying lip service to change and start to make positive changes in ourselves wherever we possibly can. We must also learn to accept the fact that some things can't be changed. The hard part, as the Serenity Prayer suggests, is learning the difference between the two.

Some Can'ts

  • We can't change anybody but ourselves.
  • We can't change the past.
  • We can't always get our own way.
  • We can't always make others do what we want them to do.

Some Cans

  • We can change ourselves.
  • We can change the present, which then alters our future.
  • We can change how we feel when we don't get our way.
  • We can change how we act when others don't do what we want them to do.

We can also learn to understand our anger, what sets it off, and how to live with it. It's important for us to know that anger is not some unpredictable and unknowable beast hunkering down inside us, waiting for our defenses to crack, our armor to crumble, our will to weaken so it can lunge out like a roaring monster grabbing control of our mouths and hands and hearts. Anger doesn't have to lead to catastrophe.

Anger is a commonplace human emotion. It is not mysterious, but it is frequently misunderstood. The strain of misunderstood anger can make recovery rockier than it need be. Worse, the uncontrolled expression of anger can lead to bigger problems such as job loss, child abuse, spouse beating, and trouble with the law. It can also lead back to active addiction.

Listen, because this is important: We're not saying that anger—or any other emotion—causes addictive behavior. But we do know that the anger we feel and our responses to other people who are angry with us have a lot to do with individual and family recovery.

Here's a bit of knowledge that might help us better understand anger: Much of our anger starts in the family, continues in the family, and stubbornly refuses to go away even if we leave the family.

Anger and the Family
Families are a little like Mount Everest. They make us angry because they're there. It's been said that living in a family generates more anger than people experience in any other social situation.

One of the reasons we feel angrier with loved ones or friends is because we have a pretty good idea of how they will respond to us. We feel safer and more secure in their company. But there are other reasons:

  • Close contact provides more opportunities for anger to develop.
  • Minor irritations can easily accumulate and fuel deeper anger.
  • We are inclined to try to make loved ones change. When they won't, we get angry.
  • Loved ones are inclined to try to make us change. When they try, we get angry.

Now, if this is true of normal, happy families, it's quite reasonable to expect that anger problems will be worse in families made dysfunctional by substance use disorders and addictive behaviors. All families coping with any form of addiction possess at least one thing in common—unpredictability.

Depending on the addict's mood or level of substance use, family life can vary from a hilariously happy party atmosphere to one of intolerable brutality—all in the same hour. Anxiety, anger, and fear lurk constantly, even on the best days.

The addictive family, with its unpredictability and ill-defined or nonexistent family roles, may foster helplessness, shame, neglect, insecurity, and mistrust. Such a family creates an atmosphere in which anger flourishes. We should not be surprised to find that many of these feelings remain well into recovery.

What causes the most anger problems in recovering families? It's the past—the things that happened last year, five years ago, fifteen years ago. We recall with burning resentment every injustice, every offense, every wrong committed against us. Never mind that the injury is remembered through a drug-induced haze. The memory is embedded deep and it festers like an infected wound.

Stockpiling resentments is a skill refined to high art by many addicts. But resentment is not their exclusive property. Family members know a thing or two about carrying a grudge. Let's face it: We're all hiding wounds that haven't been allowed to heal—resentment wounds—the lacerations and trauma of bitter anger. Resentment wounds often have an adverse effect on our jobs, marriages, and friendships. And, of course, on our recovery.

Living in an addictive family is painful. Every member of the family experiences uncertainty. Our problem may be as simple as chronic fretting and a feeling of powerlessness. Or we might dread being yelled at and verbally abused. Too often in addictive families physical and sexual abuse keep us terrified for our safety or for the safety of another family member. And we worry our heads off about the addict we love. We make ourselves sick with anxiety, anger, and despair. That's our reality.

The pain is real. The trauma and anger are real. But there's nothing we can do to change the past. All we can change is the way we allow the past to affect us now. And we can't change the people who hurt us either. The only person we have the power to change is ourselves. Luckily, when we change, the good effect often rubs off on the people closest to us.

About the Author:
Gayle Rosellini has worked and published widely in the field of addiction recovery. Mark Worden has written many articles on addiction and recovery.

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