I’ve noticed a consistent pattern among myself and my clients recovering from CFS: We all have a history of taking on too much stress and not really standing up for ourselves when other people do things we don’t like. Most of us had parents who weren’t willing or able to teach us how to deal with our emotions, to self-soothe our nervous system when we were in distress, or to stand up for ourselves when our emotional or physical boundaries were being violated. Often the person we most needed to stand up to was one or both of our parents themselves, and that rarely goes well when you’re a distressed child trying to stand up to an adult who is being unreasonable because their wounded inner child is running the show.
All of this is a recipe for ever increasing anger, resentment and frustration. We end up overcompensating in a desperate attempt to get our needs met because nobody taught us how to do this effectively. Internalise that toxic cocktail and it’s no wonder we end up sick.
Behaviour patterns learned as a child tend to stick even if they never really worked well, and coping strategies learned as a child rarely works well in the adult world. If nobody shows us a better way, it’s easy to continue behaving in ways that increase our internal store of resentment and frustration long into adulthood with no way of releasing the stress pressure cooker.
I believe this is why so many people with CFS are so angry. It’s not just that we’re stuck in a living hell that the medical community can’t seem to solve, it’s that this hell comes after a lifetime of deferring to other people even when they acted in ways that felt fundamentally bad to us.
Most of my clients and I were systematically trained to disregard our intuition, emotions and bodily signals in order to suit parents, teachers or caregivers. At the same time we were taught to unconditionally respect the authority figures in our lives; even though we knew deep down that the way they are behaving was damaging to us. No wonder we’re so angry.
I believe this effect is compounded by the belief that anger is somehow bad, evil or wrong, leading to repressive efforts that leave us dissociated from the feeling altogether.
A red flag for me now is when I offer someone empathy for their anger, and they start yelling at me something like “I’m not angry!!! You’re wrong!!!” I avoid these people wherever possible now because they tend to dump their anger unconsciously on any sensitive person who happens to be around. I don’t take them on as clients and I won’t keep them as friends. I don’t want that kind of stress in my life.
So if anger is the problem, but what’s the solution?
I’ve concluded that the solution is to channel the energy of anger into assertive communication that ultimately gets our underlying needs met.
This can be easier said than done, so here’s my patented* four-step process to achieving mastery over anger:
The first step is to realise that we’re angry in the first place, and this can take some therapeutic work if we’re in the habit of repressing our feelings.
The second step is to learn to communicate our anger in a constructive way to a safe third party where we feel heard and validated, such as a non-judgmental friend or therapist.
The third step is to communicate the anger to the person who stimulated it, in a manner that they’re able to hear. This has been a huge challenge for me since the people I tend to feel angry with are often very triggered when I express my feelings cleanly. They tend to go into shame, blame, criticism and justification. Even though I haven’t done anything wrong, their pain body gets triggered and their default pattern of shutting me down to avoid their own feelings gets activated. That doesn’t leave me feeling heard, leading to even more anger and resentment in me. It’s crazy-making, just like when I was a kid.
So now I’ve come up with a step four for times when step three fails: channel the energy of the anger into assertively getting the underlying need met; not necessarily by the person who triggered my anger. For example, if I’m angry with my sister for not making time to meet my need for connection, I might call a friend to connect with or write a blog article like this one in the hope of recruiting a new client. Since the energy now has an outlet, it doesn’t have to fester in my nervous system and make me sick. Plus a new client would help ease my financial stress, so it’s a double win.
My approach to assertiveness has been heavily influenced by Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. I believe it’s the best way to channel the energy of anger into assertive communication that gets our needs met. When we do this, the anger dissolves naturally because we’ve responded to what it’s telling us. We no longer need to suppress it, internalise it or stew on it because it’s done it’s job, got the result it wanted and gone home from work.
I found practising NVC in the real world a challenge, and am grateful for the many teachers, mentors, therapists, coaches and empathy buddies who I was able to practise with in a safe environment. If you’d like to explore this in more detail, or if you suspect that the anger of unmet needs could lurk beneath your illness and you’d like to talk to me about how best to handle it, drop me a line.
* It’s not really patented.