But what if I’m just mad at myself?
I nearly always get this question from my clients. Who are you most angry with? I ask. 75% of the time, the answer comes back: I feel anger at myself.
- Angry with myself for not knowing better
- Mad at myself for thinking I could change him
- Hating myself for being so needy
Anger with Self = Shame
When you tell me it’s YOU you’re most angry with, I know that’s shame. Guilt generally passes when we acknowledge and make amends for something we regret doing or saying. When self-loathing lingers, you have something entirely different. You’re angry at someone else . . . but you direct that feeling inward.
You might recall, shame and dissociation go hand in hand. Some trauma researchers even consider shame to be a form of dissociation. Being mad at yourself, hating yourself, or punishing yourself . . . those involve exiting present moment awareness. When you do that, you alter your mental state away from your sensory engagement with the real world and into some past nonverbal memory; most likely, a memory of being shamed in some way.
Antidote to Shame & Self-Loathing = Anger Work
Self-hate, shame, and anger with self: All of these bring nervous system arousal problems. We get either too aroused (hyper) or not aroused enough (hypo). Read about Polyvagal Theory for more on this. The first feels like anxiety; the second feels like depression. When you re-engage your senses fully in the expression of anger, you bring your nervous system back into optimal arousal: awake and alert, not anxious or sluggish.
Here’s how to do anger work on your own.
- Get a plastic bat or a Nerf bat (a tennis raquet will do).
- Use either a punching bag or something equivalent. Stacks of foam cushions work well for this; also a couch or futon, a mattress, anything that can take some impact.
- Make sure you have some privacy, at least the first time you try this. You might also want company; invite only someone you really trust to join you.
- Time yourself for 30 seconds per round.
- Swing the bat as hard and fast as you can, at the bag/couch/cushions for those 30 seconds.
- If you can, talk while you swing. Say ANYTHING that wants to come out of your mouth, no matter how profane or disloyal or selfish it might sound.
- Stop at 30 seconds and breathe . . . look around the room. Notice how you feel.
- Write a few sentences about what you notice.
I’ll have more to say soon on how Anger Work wakes up your nervous system and prevents dissociation. Anger Work reduces shame and self-hate. Most people find it empowering AND calming. For now, know that this exercise grounds you. Plus, nobody gets hurt or insulted. You get to release everything without doing damage: a win-win for everyone concerned.
. . . Oh, and Anger Work reduces the suppressed anger you might be carrying; so it doesn’t make you angrier (contrary to what you might think). It helps you release it.
Homework: Try the Anger Work exercise at home. Repeat as often as you can. If you don’t feel angry enough to do this, just pretend you’re angry and swing hard. Leave me comments about how it goes.