Anger is a necessary emotion. It can motivate to change things for the better, to protect ourselves from evil, to re-shape our lives in better and more satisfying ways. But chronic anger, especially chronic anger about things that can’t be changed because they are in the distant past, is a life-destroying emotion.
Occasionally we meet with people who are out on disability from work. Usually, the story is straightforward and often the issue is just making recommendations for better treatment so the person can return to work. However, we sometimes run into someone like the young woman we saw yesterday. She had worked for a big company for years, doing well, getting good performance ratings. Then something happened between her and a new boss – the boss didn’t think she was working well and started putting pressure on her. And she was not able to meet these expectations despite her best efforts. She went out on disability a couple of times due to pretty severe depression and anxiety. When she returned, her boss was even more upset with her. Eventually she was laid off and went on disability.
We don’t know all the details of the story – whether she was seriously wronged or not. What struck us, though, was how her anger about what had happened had completed destroyed her life. She had gone from being a successful professional with an active social life, a boyfriend, and good friends to being quite literally a shut in. Unable to keep up her house, not showering, completely ignoring all her friends.
She was in to see us because of depression, which had been going on for months despite referrals for treatment.
Her employer was wondering why she wasn’t getting better. When we saw her, the thing that was clear was that she was unable to get better because of her anger.
She wasn’t milking the system or benefiting from this in any way. She was a very ethical and responsible woman. And, as is so often the case, she was doing a very good job of being disabled. She was not able to take care of her home or her medical needs. She was avoiding all social contact, etc.
When it came to the topic of treatment for depression, it turned out that she had in fact stopped taking her anti-depressant medications for reasons that were pretty unconvincing. I’m sure that these reasons made sense to her, but to an outsider, the impression was that she was unconsciously intent on remaining depressed as it justified her anger and her efforts to prove that she had been wronged.
Another woman that we’ve been working with for a while had an interesting conversation with someone doing a trip to visit a place where some terrible injustices had been done to her. The place itself is deserted, the company that did the bad things went out of business. She spoke to someone who had the same experiences as she did. He told her that she had to find a way of forgiving what was done. Not for them (mostly long gone) but because it was the only way to move on with her life.
Forgiveness can be very hard, but sometimes it is life saving.
This book, Forgiveness is a Choice, is a very good place to start moving beyond your chronic anger. It is part of the excellent APA Life Tools series.