When I was 19, I was informally diagnosed with anger repression issues. I had come into counseling in order to try and work through the effects of some trauma I had experienced, and what I got instead was a battery of "helpful tools" I could use to identify and express my anger. During our last session, my counselor was taking me through an evaluation of our time together, and seeing my despondency, she commented, "I wonder if I should have gone with a traditional therapy route with you."
"NO DUH," I thought to myself, after having sat through 10 sessions of having to tell someone my deepest pains and them completely misunderstanding what the problem was. After just wanting someone to understand what I had been through and instead getting tips on how to fix my own behavior. After having my own intuition called into question to the point where I couldn't trust my read on the world anymore.
A year later, I told a professor the same story I had told my counselor, and I got what the latter wasn't capable of giving me: validation. My counselor didn't have the same sort of life experience that my professor did. She wasn't capable of seeing what had happened to me or how it had affected me. But my professor could. And by validating my experience, she gave me back the gift of being able to trust my own intuition. For the first time in years, I was able to start healing.
Here's the thing, though - my counselor wasn't wrong. Even if she missed the big picture of what was wrong, even if she should have taken a different route in my counseling, she was right to point out that I had anger repression issues. At first I thought the suggestion was ridiculous. I literally thought to myself, "It's not like I feel anger and shove it down - I just don't really feel anger very often!"
That, folks, is what we call denial!
Or rather, it's what we call being so stuck in a certain mode of thinking and feeling and behaving that you can't see your own absurdities. I really thought I didn't feel anger. There were instances in which I saw injustice and would get angry and would rant to friends. And I thought that was how I handled anger. There were times when something I was working on would go wrong and I would feel frustrated, but that was a different emotion than anger, and I could handle that. What I didn't know was that somewhere along the way, I had picked up a certain belief and therefore a certain behavior: if I express my needs or opinions, at best, I will just be ignored or misunderstood, and at worst, I will be psychologically/relationally punished, so it's better for me just not to express them.
This didn't just mean that I couldn't ask for the good/positive things that I needed, but I also lost the ability to express anger on my own behalf. I could be angry for other people, because that was about protecting them, but I couldn't stand up for myself anymore. It just wasn't worth it.
There were some exceptions to this. I developed a very Loki/Slytherin-like ability to arrange things in my favor while never coming out and owning what I wanted. I didn't really mean to be manipulative or weaselly, it just felt like the only way to get what I wanted/needed and stay safe. I hadn't really ever seen healthy anger modeled. The options available to me were total repression, being sneaky, or being explosive and emotionally manipulative. So when I started to feel God inviting me to get angry, how was I supposed to do that?
I don't remember exactly what initialized this journey for me, but here are a couple things that happened along the way:
At a summer camp where I was a counselor, I overheard a gaggle of middle school boys run up to the youth pastor exclaiming, "Hey! Hey! You have to come look at this!" And without missing a beat, the pastor looked them dead in the eyes, plainly exclaimed, "I don't have to do anything!" and walked away. That moment genuinely changed my life. That was an option I had never been aware of. As far back as I could remember, I had been cowed by those more blustery than me, or I felt compelled to always put my desires aside in order to serve others. Somewhere along the way, I had internalized a false commandment about the Christian life: that following Jesus meant that it wasn't right for me to assert my own desires or boundaries. Saying no had never happened without being punished from the outside and feeling guilty on the inside. But my pastor's very plain, not-a-big-deal rejection of those kids' expectations for him told me that there was some untapped freedom out there that could be mine as well, if I could just believe it.
Then, in 2018, I was in Wales, doing an exploratory trip to figure out where I wanted to come serve. Or rather, to prove to my leadership that I should serve where I already knew I wanted to serve. But the exploration proved useful in a variety of ways. I spent two weeks serving with a church that I knew I would not end up working with long-term. Which meant that the pastor made himself available to give me as much unbiased advice as possible. And this is probably the most important thing he told me: "You're going to have to get better at saying 'no'. There are a lot of ministries out there, and they all have legitimate needs. And you're not going to be able to fill them all, or even more than a few of them." That admonition began the Year of Anna Saying No. It was a really strange experience. I never could have believed before that season that simply not wanting to do something was a valid enough reason to not do it. I didn't have to say yes to serving opportunities just because I technically had the time available. It was important to choose where I wanted to put my energy, it was important to feel the freedom to rest, and it was important to learn to not care if others were disappointed in my choices as long as I knew I was obeying God.
Somewhere along the way, I began to realize something: allowing myself to get angry and display my anger was going to be important for my relationships. In my mind, anger had always been a weapon of destruction. I never wanted to cut someone down with my anger, so I never utilized it. But I began to see that repressing my anger was, in effect, lying, because I was never being honest with anyone about how what they were doing was affecting our relationship. I took all of the burden of fixing our relationship through fixing my responses, my expectations, and my needs to suit what I was getting from the other person. And that actually meant that I was never giving anyone the chance to know me, nor giving them the dignity of the opportunity to fulfill my needs. And how did God teach me this? By inviting me to get angry with children.
Over the years, I had gotten pretty comfortable babysitting my pastor's four, then five, then six children, but I had always tried never to show anger to them. I didn't want to scar them by blowing up at them. But I began to realize - it's not my job to insulate them from my emotions and the effects of their actions. It's my job to model how to healthily express their emotions and work through them together in order to have a better relationship. Now, I'm not saying I started venting my anger at the kids. What I did do was: 1. Let myself show a bit of annoyance when they were getting on my nerves, and 2. Plainly tell them how they were making me feel. I was really shocked by how these things, especially the second, helped solve our problems. As it turns out, most of the time when a four-year-old is pressing your buttons, it's just because they think it's funny, not because they enjoy hurting you. They haven't connected those dots. And as it turns out, I think that's often true of the adults in our lives as well. They might not realize how what they do affects someone else, and they probably won't unless we tell them. But we don't tell them by blowing up or being manipulative. And we don't tell them in order to put them in their place. We tell them because we want to advocate for a better relationship and because we believe that they want that better relationship too.
All of these are examples of how God taught me to assert my needs, my boundaries, and my anger to other people. But there's one more thing God taught me, and that was how to be angry with him.
I had actually thought that I was good in this respect. I knew that it was okay to be angry with God, and that we should express our anger to him. I had often taught this to my friends who struggled with it. And yet, something was still off. Over 2020, God started bringing this issue up. The problem was that I was too quick to cut off my anger. I would start to think things like, "God, this doesn't feel just," but immediately undermine my own feelings by reminding myself that God can't be unjust. Why was I doing this? Pretty much because I knew it was pointless/incorrect to accuse God of doing wrong. Why should I express a feeling that's not true? I thought I should say things like, "I'm frustrated with what you're doing," rather than, "You're screwing me over." And I thought that was an appropriate respect for who God is.
But this was wrong for two reasons: 1. In an effort to maintain a correct verbal theology, I was robbing myself of the catharsis of actually externalizing my anger, which meant I was never actually dealing with my anger, and 2. My behavior was the result of a very limited idea of God's attitude toward me.
God brought this issue up again in January of this year. For a year and a half, I had been experiencing spiritual warfare in the form of a specific physical malady. For pretty much that whole time, I had been able to maintain my equanimity. I had never really gotten mad with God about it. I had been very sad because of the toll it took on me, I had been annoyed by the way it limited my life, but none of that had really ever been directed at God. I would tell God these things, but my feelings were never about him. But in the span of a few weeks, my symptoms grew dramatically worse, and my ability to drive and go to things like work and church were being threatened.
I was driving home from my community group one night, and I had to pull over at a gas station because I was in such bad discomfort. As I sat there, getting more and more frustrated about how this condition was preventing me from doing the simplest things, God sort of nudged me. I knew what the nudge meant: it was the invitation to throw a tantrum. I started to try and express the anger I was feeling. I was so upset that God still hadn’t taken this away from me. I had spent the last year and a half praying over it, having others pray about it, trusting God to step in and heal me at the right time, and this just wasn’t feeling fair anymore. I wanted to say something like, “I really hate you right now,” but my filter stepped in and said, “Whoa, that’s a territory you don’t want to get into.” I was essentially revealing a belief that if I crossed a certain line in my expression of anger that I would incur God’s wrath. I realized immediately that I was editing my feelings again, and that I needed to not just sweep this under the rug of propriety. But how should I healthily express my anger at God to God?
Even while I was considering that, an image came into mind. You know that trope in a sitcom where a woman is in labor, and her husband is clutching her hand, trying to help her do her lamaze breathing, telling her she’s doing great, and the wife is just screaming things at him like, “I HATE YOU!” and “YOU DID THIS TO ME!”? That’s the image that popped into my head. Now, the reason we can find that scene funny is because no one believes the wife actually hates her husband. It is generally understood that, actually, she does love him, she’s excited to have the baby, and that they’re going to be a happy family once the delivery is over. It is understood that the pain of the moment makes her say things she doesn’t actually mean. And it is understood that the husband isn’t going to take it to heart or hold her accountable to anything she says during this time.
And having given me that mental image, God laughed and said with lighthearted affection, “I know exactly what kind of angry you are.”
I wish I could tell you that after that my symptoms got steadily better and they’re no longer an issue. But that’s not the case. About a week later, I had the worst symptoms I have ever had, and for the next two months I could only leave my house for doctor’s visits. There was a lot more anger to be had. I and many others prayed that I would be healed by April so that I would be able to do everything I needed to in order to prepare to move to Wales in May. But that healing did not come. In fact, other strange and distressing symptoms arose. More anger, less filter, but more confidence that it was okay for me to express those things. God knew exactly what sort of pain I was experiencing, and he knew exactly what kind of angry I was.
I’ve been in Wales for two months now, and my symptoms are still as present and cumbersome as they were then. It is incredibly frustrating sometimes to feel like I can’t live the sort of normal life that a near-30-year-old should be able to. But this is a thing that comforts me: if God is allowing me to go through something like this, he’s not going to be offended by the anger it brings out of me. It’s so much more honoring to God to be honest and angry to his face than to pretend there’s no issue or to turn away from him in bitterness. I get to keep bringing every emotion I feel to God, expressing it fully, and laying it at his feet. And you know what? God isn’t going to ignore me or make me suffer for expressing them. In fact, by trusting God with these emotions, by believing the security and the freedom I have in his love, I am actually glorifying him and growing in my relationship with him.
Suffering and anger are deeply personal things to talk about. I know many people who read this will have their own wounds that are still raw concerning these things. So I’m not going to give an admonition about what to do with your pain. I’m just going to tell you that I care, that I know it’s hard, and that I truly believe Jesus wants to embrace you and make you feel safe and whole, even in - especially in - the midst of your pain. Blessings, my friends.