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Anger management — the art of boundaries and communication

Anger is often perceived as a negative emotion with hurtful consequences. Michaela van Nierop shares how she has learnt to process anger. She speaks about the need to o establish healthy boundaries and communicate these clearly to the people around her. This has helped to boost her self-esteem and to resolve conflict in a healthier way.

An emotion I have always had trouble understanding is anger. Anger is often a reactive response to cover up hurt, insecurity, loss, or betrayal. Essentially the feeling of anger tells us that we have been treated unfairly, or something is wrong and we need to defend ourselves.

For a long time, I was afraid of anger. I locked up all my feelings of anger into a tiny space in my mind and left them there. The excess turned into guilt, because I knew how to manage guilt much better than anger. Anger itself isn’t actually a bad emotion. It tells us that we should stand up and protect ourselves. It becomes negative when we act in anger.

I locked up all my feelings of anger into a tiny space in my mind and left them there.

I’ve always kept a very tight leash on my anger, because I have often been at the receiving end of other people’s angry outbursts: some physical, some verbal, some emotional, but all hurtful. I learnt that the easiest way to survive these sorts of outbursts was to actually admit guilt and apologise, even if what they were mad about had nothing to do with me.

This mindset, of course, became extremely unhealthy and harmful when I started to process my rape. I realized had essentially learnt to become a doormat to other people’s feelings.

Anger management begins by not feeling guilty

I realized that I had to stop simply accepting how people treated me. This happened slowly and in stages. It started with a close friend of mine pointing out that I tended to take the blame for anything and everything. 

I had to stop simply accepting how people treated me.

I eventually managed to break this pattern, following an incident with some guy friends who took me for granted and took it too far. I spent the night crying. After I had calmed down, I decided that I should confront them gently and explain that their behaviour was hurtful because of the things that had happened to me in the past. I was terrified, but I did it and my bond with both guys was strengthened.

The honest conversation established the boundaries and it showed them that I would call them out if I was uncomfortable. I knew I had done the right thing because they were apologetic and calm about what I had to say. I didn’t want to attack them so I made sure I didn’t speak to them out of anger, and thought carefully about what I wanted to say.

A second lesson in managing my anger and speaking about it, was an incident with my mom.  I had been home all day. When she came home, she started yelling at me about the things that needed to be done. I ignored it at the time, but later, it started to bother me more and more and I got quite cross with her.

The next morning we talked about what had happened and I how it made me feel. I told her that she was entitled to as many bad days as she wanted, but she was never allowed to take them out on me. We both cried and promised to work on our communication with each other. Of course, things didn’t change overnight. We have both made mistakes, but we’ve also made also outstanding progress in the way we speak to each other.

Setting boundaries for yourself and others

It is difficult to find the balance between being a bulldozer and being a doormat. You don’t want to become bossy, unreasonable and demanding. If you bulldoze others, you become selfish and aggressive to the extent that other people find you unapproachable. On the other extreme, you constantly allow others to take you for granted, boss you around and use you. The result is that you end up taking care of other people’s needs and neglecting your own.

The middle space is tricky. It begins with building self-esteem and establishing healthy boundaries. This requires assertiveness. Healthy boundaries are achievable. The thing to watch out for is whether those walls are too high or too low. If you are constantly guarded and the walls are too high you stop feeling anything at all, which is also harmful.

Building self-esteem and establishing healthy boundaries […] requires assertiveness.

Discovering that I didn’t have strong enough boundaries, and that I wasn’t assertive in expressing them has helped me overcome my fear of the emotion of anger. I now know it has its place in the emotional spectrum, I know how to stand up for myself if people overstep the boundaries I have established, and am learning how to process my anger even though it still makes me deeply uncomfortable.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Michaela van Nierop
Michaela is currently a student at the University of Stellenbosch studying for a BCom in Economics and Investment Management. She grew up in Johannesburg in a Catholic family. Her passion is helping people who are struggling with mental health problems or those who are having emotional difficulties.

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