A young man brought up in a strongly religious family had been admonished by his parents never to display anger. Nor, they told him, should he express any negative feelings about them. To do so would go against their church's teachings.
Their objective may have been to raise a properly mannered child who honors his mother and father, and they did so, but along the way they laid the groundwork for personal problems that were to plague him in adult life.
As a child he had quickly learned that to speak out at home about something that angered him brought catastrophe down on his head. By the time he grew up, it's not surprising he had become fearful of asserting himself.
This disability -- and it definitely is one -- paralyzed his career, and despite a good education, he was able to work only at menial tasks.
This young man, who eventually sought help from a local mental health center, is part of a large percentage of Americans whose lives are complicated because they're afraid to let someone know they're mad at them -- whether it's the spouse, the children, the parents, the boss or the plumber.
"Probably 50 percent of the people I see come into therapy because of a difficulty in expressing anger," says Bob Maxwell, therapist at the Springfield Outpatient Unit of the Mount Vernon Center for Community Health in Fairfax County. Maxwell and fellow therapist Toni Ann Sciullo recently led a discussion on "What Can I Do When I Get Mad" as a part of the center's continuing series of educational lectures.
Anger is a human emotion that one should not be afraid of expressing, Maxwell and Sciullo tell their clients -- not, of course, in the sudden, sometimes violent explosion that comes from a long-time bottled-up rage but in appropriate methods that also can be learned.
"Learning how to express anger without fear is vital to anyone's mental health," says Maxwell. "If a child is forbidden to show his feelings -- bad as well as good -- its going to effect his concept of self and his ability to relate to others, his whole psychological makeup."
The numbers of these people, he says, "are legion. They lead productive lives, but not as rich and joyous lives as possible."
Often, he says, people adopt a "nice guy" pose to avoid speaking up, but to him they are "phonies." "There's no such thing as a perpetually nice guy. Given the normal problems we all experience, in the best of relationships there are bound to be irritating, upsetting occasions."
In a marriage, the relationship suffers if these irritations are not aired, he says. "If I taught people how to love, I would teach them first how to be angry. No genuine relationship exists that doesn't include irritation at one another."
When he and his wife were first married, Maxwell says, people considered them the "ideal couple." But "we were just scared to death to be angry" at one another. When they began learning to bring their anger into the open they grew "a heck of a lot closer." An increase of care and confidence in the relationship develops, he says.
People who keep their anger inside often are afraid that speaking out may harm their marriage, sour a friendship or cost them their job. "There is a risk," acknowledges Maxwell, "I don't deny that. There is a risk everytime we express ourselves honestly."
But failure to communicate -- in a marriage, for example -- can lead to "a slow deterioration of the relationship" in which the spontaneity is gone. The couple, he says, may go from simple toleration to unproductive arguing to divorce. That's not to say all arguing is bad. To the contrary, says Maxwell, "a couple that quarrels is apt to be healthy -- presuming they're quarreling in a nondestructive way."
Another aspect of the problem is that people often don't recognize their anger. Sciullo cites the case of a husband who came home from the office to complain about the one task his wife had failed to complete that day, ignoring all those she had managed to finish.
Instead of getting justifiably angry at her spouse, says Sciullo, the wife felt guilty, blaming herself for what she perceived to be an inadequacy. Not until one recognizes one's anger, she says, does one have the choice of doing something effective about it.
How should one express anger? Certainly not by "ranting and raving. That rarely solves anything," says Maxwell.
At their recent lecture that drew 20 people, young and old, Maxwell and Sciullo advocated the use of direct "I" statements. If, for example, a friend is nervously kicking your chair and it bothers you, don't say: "Bill, will you knock if off." That puts Bill on the defensive, says Maxwell.
Instead, turn the focus on yourself and say calmly: "Billl, I find it irritating." In that situation, says Sciullo, "You take responsibility for your own feelings." Also you probably will be effective and the kicking will stop.
In their therapy sessions, Maxwell and Sciullo help clients find out why they are unable to communicate well. Then they attempt to help them find productive ways of doing so.
For practice, "before biting off a major conflict with a spouse," says Maxwell, the client may be urged to chance "a non-threatening confrontation" with a grocer or a neighbor -- "someone with whom he has a minor problem."
Very often, says Maxwell, people he sees "have become afraid of anger -- afraid it will erupt into violence, afraid they might lose control." One young woman told him "it would destroy the entire world if she released the rage she had stored up."
His task, he says, "was to reassure her that I wouldn't be destroyed if she released some in our sessions." Anger, he told her, "is not that uncontrollable, seething mass" that she feared.
"Expression of anger does not mean loss of control," says Maxwell, "but a lot of us picked up that message when we were younger."
Maxwell and Sciullo offer a final suggestion. Though it's most effective to verbalize your anger, sometimes the situation doesn't permit it and you might be better off "punching your pillow," jogging or washing the kitchen floor until a more appropriate time for speaking up.