Anger is often a mask for grief. It’s okay to be angry when you’re chronically ill. Once you acknowledge it you can find effective ways to cope so that you can live well.
There are moments – and not just a few – when I recognize that words are the way to the soul. Sometimes, a chain of simple words are tethered together so perfectly that they are extraordinarily profound.
I came across a powerful quote that beautifully expresses emotions I’ve experienced as someone with chronic illness. I don’t know who penned it, but I am so grateful for it:
I sat with my anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.-Unknown
We’re often taught that anger is a negative emotion. But according to behavioral scientists, anger is a secondary emotion that masks emotions of vulnerability like fear, helplessness, shame, guilt and yes, grief.
It’s not uncommon for chronically ill people to feel all of these emotions. I know I have. And if it’s okay to feel vulnerable, then it’s okay to feel angry when you’re chronically ill.
To expect that we can easily “control” our anger is no different from expecting that we can easily control our grief.
Anger isn’t the real problem
The real problem isn’t the anger. It’s that we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge it – until it’s backed us into a corner and we can’t ignore it anymore. Of course, each of us is unique and we experience all of the emotions related to grief differently in terms of timing and sequence.
It strikes me that when I was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, I don’t recall feeling angry initially. I felt anxious, I felt sad, I felt fear, and I felt powerless. In a strange way I also felt relief because after months of trips back and forth to the doctor I finally had an answer as to why I was sick.
I had the same emotional response when I was diagnosed with myositis in 2018. In both cases, the anger came months later – many months later. I know now that it’s okay to be angry when you’re chronically ill. I shouldn’t have waited so long to recognize it.
Why we avoid acknowledging our anger
Why does it take time to acknowledge it? I have a few theories.
Reason #1: When we’re ill – seriously ill or in a severe flare – we don’t have the physical or emotional bandwidth to focus on reconciling the span of emotions we’re feeling.
We’re using all of our energy to deal what’s on the surface. It’s a fight or flight response.
When I was diagnosed with cancer my immediate focus was on dealing with the practicalities that would position me to get the right treatment.
And I needed to figure out how to parent two small children who knew that I was seriously ill but didn’t fully understand.
I still wanted to be me. I wanted to continue working and I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient or be treated differently because of my disease.
So I focused on logistics, because that’s how I roll. There wasn’t much time to feel angry when I was busy trying to maintain the appearance of normalcy in a situation where nothing was normal.
Reason #2: It’s easier – at least early on – to bury our anger.
We let it simmer below the surface of the fear, anxiety, shame and guilt of being ill. It might sound odd to feel ashamed and guilty when we’re ill, but it’s not unusual.
We’ve been betrayed by our bodies. We need help in ways that we’ve never needed, and we don’t see ourselves as being able to contribute to our families, households or jobs in the same ways we used to.
Reason #3: We tell ourselves that things “could be worse”.
One of the biggest reasons why we avoid acknowledging our anger is that we’re hell bent on telling ourselves that all things considered, we should be grateful because things could be worse. Yep. I know I’ve forced myself along this line of reasoning in an effort to find some silver lining in the giant black cloud that was hanging over my head.
Don’t get me wrong. Perspective and gratitude are enormously important. But you know what? Things could be better. And it’s completely okay to say so. It sucks to be sick. That’s another reason why it’s okay to be angry.
Often times, when we tell ourselves that things could be worse we’re telling ourselves to surrender because maybe it’s not the worth the fight. Or maybe we mistakenly feel that we’re not deserving of anything better. At least that’s how I’ve sometimes felt.
How to acknowledge your anger
The first step to acknowledging your anger is to name it. You can’t find ways of coping it with it if you don’t spend some time sorting through the specific emotions that underpin the anger. Not only is it okay to be angry when you’re chronically ill, it’s okay to say it.
How do you name your anger? By identifying how it makes you feel.
Give it a label. Do you feel resentful? Hateful? Bitter? Agitated? Pissed off? Those are just a few. Open up your psychological suitcase and unpack it. Find the words that more specifically describe how you feel.
The second step is to say it out loud. Or write it down. Once you’ve labeled your anger – it all of its forms – validate it.When you give a name to what you’re feeling, you are admitting that it’s real and that it’s valid. Saying it out loud or writing it down reinforces that. Just as importantly, it’s the best way to be able to regulate so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.
Finally, talk about it. Do you know someone who will listen and provide support in a nonjudgmental way? Someone who can allow you to articulate what you feel and validate and affirm your emotions?
Find someone who can help you identify steps to work through your emotions and cope with them in healthy ways. You might find this in a friend, family member, or a support group. You can also seek out a therapist.
These emotions we feel are natural. Our job is not to deny or subdue them but to help them find their place and time. So it’s okay to feel angry – just don’t stay there too long.