Shrink Rap: Working with Dragons and Taming Anger

We’ve all been mad–hot, steaming mad; cold, calculating mad; or something in between. And most of us have been mad in both meanings of the word: crazy and angry. Although crazy doesn’t always look angry, anger often looks crazy. But one thing is for certain: Trying to keep angry feelings inside can be crazy-making, for you and for the people around you.

Most of us grew up afraid of anger. We were hurt by being the target of anger from other people, especially the anger of parents or teachers or friends. And we were often punished for showing anger, especially toward parents or teachers or friends.

Fearful as it is, being mad is an unavoidable, necessary part of everybody’s life. And it’s not a necessary evil: Anger can be valuable and validating and motivating. It’s just part of being human, part of who we are.

Being afraid of anger doesn’t make it go away. Just like physicists believe in the conservation of energy, shrinks like me believe in conservation of anger. It doesn’t go away; it just gets expressed in other dishonest forms that are often distorted, disguised, amplified or stealthy. When someone is too dangerous for us to be angry with, a snide comment to someone else can give it voice. Ignoring someone, “forgetfulness,” sabotage, belittling, rumormongering and sarcasm are anger coming out in indirect, but harmful and hurtful, ways. Even jokes can be a stealthy form of expressing anger.

As my good friend, young-adult novelist Richard Peck, says, “Humor is anger that was sent to finishing school.”

For me, it has always been helpful to think of dragons when I think of anger. Maybe this comes from reading JRR Tolkien when I was young. Now that I am a geezer, I think this line from The Hobbit is wonderful when considering anger: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

How are anger and dragons related?

Dragons spew fire, just as angry people often spew invective. And the fire coming from a dragon or an angry person is meant to keep enemies away, or to maim or kill.

Dragons are heavily defended. Unless there is a chink in their scaly armor, nobody can wound them. Dragons not only protect themselves, they have been known to protect things they value–hoarded treasure, for example.

When somebody is blasting you with flames of anger, it is wise to back off, emotionally and physically. Regardless of how unfair the anger is, it is not worth having your face melted to hold your ground. It is also not especially useful to morph into a dragon yourself.

Once you have backed away from the dragon and are relatively safe (emotionally and/or physically), it is often useful to ask yourself what the dragon is afraid of or what the dragon is trying to protect. Often, the flame-spewing dragon is simply trying to protect something tender or something it values. Sometimes it is protecting a suspected chink in its armor or an actual chink, which makes vital organs vulnerable. Sometimes the dragon believes that you are so threatening that defending against you is a matter of emotional life or death.

If you are a student, a fire-spewing teacher may be afraid you are making him or her look stupid, or that you are confirming his or her fears of being a teaching failure. A fire-spewing parent may be afraid you are growing up spoiled and entitled and defenseless in a difficult, dangerous world. A fire-spewing friend may be afraid of betrayal or abandonment or judgment.

Let’s take dragon-taming to the next level. When you become a raging dragon, it is useful to ask yourself (when you are able) what you were afraid of, what you were trying to protect. Perhaps you were trying to protect your dignity or your sense of being smart and/or attractive.

It is useful to discover what is fearful to another person or to yourself, to discover what in them or you needs protecting. This knowledge can become a shield against another’s anger, and a bridge between your dragon self and your nondragon self, and a bridge between you and the person you are angry with.

Learning how to express anger without becoming a fire-breathing dragon, or without expressing it in sneaky ways, honors your anger while honoring yourself and the people you are with. Healthy ways to express anger will be the subject of a future blog, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, treat yourself to the animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon.” Really. As an extended metaphor of dragons as anger, it is a gem. Even for geezers like me.

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