Here's Why Your Anger's Not A Bad ThingNov 22, 2022
Your Anger's not a bad thing, and it's certainly not inherently violent or unreasonable. Let's explore some of the positive aspects of our emotions, and how we can respond appropriately and healthily. You'll also find answers to: Is Anger Bad? (quick answer: not even at all). How to process anger. What does anger mean? What to do when I feel angry? Who's allowed to feel angry?
What initially comes up for you when you think of Anger? Yelling? Threatening? Fear? Violence? Manipulation? Hatred? Separation? Endings?
And when you think about times that you’ve felt angry, what have you felt in your body? Rage? Fury? Irritation? Friction? Frustration? Numbness? Heat? Tingling?
Anger has a really poor reputation, and I’ll jump right to the point instead of making you read someone’s whole family story like a 20 minute long blog post when you’re really just looking for a 15 minute recipe for Rice Krispy treats: it’s because we suppress it. And because as a society, we’ve labeled anger as an unacceptable emotion to express openly and honestly (especially for women, Black People (ESPECIALLY Black Women - Black Men are far more socially allowed to express their anger specifically in a sports setting or directed towards Black Women, however, as we all know, Black Men openly expressing their anger can also lead to life threatening Police Brutality and Murder), and People of Color), it sits in us like a pressure cooker and we’re not allowed to let people know when we’re angry. Then it suddenly comes out sideways and we scream at our children, or tell our partner that we think they’re a total idiot, or we give the car that just passed us the middle finger as we scream at our windshields as if they can hear us and as if this expression of rage is truly reasonable…
Like all Montessori children know, your feelings are valid and are here to show and tell you something but that doesn’t mean your behavior is always ok.
Part of what needs to be understood about anger is that it’s incredibly important for our bodies to be able to experience, acknowledge, understand, and express anger. Otherwise it builds up in our bodies like a pressure cooker as stress, and as we all know, this stress can literally lead to inflammation, general poor health, autoimmune diseases, physical pain and stiffness, poor cardiovascular health, etc. However, because of the ways our society has deemed certain expressions of emotions socially acceptable for certain folks but not acceptable for others, that means that most of us don’t grow up understanding what our emotions are here to show us, how to communicate how we’re feeling, and how to process what happened. In our society, men are especially encouraged to express their anger through unhealthy and often harmful explosions, however they're also encouraged not to express or be in touch with the part of the anger that cares and thus feels hurt, or wronged, or misunderstood.
Let’s start at the beginning and talk about what anger is:
At its baseline, anger is an emotion. We experience emotions when we’re met with a stimuli (something happens or we think about something happening). These stimuli fire synopses off in our brain that then send a signal to our body to “EMOTE!” Feelings are a good thing! If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of the neuroscience of it all, you can read How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. They’re part of our body’s systems that keep us safe and surviving and hopefully thriving!
Love tells us that we need each other. Happiness keeps us going through the challenges that we will ultimately be faced with in life. Awe keeps us engaged with learning. Numbness helps us shut out the overwhelming world around us at times. Confusion tells us that we’re missing some important pieces of understanding. Fear tells us that something’s not right and that we’re in danger! Anger tells us that we care, and that something happening is unjust. Pain alerts us to where the harm happened.
When we experience feelings however, they’re never really just isolated as one feeling. For instance, where there’s love, there’s also generally fear - so maybe the fear is saying, “I don’t ever want to lose this person!!” And the love is reminding you to stay with them and keep them close to you. Depending on your experience, you can likely see how this coupling of emotions can lead to us having really intimate and loving relationships because part of what we can learn from the fear is how to keep that person close: so we work to better understand how our partner wants to be loved so that hopefully, they’ll want to continue being loved by us, and we’ll keep doing life together. On the flip side of that though, if we let the fear run wild and call all the shots, it can cause us to cling way too tightly to each other, or can even lead to us harming our partners in order to keep them close to us so that we don’t have to experience the pain and anger that would come with that kind of loss. Because, depending on how huge the pain and anger feel for a person, fear is doing its job in keeping us from experiencing those big huge frightening emotions that would likely come with loss.
The problem with us not experiencing, processing, and learning to understand emotions like fear, pain, anger, or shame is that they don’t actually die off and go silent, (this is an important reminder: these emotions are built into our nature and they’re meant to keep us safe - so those emotions just, going away, wouldn’t be a very good thing for our survival!). Instead, they live in our bodies and they do what they can to be heard. They need us to turn towards them, instead of trying to avoid them, until they are expressed and processed.
It’s like when you go to physical therapy: usually they give you multiple different exercises and you have to do a lot of work over and over until you start to feel better - for instance, you do 3 rounds of 20 of one exercise instead of doing 1 super heavy rep. Eventually, once you get strong at a low weight for a lot of rounds, you get stronger and stronger, and can do more weight with less repetitions.
So when we first start turning towards our emotions, we have to take baby steps so that we’re not overwhelmed by the weight of the very big emotions (which, can be any emotion not just the ones we perceive to be “negative” - it should be noted that even labeling some emotions as positive and others as negatives, encourages us to turn away from certain emotions. This is part of the reason why in our society, emotions like shame, fear, pain, or anger feel so big - it also points to the ways we turn away from and shun people who experience a lot of shame, fear, pain, or anger and we turn towards, and are more supportive and accepting of people who seem happy, positive, and successful).
Theres a difference in turning towards an emotion, and sitting in an emotion:
Consider you know a toddler who is having a bit of a melt down (this toddler is a metaphor for your emotions). They’re screaming at you so you walk over to them and you sit down on the floor with them, you tell them that you’re right here with them and you love them and maybe (if they're not too activated) you ask them a few questions: “would you like me to pick you up or would you like me to just sit next to you?” Basically you start by letting them know that you’re here with them and you love them no matter what they’re going through right now. You might even start reflecting their experience back to them to a) show them that you understand why they feel so upset and b) to help them find the language to understand why they’re upset. It could sound like: “I hear that you’re really upset and you feel angry. You weren’t ready to be finished playing on the playground because you were having so much fun. I wish we didn’t have to leave right now too. I hear that you’re very angry and it’s ok to feel angry.” You stay calm and maybe you even start to breathe.
Sometimes the toddler even joins you in breathing and they begin to calm down too. That’s what it is to turn towards a big emotion: to let the emotion know that you appreciate its presence and it makes sense that it’s here. Turning towards an emotion doesn’t mean that it dissipates immediately either - sometimes you need to feel angry and know that you’re angry and tell someone that you feel angry! Just like how it’s ok that your toddler gets angry, it’s ok that you get angry too.
If anger is an overwhelming emotion for you, as you start practicing turning towards your anger, a baby step you could take is to set a timer when you start to feel angry. “Ok anger, I’ve got 5 minutes to really sit with you and feel you, after that I have to do something else but I promise that tomorrow we’ll sit together for 5 minutes again and keep going.”
Sitting in an emotion would look more like as the toddler began to scream, you as the adult walked over to them and matched their energy. You’d also become angry about having to leave the park, you’d get frustrated with your child for being so upset, you’d maybe just pick them up and drag them to the car, you’d feel your heart rate elevate and your blood begin to boil. The whole thing escalates. Now you’re both angry and it’s even harder for the two of you to be together so you put the kid in the car seat while they’re screaming and then you get into the front seat and turn up the radio so you don’t have to hear each other because you’re both too angry to speak…
But maybe you turn on music and you both sing super loudly about how angry you are on the way home and then when you get home, you turn towards the child and go, “Hey - we were both really angry back there weren’t we? You were angry about having to leave the park, and I was angry because I wanted us to be able to stay at the park too, but I also had to be in charge of getting us home on time. I got really angry that you weren’t listening to me because I feel better when we work together instead of against each other. I love you so much and I’m sorry that I yelled at you. It’s not helpful when I yell even when I’m feeling really angry. Can we hug?” Repair can happen, with our children, with each other, and even with our big emotions. In this example, you maybe don’t behave in the way that you want to in the moment that the anger is present (you become disconnected from each other and maybe even some feelings get hurt) but as you sing together loudly in the car, it at least helps the anger be expressed through your vocal chords and by the time you both get home, your body feels more calm and able to come back to each other and reflect on what happened.
It can be ok to take space when we’re feeling really angry and instead of trying to understand it immediately, to give it some place to go: like a song, or dance, or stomping, or screaming into a pillow, or ripping up a bunch of paper. Those expressions of anger don’t harm other people or ourselves. Unhealthy expressions of anger include hitting, biting, isolating yourself from others, punching… anything that physically or emotionally harms you or someone else.
Ideally, we practice (and remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, and it also doesn’t mean that we always get it right) turning toward both each other when we’re having big feelings (like our kids, friends, family…), as well as our selves and our emotions. When it’s our emotions, that sounds like, “wow I notice that I feel heat in my chest and that what she just said made me really angry because I don’t think it’s true, and in fact, I think it’s harmful. I’m going to take a deep breath and then I’m going to respond to what she just said.”
It's not bad to sit in it sometimes... but remember that you can't stay there forever.
We do a lot of gaslighting of our emotions, or rationalizing why they feel so big. But that doesn’t actually help us process, express, or understand how we’re truly feeling.
We do this especially with anger by saying, “I can’t hear what you’re saying when you’re yelling like that.” Or “Before we continue, I need you to stop crying and get it together.” Or, “this really isn’t that big of a deal, it doesn’t make sense that you’re so upset.” Or, “if you hadn’t eaten so much sugar at lunch, you probably wouldn’t be so grumpy now.” Or, “That’s never happened to me, so I don’t believe that it’s happened to you.” Or, “I need you to say that in a nicer tone.”
The thing about communication and learning to understand both each other, as well as our emotions, is that it takes everyone involved to do their part to understand and to be understood. But imagine having a conversation where you’re talking and the other person literally isn’t even trying to understand what you’re saying. When anger starts to tell us something it starts by elevating our heart rate, creating heat in the body, and we start to feel it bubble up inside… that’s our cue that “anger is talking and now I need to listen.” Chances are, anger isn’t the most eloquent of emotions because it’s truly not used to being heard or understood so it probably fumbles it’s words, or raises it’s voice, or makes you need to stomp your feet.
Your job is to start by saying, “I hear that you’re angry! Can you help me understand what’s going on? I’m listening.” Not to shut it down and say, “I can’t understand you until you can say that in a nicer way.” Or, "If you hadn't done xyz, you wouldn't be feeling this way..."
And remember above when we talked about why anger might be present? Because it cares about something or has experienced an injustice. Anger believes that things can be fair - and that’s a good thing! The fact that we have this internal monitor telling us, “hey I’m pretty sure that wasn’t fair and it needs to be addressed!” Is honestly, so cool if you think about it. And yes it’s true, life isn’t fair, AND what anger is here to offer is hope. And where there’s hope, that’s where action can take place.
Anger is one of our emotions that can actually cause progress. It says, “the way that it IS isn’t fair and so I’m going to do something about that.” Anger is deeply connected to our heart space, our sense of vitality and aliveness that says, “I matter too!”
And we do! We do all matter and when anger is coupled with a sense of interconnectedness, community, interdependence, mutual support, and enough-ness or abundance, we create a better world on behalf of ourselves AND each other because we’re operating from a space of “there’s enough to go around if we do it right - so let’s really take a good look and make sure everyone has what they need.”
However, when this very same anger that says, “I matter!” is coupled with the idea of independence, scarcity, “protect what’s mine,” or a sense of hierarchy or “some people are better than others” or “I am better than others” this anger shows up in greed, oppression, shame, and violence.
What I hope you’ve gathered front this is that: your anger is here to show you something that you care about (note: you’re included in this - so when someone hurts your feelings and it makes you angry? That’s because your anger wants justice for you too and wants you to be cared for and connected too. Your anger inherently cares about you. Isn’t that sweet?!?!!)
Some questions and statements you can use around your anger to better understand it, process it, and express it are:
- I notice that I feel xyz in my body
- I notice that I feel angry
- It's ok that I feel angry
- My anger is here to tell me something and show me something.
- I’m here to be with my anger and understand how it senses I’ve been hurt
- I am going to sit with this anger until I understand it better before I react or take action
- Anger, what is it that you care about in this moment?
- Anger, would it feel good to come with me to a boxing class?!
- Anger, would it feel good to tell a friend, or write in a journal, or go outside?
- I’m angry because I care.
- I’ll sit with my anger until it’s ready to talk to me
- Anger, I’m not afraid of you and I won’t resort to violent actions towards myself or others including not isolating myself from people who love me
- I’m worthy of being included and cared for - thank you anger for showing me this
If you’re about to take an action like, say something or do something, it can be helpful to ask yourself these three questions:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- For the sake of what? Or, is it necessary?
These questions help us stay connected to each other and to our selves and when times are unjust or otherwise challenging, it’s important to remember that we’re designed for connection so it’s important for our health that we continue to stay connected.
Learning to process, express, and understand our own anger will also help us understand others’. This enhances our access to empathy when we work to understand ourselves. Therefore, when we are faced with someone else’s anger or big emotions, we’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on in front of us. We’ll be less likely to gaslight or invalidate someone else’s experience because if we take a moment, we’ll remember that things make us angry too.
If you experience that your anger or emotions aren’t able to be expressed in healthy ways, it might be time to consider finding a therapist or coach to help you navigate your emotions. It makes sense that, because as a society we’re not taught how to process or understand our emotions, you may need support from someone who does know how to do that.
This is one of the reasons that the Duality Project has created the Self Study Program: it’s a 9 month program that supports you in understanding yourself and your human experience more deeply so that when you are faced with big emotions like anger, fear, shame or even joy, or gratitude, you have a baseline of understanding, support, and a place to go to share your experience so that the act of being seen and loved through some of these big feelings, will remind you that you’re not alone. AND that feeling seen and loved and understood is an important part of the necessary structure of life. You’ll become someone who more regularly sees and understands themselves, and by nature, someone who can more easily see and understand others.
The Duality Project also offers one-on-one Self Study Coaching if you’re needing more specific-to-you support or are just not ready to join a group coaching setting.
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