(Want to know more about healthy anger? Listen to my podcast #11, Anger is Power.)
Knowing what to do with anger is very tricky for us humans.
We have a shared understanding that we shouldn’t hurt each other (the Golden Rule and all). But we don’t know what we should do with all of that energy that builds up when we feel frustrated or intruded upon. Be cool and just sit with it? Blow off steam and give someone a piece of our mind? We seem to vacillate between trying to be “civilized” by shutting off anger–and then flying off the handle into unpredictable and uncontrolled rage.
I had no idea what a healthy expression of anger was.
Growing up as the youngest of four siblings, we resolved conflict by yelling, punching, and fighting until someone cried uncle (well, that would be me). All this in the context of a White, Anglo-Saxon, upper middle class household that outwardly prized keeping a stiff upper lip. In other words, while our outbursts were frequent, we understood that, ultimately, the goal was to learn to keep this messy expression under wraps.
By the time I was twelve, these conflicting experiences turned into my first thoughts of suicide. In retrospect, I understand how that was inevitable. Where else was I supposed to express my aggression? Learning how to direct it against myself solved a few dilemmas: I could feel in control of where to aim all that energy; I wasn’t going to incite my brother’s rage against me; and I could appear to follow the mores that I was supposed to be emulating.
When I look around, I see folks struggling to solve the same dilemma.
In the White culture that I’m most familiar with, people try to be “nice” by shutting off their anger. This can work temporarily, but aggression inevitable breaks through. Road rage, domestic violence, self-harm, and explosive arguments allow for some expression of this energy, albeit generally followed by shaming the exploder, with some idea that doing so will keep the next explosion from occurring. Often people turn to drugs and alcohol to try to calm the monsters within, though this also works only as long as one stays high (and, of course, sometimes takes away inhibition for such expression). All of this results in the ongoing self-hatred that is almost universal in White culture, as we fruitlessly try to stave off and control these innate impulses.*
Our collective inability to find a way to healthily express our angry leads to a much bigger problem: denying that aggression exists and projecting it onto others. Ultimately, this unconscious strategy leads to our human obsession with separating out “good” people from “bad” ones. As long as we know we aren’t in the wrong category, we can plant a flag in our own righteousness, while continuously focusing on segregating the “bad” ones with heavy prison sentences, solitary confinement, and even the death penalty. (Our current national pastime seems to be sorting folks into one camp or the other.)
So, what’s the answer? What do we do with our anger?
Here’s the bottom line: Express the energy without attacking.
How does that work?
Imagine your body moving through the world, fueled by a stream of life energy. (Katie Hendricks describes this as the “one hose theory of emotions.”) You move about, interacting with the world and all of its beings and objects and fascinating experiences. Your emotions are with you every step of the way, invaluable in their ability to help you discern the world’s effect on you. You notice your sadness and realize you’ve experienced a loss. Fear tells you you’ve perceived a threat. Glad and sexual feelings light and juice you up. Then there’s that ANGER, an upwelling of energy, all around your throat and jaw and shoulders. You’ve detected what is (for you) an intrusion or an obstacle. You want to STOP something (“NO!”) or PUSH THROUGH it (“UMPH!).
That’s all this aggressive energy is for: To stop perceived intrusions, or push through perceived obstacles.
Notice that our perceptions are between us and us. We perceive that getting what we don’t want, or not getting what we want. Our energy is merely signaling what we’re projecting about the world.
Anger tends to be a heat-seeking missile. We want to know what caused it and go after that thing. But–watch out–that’s toxic anger. Your mind tells a story that you’ve been wronged or “hurt” so you’re justified in blasting the other to smithereens. That, right there, that’s where we go off track. Because we want to (or just go ahead and) attack and blame and shame when we’ve perceived ourselves as wronged, we get into a cycle of righteous escalation (“you did TOO SAY THAT!!”) or have to go back later and clean up whatever emotional (or physical) mess we made when we attacked. (Some of us have become excellent dry-wall menders as a result of this.)
The art of anger is to see it as energy, as what powers you. We can block or leak that energy, leading to the issues we typically face: Passive-aggression, power struggles, unpredictable explosions, chronic illness, addictions, somatic symptoms. Or we can befriend that energy as what supports life in us. If we notice our frustration building because we’re not getting what we want, or an inner “no” because we’re getting what we don’t want, we can take the cue from our sensations. We can then simply neutrally express it (I do love to push against things to fully move that energy; growling or saying “I FEEL ANGRY!!” allows movement through without damage to relationships). We can also choose to take actions that the energy has brought our attention t0, that is, to use the energy to move through–or stop doing–whatever is frustrating us, or to draw the boundary that we haven’t drawn.
Decide right now: Are you willing to fully experience the energy that is coursing through your body?
Was that a “yes”? OK, here’s an even bigger question:
Would you be willing to feel all of your anger to completion without blaming anyone (even you)?
Thank you. You’re making the world a more energized, co-creative, friendly place.
*There is a larger picture to track about the expression of anger and aggression. Those in power (in the U.S., currently white males) have perfected the contempt game. Contempt is the perfect tool of the Alpha, the one attempting to maintain domination. If I want to control you, I can use contempt to go after your very essence, disabling you by shaming you and then drawing the larger culture’s hostility.
Interested in knowing more? Join me for my next 3-day Relationship Bootcamp, November 17-19 (email me for info), or for The (Core) Essentials December 8-10.