Your Anger is Welcome Here
An invitation to folks who don’t get angry
Last week one of my therapist friends shared the above image on Instagram, which caught my attention. While I’m sure it is insightful for many, I feel it feeds the taboo around anger in our society. I’m talking about a bias that anger is not to be trusted or valued; that if you’re experiencing anger you need to keep working to find the deeper and more valuable — i.e. “real” usually more tender — emotion underneath it. This move is often done by bypassing the experience of anger altogether. This biased perspective views anger as the misleading or distracting emotion that is presumably standing in the way of the truer experience within.
I totally get this bias because when I was younger I used to think anger was an irrational and immature response to life. I didn’t grow up around anger. I can count the number of times I’ve ever heard my parents fight on one hand. Anger, especially expressed interpersonally, was wholly unfamiliar to me and I learned to devalue it, to stop feeling it. As I’ve pursued my own healing and liberation, and stepped into the role of a healer and guide for others, I’ve learned that locating, connecting with, and safely expressing and exploring anger can lead to huge and profound shifts in one’s life.
What I’d like to suggest in this article is that one, it is important to take the experience of anger seriously as a pathway for growth and healing and two, for folks who have a missing or dampened experience of anger, that reconnecting with their direct embodied experience of anger can be a pathway into their life force, vitality, and aliveness. Taken together, working with your anger can lead to empowerment, joy, freedom, and satisfaction — all of which you’ll notice is not included in the graphic above. Rather than focusing on getting “behind” anger to the more tender place, we can move through anger to a more vibrant place.
On Emotional Experience
Emotion is energy in motion. I don’t mean this in a new age-y, bypassing, it’s all groovy kind of way; I mean literally energy, sensation, direct embodied experience . It is a happening in and of the body, which we habitually label and attach a story to, often instead of feeling it. In a lot of therapeutic modalities people get stuck in or just work at the level of the story. It is very cognitive and intellectual. In my work with clients (and what I’m exploring in this article) we focus on the level of sensation, what’s happening in the body. What is noticeable about how the energy is showing up, how it feels, or what it is communicating.
We all develop different relationships to emotions based on our family of origin, early childhood, socialization, and cultural contexts. For example, often our parents keep us from feeling the emotions they cannot feel — emotions that are threatening to their ego structures — so as children we learn to not feel them. And another example, consider how the trope of the angry black woman in American society stereotypes, shames, and silences black women whose lives are inherently limited by white supremacy.
These experiences condition what is safe to be felt. Furthermore, you cannot shut down one emotion without it impacting the rest of your emotional life or vitality. Energetically, it is all one system. The whole system gets tuned in accordance with what is accessible and the degree to which you are able to feel your feelings.
Additionally, while I’m writing generally here about emotional states and there are clear, discernable patterns, it is also true that everyone’s psychology and personal history is a little different, so what I’m exploring here will not apply or make sense universally.
The Missing Experience
Recently, I’ve been working with many clients who have noticed and gotten curious about their inability to feel anger. They might experience a little frustration or disappointment about something in society, perhaps on behalf of someone else, but very rarely do they feel it intimately or interpersonally. They “don’t get angry” and often view anger as “useless” or “unproductive”. Their curiosity about why this is, is an opening to new possibilities and new ways of being.
When someone isn’t connected to their anger a vitality, passion, or sustained energy is also often missing. I’ve observed in my work with clients that often folks who aren’t connected to their anger shrink or contain themselves in some way and can struggle with having good, clean, healthy boundaries. They also can find themselves stuck in their lives — not able to create the change/impact/focus/relationships/success/etc. they want and intuitively feel is possible for them. It is a kind of impotence.
Anger is made of life force energy. It is pure vibrant aliveness. It is energizing. And this is why it is SO incredibly important! I can’t stress this enough. The energy of anger helps direct your life because it is life force. It is the body’s way of saying, ‘Hey! Pay attention!’ The trouble we can get into when we bring the experience labeled as anger, into relationship with others is that it can be unskillfully, harmfully, and violently expressed. Anger can absolutely lead to harm. Let’s not deny that. And it doesn’t have to. Just because anger is present doesn’t mean it will necessarily become dangerous or harmful. On the contrary, it can be hugely clarifying and empowering.
Furthermore, when this energy is repressed or in shadow the ability to reach clarity or breakthrough stuckness in one’s life can be difficult. Part of what is happening there is that there is a double loss of energy — first, there is the missing out on the life force energy because it is repressed, and second, that repression requires the use of additional psychic energy to maintain the repressed state. To keep some part of you locked away in a box means that part of your energy is also continually being used to keep that box shut.
When we learn to mindfully work with the energetics and direct felt experience of what we call anger — the heat, the movement, the quickening, the expansion, the intensity, the excitement — it can transmute into something powerful and in service to our lives (and the lives of others). This is alchemy.
By training your nervous system to be able to fully sit in and be with the experience of anger without collapsing in on oneself or becoming reactive or explosive, you can begin to access all of the benefits of this powerful emotion.
A Spiritual Perspective
It might be surprising to learn that in some forms of Buddhism anger is not something to get rid of or devalue, but rather something to embrace. In Vajrayana, the approach is to work with everything that is showing up as part of the path. All of the emotions and energetics can be used to cultivate awakening.
In this approach anger is related to the wisdom energy (or Buddha family) called Vajra. Vajra is about clarity. When this wisdom energy is expressed from an expanded state of mind and not stuck in the details of he said, she said, it becomes pure, pristine clear-seeing. It is the ability to cut through all of the noise and confusion and see directly into the heart of the matter (even if it doesn’t benefit the ego-self). It is clean and not harmful. On the other hand, when it is in more of a condensed ego-state of mind it becomes an anger that is fueled by a self-righteousness which seeks to maintain the ego-self. It isn’t clean, but full of grasping. (This article is a good primer on the wisdom energies.)
Since most of us aren’t Buddhas and rather hang out in the ego-mind most of the time, we have to start working with this energy from this more condensed state. Alongside cultivating our hearts and compassion, we can start to explore how we can transmute anger into clarity without the ego grab. We can learn to listen to the messages and wisdom it has for us.
Anger is a real trustable emotion that can help enliven and empower you. Rather than viewing it as “useless” and “unproductive” — as many who are disconnected from their anger do — anger can, for example, give you access to your clear “no”, which is the fundamental building block of good boundaries. By learning to lovingly welcome in and sit with the experience of anger in your system you can unlock your vibrancy and passion, and unblock your life.
If there is something in this article that speaks to you — maybe you get an unusual sensation, or there is something here that feels magnetic to you, perhaps long ago, a very wise younger version of yourself had to deny your intense feelings, and you’re now starting to outgrow that. Perhaps you’re curious about what else is possible for you or how to invite this intensity into your life.
Whether you’re disconnected from your anger and wanting to start to make friends with it or you don’t always know how to experience it safely, here are some tips:
- Remember this isn’t about anyone else, it is just about you being with your experience. It is a practice of love and curiosity, not analyzing or judging. If any of the below sounds frightening, start by calling to mind a very peaceful, soothing memory or place, and return to this in your mind if you feel overwhelmed.
- If you have a mindfulness practice or are able to attune to your experience in a quiet state, sit down, take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Start to inquire internally, into the body about your anger. Try to imagine yourself getting angry and notice what comes up for you. Or call to mind experiences you’ve had with other people’s anger. Start working with whatever experience arises even if your anger feels out of reach. Internally tell your anger that it is welcome here.
- Sit quietly and try to remember the last time you can recall feeling angry. Recall the memory in as much detail as possible, with as many senses as possible, and study with open curiosity what happens in your body. Enlarge, heighten the sensations and go at a pace that works well for you. If you find yourself getting stuck in the details of the story redirect your attention to the body and with open curiosity just witness.
- Write your anger a letter or use journaling as a way to have a conversation with yourself, to listen to yourself, about the role of anger in your life, culture, family, childhood. Sit down and begin by writing (preferably by hand) “I want to explore my anger…” or “Growing up anger was…” or “Culturally, my anger is…”
- If you’re already feeling angry about something, instead of shutting it down, do something physical like screaming into a pillow, pushing against the wall, or strangling a yoga mat. The point here is to allow the energy to move through your system and complete the expression. Study what happens.
If you’d like to learn more about this approach or would like some more resources about what I’ve explored here, please feel free to get in touch with me.