There are many negative views on anger swirling about. We perceive it as dangerous or wrong, largely due to our conditioned upbringing, what we’ve witnessed in our neighborhoods, and the violent stories broadcasted around the world.
How many of us were told anger is inappropriate? And how many experienced adults getting unreasonably angry at us, and without repair; or witnessed people unleashing anger at each other, causing us and others to feel unsafe? It’s therefore quite normal and expected that we grow up fearing anger and doing our very best to avoid it, within and without.
In the field of psychology there is something called victim-perpetrator fusion. For instance, a child who has a father who is overwhelmingly aggressive and unpredictable is likely to believe that anger and taking up space are dangerous. After all, this is her experience with her father, time and again. The child then grows up unconsciously believing that she must not be angry or stand out too much otherwise she will do harm to herself and others. Anger/taking up space and harm to self/others are unconsciously “fused” together. To compensate and self-preserve, she plays small by hiding her voice, and being unseen, pleasing and/or accommodating.
There are notable psychobiological consequences to this fusion. Most prominent is the repression of primal energy or life force that anger and our will are natural expressions of. We fear owning our power (we believe to be dangerous) which anger helps us access. We regularly retreat from commanding a room, from voicing ourselves, from making our opinions, gifts and overall presence heard, seen and felt.
There is also the denial of feelings anger is a gateway into. For instance, underneath anger is often sadness. Once we feel through the anger associated with being betrayed by our friend, we may more easily grieve the hurt of loss or rejection. Once we let ourselves be angry at the flight mix-up, we may naturally find sadness underneath waiting for us. In bypassing our anger, however, we bypass our raw humanity, our right to feel. We reject our instinctual need to show up authentically, with tears of sadness and joy, just as a child does.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tumors are associated with excessive dampness in the system. It is believed that a lack of movement of water—tears—through the body is the source of illness, and specifically, cancer.
Trauma, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is associated with avoiding anger. In his illuminating book, In An Unspoken Voice, pioneer of trauma research and education, Peter Levine, explains how after he was hit by a car and laying limp on his back in shock on the street he needed to feel the “burning red fury” directed at the driver who blindly hit him. (He felt the intense sensations rather than lash out at the driver.) The fury, as Levine explains, was a natural “survival emotion” needing discharge. While lying, disoriented on the sidewalk he allowed his body “to do what it needed to do” in this potentially traumatic situation to complete “those physiological processes… releasing the highly charged ‘survival energy’ lurking in my body and seeking its intended expression”. If he had not, the energy (related to fury and other somatic survival responses) would have become frozen or trapped, which is cause for PTSD. Truncated survival responses, including expressions of anger or rage, create trauma in the brain and body.
E-motion is energy in motion. For the sake of our health, energy is meant to circulate freely, as children demonstrate to us so candidly, not get stuck in our systems. But when this energy locks, its immobility impacts not only our physical health but also the health of our relationships. Primal energy, while repressed, sneaks out the back door or bursts through the front door especially in our intimate partnerships. We flip between suppression and outbursts benign as passive aggressive comments and sarcasm to the toxicity of all out violence.
The culture and stresses of the daily grind in the West further entrench us in this flipping between passive and aggressive. On the one hand we are taught in so many ways not to feel, especially anger. Yet when stuck in 40-minute traffic jams, dealing with swelling financial pressures, and facing the demands of the nuclear family, naturally, we may find ourselves enflamed and wanting to scream.
And so it must be stated clearly that anger is not the problem; it is natural and needed; it demands attention, movement and voice. Rather, it’s our resistance to anger and our raw, weary humanity that is the dilemma we in the West endure. Turn away from anger and we reduce our capacity to feel and respond to life from our power. We push down what I consider to be a healthy red-hot energy that needs movement in our bodies, much like how exhaust needs to be regularly released from a car. We deny voice and choice, disempowering ourselves, becoming who we think we should be such that we fit in and evade feeling. Embody anger, however, and we open to its many gifts. Here are 6 of them.
1. Saying no and setting boundaries
The fire of anger is fierce and generous. From it we access the assertiveness needed to draw the line; to declare that a boundary is crossed or that we are being hurt or harmed. When afraid of this fire we become too watery, too fluid, too wishy-washy; we lack the firmness needed to assert where we begin and end which opens the door for people to take advantage of us.
2. Maintaining integrity
Building upon the last point, anger ensures that we stay true to ourselves. Personally, anger is a signal that I am out of integrity. If someone asks me to do something that doesn’t feel right and I agree to it, I often feel angry soon after. My fail-safe anger-guide quickly informs me that I denied what is right for me, that I compromised my personal integrity. The anger is screaming No; it’s telling me I didn’t listen to my intuition.
3. Entering conflict
A clear sign of fearing anger is the chronic avoidance of conflict. Conflict is a natural part of life. Try as we might, we can’t dance around it forever. All of us must soon enter its crucible. But it’s harder to do so if we fear anger, for conflict most often demands that we assert ourselves, including our feelings and opinions, which can seem incredibly dangerous if we learned that anger and conflict was unsafe. If we can temper this fear and befriend our anger we may find ourselves entering conflict more willingly and navigating it skillfully. And we’ll reap the benefits hidden in conflict such as growth and creativity.
4. Creativity and purpose
Some of my best writing comes from an angry response to what I witness or experience: someone crosses a line with me, or I feel angry at how children, animals or Mother Nature are being treated. During these times a clear No surges in me; and then, if I’m lucky, a clear Yes also emerges pointing me towards what to take a stand for. In the No I find the Yes calling. I turn that red-hot primal energy into art, into service.
For many, anger at injustice may call them to advocate, to paint, to start a support group, to confront someone who needs to know the harmful impact they are having. Anger if made conscious and used intentionally can turn passive bystanders into purposeful leaders. It can be a powerful tool to transform the world.
5. Allowing anger in others
To the extent that we deny anger within, we unconsciously deny it in others. We placate their anger by trying to fix them or make them calm down; we reproach or judge them, perceiving their anger as negative; we walk or run away, or simply avoid them altogether. Their anger makes us feel unsafe, just as our own anger does; and so when this healthy emotion arises in others we cannot hold space for it.
Imagine how this influences how we care for children, those little ones who are unbridled in expressing their feelings…
6. Healing and aliveness
As much as New Ager’s like to think otherwise, it’s not about feeling better, but being better able to feel. In feeling, whether it is anger, sadness or joy, we become more alive. We wake up when the long-captured tiger is freed from its cage and finally gets to roar! We wake when we finally allow ourselves to grieve what we’ve long held tight in our hearts, including our anger. And when anger is felt, followed by the cleansing waters of sadness, space is made for joy and playfulness to shine through. We are liberated into a celebratory state that edifies our spirit.
Anger is an essential emotion for each of us to move through if we are to heal. We all have unresolved trauma, for each of us has lived a life of not fully having our emotional needs met and our boundaries respected. There have been times when we have needed to say or scream No, or to kick and punch in self-defense, and it was not safe to do so. The primal energy could not have its needed movement and expression. It became trapped causing trauma.
Personally, it was through re-living the unexpressed anger of my childhood abuse that I uncovered implicit memories associated with it. In a healing ceremony led by a shaman, I was encouraged to let the unresolved anger associated with my childhood abuse slowly build in me as I repeated the words “Fuck you!” with greater and greater intensity. “Fuck you!” was what my body wanted and chose to say. I did not think up the words; rather, they were felt and made alive deep within. When my anger was at its peek, the memory released from my body like a rising mist. There I saw what happened. This was profoundly healing to complete the survival response and clear this old toxicity from my system; to release that memory and free the primal energy stuck in my body causing decades of psychosocial and psychosomatic problems.
Imagine if the shaman cringed at the phrase “Fuck you”, judging it as wrong, inappropriate or rude. “Fuck you”, and the fierce, unrestrained anger associated with it, were true gifts to my soul. They could be gifts to yours as well!
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Check out Vince’s book: Wilde Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart