She felt it burning inside her. She wasn’t able to embrace anger & rage but it had been smouldering for a while. She noticed her thoughts racing. It was consuming. Nothing much else mattered. It was activating and fuelled a sense of courage that wasn’t typically there. She felt empowered and determined. Something could be done and she finally felt like she had the energy to address the issue before her. She was ready to go. She was going to do it. She felt invincible. Everything was clear and the energy kept rising. The opportunity presented. Just like that she exploded. The fire was unleashed from deep within her core. It was messy. It was uncontainable and unorganized. It was a release.

But now what? Trying to recall what was said and done was difficult. It was hard to process. The energy was changing and a heaviness started to form around her. It was like a thick smoke and that made it hard to see and breathe. What had she done? How did it happen? What did it mean?

Anger is a poorly understood and often demonized emotion. It so often gets lumped into the “negative” or “bad” group as though there are parts of the human experience that are not allowed. Despite it being typical, anger is judged and with that comes shame and embarrassment. For some, it is associated with a loss of control and that equates to an illness of some sort. For others it is perceived as dangerous and therefore suppressed. And for many it is split off and projected outwards as being the fault and doing of someone else. Even psychologists and counsellors prefer to spend time exploring the “primary” or underlying feelings that might have contributed to anger. They will enquire about hurt, anxiety or shame as being more relevant and deserving of our attention than the anger itself.

But why? Why do we have such a problem tolerating or accepting anger as a human reaction?

What is it after all? Is it not a sign that things are unfair, unjust or wrong? And if that is the case, do we not have the right to be angry from time to time?

Owning the Dragon

If we can agree that anger is a powerful force, and is very much part of the human experience, then do we need to start learning about it? Can we actually learn to invite it in for examination before we smother it or throw it away. After all, it might just be one of the key indicators that a boundary has been breached, a fundamental value has been abandoned, or that there is injustice in the air. And if any one of these scenarios is true, then do we not have a responsibility to ourselves and others to own that?

The Different Breeds of Dragons

Because we are all weird and unique versions of the human form, our anger can be expressed in different ways. For some of us, we have mastered the art of using anger effectively in our relationships. For many, it comes out sideways and doesn’t exactly ‘land’ with the desired result. It might therefore be helpful to explore our beliefs, judgements, fears, expectations and intentions when anger arises. Some of the more common ways that anger gets expressed sideways include:

The Passive Side Swipe

If we are uncomfortable with conflict or strongly identify with being ‘nice,’ sometimes our anger can come out sideways in a passive-aggressive sort of fashion. It’s like it gets away from us and slips out as a bit of an underhanded side swipe. This lets people know that we are miffed, but it creates a fair bit of confusion for the other person who has to guess what the issue might be. For those who are more comfortable with passive-aggressive type expressions of anger, it can also target issues that are far from the root of the problem. I guess we pick safer ‘nit-picks’ or benign events because the big stuff feels too scary. Saying “don’t worry I’ll do the bins by myself” might feel much more comfortable than having the more serious conversations about feeling unsupported in a relationship.

The Backstabber

Likely uncomfortable with conflict too, the backstabber might feel more comfortable venting their anger and frustrations to everyone except the culprit who triggered the feeling. This can feel safer as it offers some relief and doesn’t necessarily result in confrontation. It can also feel powerful being able to control how others think and feel about the subject who triggered the anger. However, it won’t result in change or address the problem unless your confidant is helping you to formulate a plan or problem-solve ways to address the issue directly. It also can foster a bit of paranoia in groups as people start worrying about what is being said behind their backs in their absence.

The Bottler

The bottler festers in their anger in an attempt to maintain an image or feeling that is more comfortable or acceptable. On the outside, everything might appear ‘fine’. But inside a battle is forging and expressing that is not an option. There might be fear or shame about being angry, and either way it doesn’t feel safe to let it out. Sometimes, in these situations the feelings bubble out somatically or as physical pain or ailments. After all, it is trapped without an outlet and therefore has to manifest or show itself in another form. Trust might also be an issue here. So one attempts to suppress the feeling in the hope that it just disappears.

The Controlling Bully

Anger expressed in a controlling or bullying type fashion may be coming from a place of powerlessness or chaos. Rather than addressing this within, we dominate others to regain a sense of strength and order. This could be through words, actions or even using emotions to suffocate others. The bully looks for targets and capitalises on their vulnerabilities. Their pain and anger gets resolved by invoking fear in others as this feels powerful for a moment. But the pattern is a hungry one and needs constant feeding. In order for the bully to be satisfied, someone else needs to be suffering and this prevents any form of healing or self-exploration. The part of us that has a disposition towards bullying behaviour is never really seen or understood which maintains their suffering too.

The Raging Bull

Explosive, seemingly uncontrollable anger and rage, can be sign that the nervous system has been completely hijacked. It’s fight or flight and the part of us that feels safest in fight mode is in full swing. It’s so overwhelming that after the fact, we might have a difficult time remembering what happened. Things get said and done that are difficult to rationalise and make sense of. It can be a symptom of trauma and terror. There is little containment until the nervous system has repaired itself. There is not much that can be said or heard until this time. Often, it requires self-soothing and very simple relaxation strategies to regulate the body back into a state where the thoughts and feelings can co-exist.

The Assertive Boundary Setter

Learning to master and use anger in certain situations is a beautiful process. Being able to notice it in the body, get curious about it, reflect on it, and then express it in a respectful way can be so therapeutic. When there is no fear of the feeling, it can be released or expressed as it arises. It is respectful and clear. The boundaries are known, set, and reinforced in a compassionate manner. The values are acknowledged and can be discussed in the instance that differences might arise. Injustices can be approached in a grounded way that might lend itself to compromise or negotiation. If not, decisions can be made to move on or move through the situation.

All emotions need to be acknowledged, felt, and moved through. Anger is no different. They say holding onto it is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.

Buddha & Other Wise Beings

Lets get curious about how it feels for you to be angry…

What comes up for you when you allow yourself to think “I am angry about……” Do you have permission to be angry? Is there judgement there? Do you notice any rules that you have been taught about anger? Are there secondary emotions that you might notice like fear or shame? How comfortable are you getting angry?

So many of us have been taught that anger is bad and as a result we have no idea what to do with it when it arises. It brings up fears of conflict, rejection, or even punishment. In predicting these outcomes, it is no wonder we prefer people pleasing and more submissive patterns to keep the anger at bay. Or do we? As opposed to getting angry with others, do we just turn it inwards and hate ourselves instead?

Others of us might have found safety in our anger and therefore we wear it like armour. For those of us who are more comfortable in conflict, it might just be that closeness, intimacy or vulnerability are far more challenging experiences. As a result we use anger to push people away, sabotaging the opportunity for connection or repair. We might even think that conflict is an appropriate way of connecting and therefore rely on it to feel close to those we love. Whilst this might feel familiar, independent and strong, it can be lonely and the cause of unnecessary suffering.

Embracing Anger & Rage

In between rage and suppression we have the opportunity to own our anger without shame. After all, it is ours and therefore deserves to be honoured. It serves a purpose and is communicating something. Pushing it down only causes us to combust. Externalizing it entirely through blame can result in absolute destruction. So how do we invite the sensation in, ride it out, express it, and use it as an agent for change?

Learning your triggers might just give you a powerful insight into your values. All of us have fundamental things that are important to us. They are often shaped by our families, culture, gender, age, religious and political environments. Values can be based around justice, fairness, work ethic, kindness, ethics and so much more (click on the word ‘values’ to see a comprehensive list put together by Brene Brown)

Exploring our bodies and how anger manifests differently to other feelings can help too. Is it more dense, tense, hot, restricting, or heavy when compared to other emotions? Is it felt more in the head, face, chest, or throughout the body?

And then exploring and practicing ways to communicate, share, and express your anger so that needs are met is absolutely vital. This is where seeing a therapist or engaging in process group therapy can be so helpful as professionals are trained to recognise and respond in ways that help you better understand and express your process.

-With love, Sarah x