Updated: Mar 28
This article is based on our podcast episode, Make Magic: Anger as Insight Medicine. Listen to the full episode here.
When you think of anger, you may associate it with rage, losing control or violence. Although anger can ignite these feelings and desires in our system, it can also show us something deeper in ourselves if we truly listen to it. In fact, anger can be very helpful in letting us see what our body needs to feel better. Hearing the message behind our anger can connect us to our inner wisdom, so we can have a better relationship with ourselves, our emotions, and other people.
In this article, I hope to share my personal relationship with anger, and what I have learned about the insight that can be collected from it.
Also, I encourage you to look at your relationship to anger while reading this article. How do you see and connect with it, if at all?
Anger Is All Around Us
If you watch the news, you can’t escape it. There is so much violence in our society that can be linked to anger, especially around power, politics, and control. Reported world events often focus on the negative, and it can bring up feelings of helplessness and grief for many of us. But why does anger and violence always seem to go together? Why does the action of violence have to be the response to experiencing anger? What if there could be another way?
My Experience with Anger
As far back as I can remember, I've always had a journal at my side. As a child and young adult, I had a very undernourished fifth chakra (the energetic communication center located in the throat), which caused me to struggle with voicing my emotions. I often didn't know what I felt or how to identify where emotions were in my body, and I became overwhelmed trying to acknowledge them. Because of this ongoing difficulty, I found that bottling up my emotions allowed me to move through life less embarrassed by this confusion, but I still felt weighed down by them. Hence, writing down this experience in my journals became a massive outlet for me.
Recently, I spent an entire day reading journal entries from age seven to 15-years old. And I was shocked. Although I didn’t have the language to describe the anger I felt as a child, my daily life was filled with it. Over and over, I wrote about a deep anger I experienced in my life that seemed to stem from being disconnected from myself and other people, but I didn’t know what to do or how to do change it. Through reading my journal, I realized I expressed anger by writing things like, "I feel very sad today," and yet, my emotional reactions, and sometimes aggressive reactions, pointed to anger. Sadness seemed to be the only emotion I could easily identify in myself at that time. As I sat on the floor of my office, paging through my journal entries, I said to myself out-loud, "How did I feel so comfortable saying I was sad, but felt so uncomfortable saying that I was angry?"
And then it hit me: Growing up, I thought girls couldn't be angry. I thought girls couldn't express anger. I thought anger was bad, and if I was angry, I was bad, because I didn't know how to understand anger or control it. Every time I felt frustrated, angry, confused, or overwhelmed as a child, I wrote that I felt sad. Where did this programming come from? And better yet, what could I do to help my younger self stuck in these pages?
Carefully, I put aside a few entries from each journal, took the remainder downstairs, and lit a fire in my fireplace. Entry by entry, I said a prayer freeing myself from the confusion and shame I experienced at that time until ever last piece was burned. That day, about 90% of my childhood writings disappeared.
You might be thinking, “Whoa! You just destroyed so many important things!" But for me, I experienced a reclaiming, a soul retrieval. As each word expanded and melted, I felt lighter and lighter as I freed all the locked-up energy stored on each page.
How many of us were not given permission to feel angry as children? And why have woman been taught that feeling and expressing anger makes them bad?
What’s Your Anger Story?
Oftentimes, when anger rises in the body, it is difficult to sit with. Most people, myself included, have not been taught to stay with our feelings without linking them to a story. When we don't feel a certain need being met, or are upset by an injustice, within seconds, a story appears in our head to explain and reinforce why our anger is valid. And this is where it can spiral out of control.
Have you had this happen to you? Consider this:
You have dinner plans with a friend, but he texts you and cancels last minute. You immediately feel angry because he didn't communicate with you earlier on in the day. Almost instantly, you begin to think negative thoughts about him unrelated to this event. You begin thinking that he isn't a good friend, and then begin digging up memories of times that he did not communicate well. You now feel angrier, and another story appears in your mind that he probably doesn't care about you at all, and purposely tried to hurt you with his actions. Before five minutes have gone by, you decide to never talk to this person again and that they don't deserve your friendship. Sound familiar? In this example, it is perfectly healthy and normal for someone to feel angry with their friend's actions. Anger immediately rises in this person's system, but before they can be with their anger and address the deeper need below it (I.E. Feeling abandoned, feeling unappreciated, etc.) the person has already created a story about their friend's intentions without evening speaking with them. Do you see how the person's discomfort with anger caused them to create a story to justify the emotional upheaval they experienced in their system? Do you see how the person isn't aware of what they need underneath the anger, further causing them to shut down and not speak or communicate their feelings? When we notice ourselves spiraling into thought and layer our anger with stories about how someone is bad, we are trying to make them the villain to justify how uncomfortable we are with our deeper feelings. This strategy can quickly teeter on the edge of isolation and manipulation, all the way to violent communication and action, depending on how big our story becomes. When we make up a big story to match how big anger feels in our system, we can accidentally justify thinking harmful thoughts about someone, or acting in unkind ways. This doesn't mean we don't hold people responsible for their actions, but we are ALSO responsible for communicating how someone's actions impacted us. This gives the other person the opportunity to speak to their actions, understand our deeper needs, and allows for a great opportunity for repairing the relationship.
Do You Feel Safe Expressing Your Anger?
Most of us don't know how to listen to the deeper needs below anger because we haven’t been taught how to be in relationship with our anger without creating a story. Anger can be a very powerful emotion, but few of us know how to express it without harming others because we don't know how to view our emotions with less attachment. Strong emotions are often taught as being overwhelming and scary.
Emotions do not have to be controlled - they need to be viewed as a quintessential part of our human experience. Buddhist psychology views emotions as opportunities to practice being deeply present with ourselves, while disarming our ego by disengaging with story and additional thoughts that build up emotions to be bigger than they are.
To feel safe to express anger, we must trust that the anger will not harm us or anyone else. Anger can feel overwhelming because it is our bodies response to a greater message, a greater need within us. If we chose to view anger as a messenger and shift our thoughts to refrain from creating a story around it, we feel more in control and less fearful. We choose whether we add a story to our anger, and with mindfulness practice and attention to our thoughts, we learn to disarm the stories that our ego builds to justify our feelings to control the emotion.
Let Your Anger Out Safely
How do you work with your anger instead of pushing it down? Working with anger can be tricky. We need to be careful to not rush past listening to ourselves or else we won’t be able to move through the anger. If every time you're upset, you don't listen to yourself and you decide to try to move energy out only through action, there's going to be a part of you that feels denied.
You learn to develop deeper levels of trusting yourself when you begin staying with your emotions and releasing the story. And it's also okay if the body requires movement or activity to allow you to stay present with it. Sometimes moving anger through our system means physically moving our body, a lot. This could include shaking all your limbs, running, stretching, dancing, or making loud noises. Your body might feel better singing, yelling, putting your back against a wall or giving yourself a hug. Tensing muscles in your body and then releasing them can also help give the body an energetic release. You can push against a wall with both hands and then allow yourself to lean against it and feel supported. The most important part of working with anger is to continue breathing and trusting yourself. There is no right way to sit with anger, but just by giving yourself the space to be with it and validating that it has a deeper message for you, you will tap into its wisdom.
When we sit with our difficult emotions, trusting that we will be okay, the trigger will soften into a message from deep inside of you, often showing you the key to the healing you seek.
Happiness comes from a place of honoring ourselves. When we honor ourselves, we honor other people better. Giving yourself loving attention, even when emotions are overwhelming and confusing, will allow you to create a deeper well of understanding and tolerance for yourself.
And the more understanding you give to yourself, the more understanding you can give to others. Finding this deeper place of neutrality and peace will cause you to feel less rocked by your experiences because you listen to the deeper message before jumping to story.
Emotional stories can be linked to our lineage, showing up as generational pain or trauma. How we respond to our emotions is often learned through out parents or caregivers, so the courage to be present to your emotions might feel very unfamiliar and confusing. Listening deeply to yourself also ensures that you do not pass down unhealthy ways of relating to emotions that have lived in your family system.
When you do this work, you can say to yourself in a courageous, loving way, “It stops with me. I now love myself more authentically and listen to myself more deeply and will pass this on.” Triggers or emotional outbursts are the body’s way of healing itself. Your willingness and courage to sit with them, especially anger, is so important. The medicine that you offer yourself is intrinsically connected to everyone else's medicine web on this planet.
I'm now starting to view my anger as an important message in my body. When it echoes in my system, heating up my hands and my face, and my heart starts racing, I view it as a red flag, my body sending out a caution signal. Anger is a hand shooting up in the air saying, "Hey! A need is not being met here!" It is an important message that needs my attention and care.
You Don’t Need To Do This Alone
If you are struggling to work with your emotions and want to understand the deeper meanings within them, I’m a psychotherapist who can help you get unstuck on your journey.
Book a free consultation to see if working together to help you heal is right for you.