I have recently made it my mission to get in touch with the emotion that makes me the most uncomfortable: anger. All my life, I have made it a habit to stifle anger. I hate confrontation so much that I thought that keeping anger inside was the way to deal with it, and it turns out, it totally was! HAHA just kidding, it emotionally exhausted me so much that I physically felt tired. I had to accept that anger, like any emotion, serves a purpose, and that pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away.
The Wisdom of the Five Messengers
A few years ago, my therapist gave me a copy of the book “The Wisdom of the Five Messengers” by Kerry Paul Altman, and it really resonated with me. It’s about the purpose of emotions: to bring our attention to what we need to change in our lives. Internalized misconceptions stop us from really hearing what our emotions are guiding us to do, but even when we choose to ignore them, they come out in other ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally. According to Dr. Altman, the key to living a healthy life is to let go of these preconceived notions about our feelings, stop ignoring them, and accept them for the important role they play in our lives. There are no “good” or “bad” emotions; each of the five outlined in the book (anger, sadness, happiness, fear, and love) is an essential part of being a human.
Dr. Altman refers to anger as “the messenger of injustice” (this will likely immediately speak to anyone who is angry about the new administration). When we are angry, it is because we feel wronged. We feel betrayed, whether it’s by another person, the world, or ourselves. Anger gets a bad rap because it is associated with aggression, so we are taught to ignore and avoid it. However, anger is different than aggression; anger is a feeling, and aggression is a behavior. Anger doesn’t need to be managed; aggression does. Anger needs to be heard, because anger is essential to getting shit done. Anger is why any social movement ever started. As Audre Lorde said in her well-worth-the-read essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” when anger is “[f]ocused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” We need anger on some level to motivate us to address injustices of all kinds, from large scale societal injustices such as racism, to minor frustrations in our personal lives. When we recognize and accept our anger, it enables us to see the options we have to deal with it. We can repress anger and let it manifest as passive-aggressive behavior, headaches, or panic attacks, or we can face it head on and use it to address what is unfair in our lives.
Take a Beat
For many people, the trouble with anger is that it makes them say hurtful things. I am not generally one to respond immediately with anger, mostly because I have spent so much time out of touch with it. However, this hasn’t stopped me from spewing some toxic sentiments about the source of my anger later on to close confidants. I won’t post them here for public record, but my close friends reading this could probably tell you exactly what I said. Anger can be blinding, so it is wise to take a step back and unpack it before you address it. Give yourself the time and space to compose your thoughts if you want your words to carry the right impact. In the heat of the moment, it is easy for others to dismiss you as “too emotional.” Don’t give them this satisfaction by taking time to compose your thoughts and say exactly what you mean, how you mean it. Whether you need to take ten seconds to breathe deeply before you respond or you need several days, take the time you need, do the work, and process your anger.
I am pretty good at detecting when I need some room to think when I am feeling heated, but I am not great at following through later. My natural inclination is to work through my anger on my own and then let it slide when it comes to actually expressing it out loud. Because of my fear of confrontation, I have chickened out on this step again and again. I used to just hate the idea of “burdening” others with my feelings and making them feel bad for making me angry because does it really matter if I am not that angry anymore? Yes, it does. Your emotions are not a burden to other people. When you tell people how you really feel, how they made you feel, you are showing them respect. You demonstrate that you think enough of them to be honest with them. Imagine being in their position: if someone was mad at you, would you rather they tell you or hold it in the form of a grudge forever? Go ahead and tell them what’s on your mind.
Do Something About It
In the case of an argument, expressing how you feel may be all you need to move past it. However, there are many sources of anger within our lives, and many times, a conversation is either not possible or is not going to resolve the problem. If you are stuck in a cycle of endless road rage during your commute, for example, it might be cathartic to talk to your friends and family or journal about it, but that’s not going to address the problem head on. This is where it’s important to identify actions you can take to cope with your anger. In the case of road rage, look into alternative methods of commuting, like a more scenic and less populated route, or taking the bus instead of driving. Make a list of all your options for coping with whatever is making you angry, and choose what to do with this invigorating emotion.
Anger serves an important purpose, but it is not meant to held onto for the rest of your life. Once you have expressed it and done something about it, it should be easier to forgive the source of your anger, which is important for your own well-being. However, this may be easier said than done in many cases, particularly in the face of oppression. You don’t need to forgive your oppressors, but find forgiveness where you can so you can heal. Forgive yourself for not being able to do more. Forgive those who don’t know better (and try to educate them). Forgive the world for its passive silence. When your anger is no longer serving you, it’s time to let it go. There is plenty more productive anger in your future.
Once you have accomplished everything you can with your anger and let it go, it’s time to turn your attention elsewhere. This is a great opportunity to indulge in some gratitude. Think about the things in your life that don’t make you angry, but fill you with feelings of contentment, security, and awe. Tell a friend what they mean to you. Spend time in a place that gives you peace. Thank yourself for doing the work necessary to process anger. Anger is not an easy emotion, but it is one that can bring much to be grateful for into your life if you let it.
Here’s hoping your journey towards healthy anger is a smooth one. If it isn’t, feel free to reach out to me for more advice! I’m here for you.