Emotions are like water, they are meant to flow. When they do, they can be rich sources of information, orienting us toward what needs to be paid attention in our lives, and then receding as we notice their message and adjust our course. When negative emotions are dammed, they can intensify and lead us toward ‘over the top’ reactions, or they can seep back below the surface of our awareness, lessening, but leaving us feeling empty, shut down, and ineffective. Anger is an emotion that lies somewhere on the spectrum between irritation and rage. The effects of unprocessed anger can lead us to therapy. Even if we are not aware of our unprocessed anger, it reveals itself in our relationship patterns and our behaviours, providing clues about what is happening outside of our logical, conscious thinking. Unprocessed anger can also become associated, or bound, with other emotions such as fear, shame and despair.
How do we get into anger binds?
Society encourages men and women to conform to different patterns of anger, and we are heavily influenced by these. Contemporary author and poet El Jones, in her essay Remember, You Are A Lady, explains that her women elders held the belief that they should hide their anger. Her January 2017 poem Still We Rise, describes the consequences of this belief for many women today: “We have been advised to be patient and we’re tired of waiting…” The words of Senator and Retired Lieutenant-General Romeo D’Allaire illustrate that although for military men, anger is one of the acceptable emotions, it has consequences: “The anger, the rage, the hurt and cold loneliness that separate you from your family, friends and society’s normal daily routine are so powerful..”
Some of us have had experiences that we dealt with by compartmentalizing, or shutting down our feelings, including anger. This containment may have been very necessary; it may have helped us to survive. When anger about the past becomes our shield to keep from being hurt again, or a way to strike first, it can prevent us from creating safe, skillful, nourishing relationships.
We may shut down our ability to be informed by our anger by avoiding it, which doesn’t always look like a problem. Sometimes anger is hidden under high achievement in parts of our life, ultra-strong relationship boundaries, or constant, productive activity. It can also look like unhealthy behaviors or substance use, paralyzing depression, or violence toward others. The common element is that we are handling an underlying and unacknowledged problem with these behaviours. It takes an enormous amount of energy to keep doing this, and at some point, things begin to get shaky.
We are reminded by meditation teacher Pema Chodron, that when we are stuck in a difficult emotion, self-compassion can help us greatly. In therapy, working with self-compassion and anger together helps counteract the blame and shame that threatens our ability to look deeply at what we are doing with our anger. Compassionately watching our emotions as they flow through our lives provides us with the wisdom to employ flexible boundaries and make safe choices for ourselves and others.
One of the resources that I find most helpful is the writing of individuals who have been affected deeply by a problem, who have engaged with it, and learned a new way of being with it. Below are some examples of writing about anger.
Audre Lorde writes about the anger she experienced as a Black American woman, from within the anti-racism movement. She explains what she has learned from working with her experiences of anger: “When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.”
Lorde teaches us that when anger is not used as ‘power over,’ but focused toward a common concern by equals, it is a powerful force for change: "For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth."
David Whyte is a poet who also has a message about how anger indicates that we care deeply about something, and that the energy of anger can be harnessed for positive change:
“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”
Ron Potter-Efron is a therapist who has written extensively about the spectrum of angry emotions, some of the behaviours that accompany them, and how these affect individuals and relationships. His book Angry All The Time offers practical strategies for dealing with overwhelming anger. In his Handbook of Anger Management he explores different anger styles, looks at some of the patterns we develop around anger, and describes some of the therapeutic approaches he has used. He has also written about the anger-shame bind and the role of anger and shame in substance use.
New practices around anger involve finding compassion for ourselves, and for those who have been hurt by our unprocessed anger. We can study the signals that our body gives early in the cycle of anger, when we still have the ability to make choices. We can become aware of our personal anger style, and begin to take responsibility for what we do with the energy of anger in our relationships with others and ourselves.
Audre Lorde (2007). The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism (pp. 124-133), in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde, Berkeley: Crossing Press. http://www.blackpast.org/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism#sthash.TVClsKPd.dpuf
David Whyte, (2015) Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Langely, WA, Many Rivers Press.