I’ve been talking a lot about anger in my practice lately. Many of my clients are confused about why they’re angry, who they’re angry with, and if they’re really feeling anger or something else, like sadness or fear. Perhaps more than anything, my clients wonder (and sometimes agonize) about whether or not they have the right to feel and express this powerful emotion. Lacking a cognitive understanding of our emotions can cause us to fear and avoid them, which can lead to symptoms and behaviors that baffle us. (Why does my stomach hurt every time I see this person? Why do I feel like I haven’t been heard when I talk to my sister? Why did I just blow up at my partner about dishes in the sink?) Similarly, questioning our permission to feel an emotion doesn’t contribute to expressing it in a healthy way. I would like to offer some resources and strategies I’ve been exploring with my clients to shed light on the complicated and, often confounding, emotion of anger.
Whenever my clients are fearful of their own anger, I remind them that mindful anger helps us clarify our boundaries. In my last post, I shared a concept called the window of tolerance. Within that window of tolerance, we are able to think and feel at the same time. We are able to communicate effectively with others. We are able to be mindful of our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and the world around us. Becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations associated with anger can be helpful red flags that our boundaries are being violated. Or that we haven’t really set any boundaries and we’re feeling constantly invaded. If we dissociate from the feelings of anger that emerge from that experience of being violated (which can happen when we’re outside our window of tolerance), we’re ignoring a valuable resource to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe. But when we’re able to stay present to our internal experience of anger, keep it contained within our window of tolerance, and express it in a mindful way, anger can can fuel our intention to set and enforce a necessary boundary.
It’s also important to remember that anger is simply an emotion, like joy, sadness, fear or surprise. (Check out this wheel of emotions to see even more options.). When you feel joy, you might laugh. When you feel sad, you might cry. When you feel fear, you might act to protect yourself. When you feel surprised, you might gasp. But many of us, especially those of us who place importance on pleasing others, resist our natural impulses when we feel anger. We’ve been told that we’re supposed to be nice or quiet or easy going (or we want people to view us that way), and we don’t feel any of those things when we’re expressing our anger. Gender expectations and family roles also enter into the equation. We may have internalized cultural messages about masculinity as being associated with expression of anger or aggression and femininity with submission and passivity. If we have been cast as the responsible one or the people pleaser in our family, we may think of anger as incongruent with that role. (It must be someone else’s job in the family to get angry. If I got angry, no one would listen.) Our core beliefs about how we are supposed to feel and act serve as barriers to the natural, healthy expression of our emotions, especially when it comes to anger.
Another barrier to being present with and allowing our anger to move through us is our past experiences with other people’s anger. Many of us don’t have good models for expressing anger appropriately or have been in relationships where anger was used against us. If we grew up in a family a caregiver’s anger got out of control and hurt us or others (physically or emotionally), we might have a knee jerk reaction to any expression of anger. Folks who have experienced anger as overwhelming or life-threatening sometimes shut down at the first hint of anger, from within or directed at them. Healing developmental trauma can be a crucial step toward addressing the way that anger shows up - or doesn’t show up - in our lives.
Learning to feel and express anger mindfully is a critical self-care and interpersonal skill. Chronically ignoring, dissociating from, or repressing feelings of anger can lead to feelings of resentment, passive-aggressive behavior, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. So how can you start to shift your relationship to anger if you haven’t been expressing it mindfully? Here are some ideas to try:
Write it out. I often recommend that my clients write about their anger if they have trouble feeling it. If you realize you might be feeling angry, give yourself the space to write down all the things you’re thinking and feeling about the situation without censoring yourself. It doesn’t matter if your anger is “justified” or not. If you’re feeling it, just let it out on the page. Do this with pen and paper (not on a computer) and notice the quality of your thoughts and body sensations while you’re writing. When you’re done, find a shredder or a match and get rid of that shit. You don’t need the person you’re angry with to hear every angry thought you have, but you do owe it to yourself to pay attention to those thoughts if they’re swirling around inside of you. Notice how you feel after you destroy your angry writing. You may be more able to think and feel clearly about the situation after you’ve given yourself an opportunity to express some of your anger without hurting anyone. Think of it as releasing a pressure valve.
Talk it out. Some folks are more verbal and need to talk through their feelings of anger. Again, the person you’re angry with may not be the first or best person to talk to. Find someone who you trust who is not involved in the situation to hear you out. Help this person help you by letting them know that you’re not looking for advice, you just need to talk through your feelings. Be discerning about whether or not this person can meet this need or if they’re likely to offer solutions, fan the flames of your anger with their own, or share your conversation with others. If you’re struggling to find an appropriate human listener, pets are great listeners too, and they never say the wrong thing.
Work it out. Feeling and expressing emotions mindfully is an embodied experience, so get your body involved. One of my favorite ways to cope when I’m angry is running. Some people prefer hiking or zumba or weightlifting. Even just a walk around the block to get some fresh air can shift our perspective when we’re feeling stuck in a loop around feelings of anger. The important thing is to pay attention to the energy of your anger and let it move through you.
If none of this is working for you, I have one last resource to offer: Beyonce. I highly recommend the entire transformative emotional journey that is the visual Lemonade album, but if you’re looking to live vicariously through someone else’s fantasy of anger expression, this video is for you. The part I’m talking about starts about two and a half minutes in.
What ways have you developed to tolerate, feel, and express your anger effectively? What struggles are you still having? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Heather Branham, LCSW, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, and family building.