Anger is one of the most misunderstood and poorly expressed emotions. Think about the examples we have of people yelling at each other on television, spewing their anger without consideration. Or the people you know who hide their anger in order to keep things peaceful or maintain their composure. Most people either suppress their anger or lash out, or sometimes swing between the two. We don’t have a lot of modelling for how to express anger in a healthy and beneficial way.
Positive and negative effects of anger
Anger is an important emotion. We need anger because it’s what allows us to say “no”, to set boundaries, and to assert ourselves on our own behalf (or on behalf of the people we love). Anger brings clarity, authority, and strong self-definition. Anger is also connected to passion, assertiveness, confidence, and self-expression. When we suppress our anger, we also suppress these other aspects of ourselves. Over time, this can lead to depression, deep frustration, or low self-esteem. Think of it as dampening your fire, but your fire still really wants to burn.
Many people just numb out or bypass their anger (and lots of other emotions as well). We numb with food, alcohol, drugs, television, etc. Or we bypass by minimizing or rationalizing our experience. We don’t want to feel because we are afraid of what will happen if we do. Some people want to avoid conflict or anything messy. Some are afraid of the intensity of their feelings and what expressing them will do to their relationships. And what can often feel the most daunting is what feeling our feelings will actually tell us about ourselves and our lives, and what changes we will need to make as a result. It is not uncommon for someone to numb out more intensely when they have a tough choice to make or an action to take that feels scary. Ironically, anger is what can actually help us make those choices and take those actions in a more confident way.
Suppressing our anger can be dangerous, and is actually a form of self-harm. Anger is an active emotion and it needs to move – through our bodies and through our voice. Think of anger like the element of fire – it is dynamic and alive. When tended, it provides warmth. When out of control, it burns everything in its path. If we don’t move our anger, it festers and builds up. When we can’t contain it anymore, it comes out in uncontrolled and self-destructive ways. Maybe you lash out at someone you love, or turn it in on yourself through things like eating disorders, addiction, or self-harming behavior. Whatever the result, it is the build up of unprocessed and unresolved anger that creates the conditions and the drive to act out.
Suppressing anger can be especially common for women. We are socialized to believe that anger is unattractive and impolite. While growing up, women often learn about people pleasing, not making a fuss, and staying “safe” through conflict avoidance. As women come more into their power and their voice, there is an inner conflict that develops between their passion and anger, and their social comfort. We’ve made progress, but we still live in a world where women’s anger may be dismissed, minimized, mocked, or just seen as uncomfortable and weird. The more we can connect with and express our anger in healthy ways, the more likely this will change.
Symptoms and types of anger issues
Because we are so good at hiding our anger from ourselves or stuffing it down, it can be really helpful to learn how anger makes itself known to us in subtle and tricky ways:
• Anger may be displaced onto something or someone else – like when a teenager is angry about something that happened in school, but instead of addressing it there, comes home and takes it out on their little brother or sister. Or when we get really riled up over a cause or an injustice – channeling our real anger at something less vulnerable that we can feel justified in. Anger might also come out as passive aggression or irritability. In these cases, we are not really expressing or moving our anger. We are giving clues that we are angry, but not taking responsibility for our emotion.
• Anger may also disguise itself as another emotion. Frustration, anxiety, depression, stress, resistance/avoidance, apathy, and sadness can all be anger in disguise. If you are having a persistent experience of feeling low, anxious, or frustrated, you may want to ask yourself if you are actually angry. Depression can be the result of numbing out and avoiding our anger for a while. With depression, our emotions are actually frozen so that we don’t feel much of anything. When we allow ourselves to feel our anger, it is actually a sign that we are coming out of depression and waking up to our feelings and inner strength again – the fire is melting the ice. So, again, if you have been feeling depressed or shut down, ask yourself if you are angry about something. And allow yourself some time to really feel into it and let your intuition be your guide.
• And finally, a very common way that anger shows itself is through physical symptoms. Gastrointestinal and stomach issues are a strong indicator of repressed anger. Muscle tension – especially in the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms/hands, and legs. Grinding or clenching our teeth is common as well. Since anger needs to move, the anger gets trapped in the muscles while it is trying to express itself. It is like the physical response gets frozen in place. We clamp our jaws tight to keep from speaking up. We ball up our hands to keep from striking out. Look for places of tension and notice whether this is actually a blocked anger response. Another physical manifestation is inflammation. Anything “hot” in the body can be an indicator of anger. Even irritations on our skin, like eczema or breakouts can be connected to anger.
How to deal with anger
When you learn your own physical and emotional indicators, then you will have a better idea of what is really going on for you inside. When you suspect that you may have anger you are not feeling or expressing, you can take yourself through a process to check it out.
It may be challenging to access anger directly at first if you’ve been numbing or avoiding it for a while. It may feel like it isn’t even there because it is buried so deep. If this is the case, just take it slow – a little at a time – until you feel more comfortable. Even if you can barely touch it, just going through the motions of trying to connect with your anger and allow space for it to be there will help over time. And as you do this, you will build on your ability to access it.
Sometimes we are nervous about connecting with our anger, like it will take us over or we will lose control and hurt the people we love and then not be loved ourselves. We may feel like people will judge us. But that is the old story. Remember that unprocessed emotions are harmful and actually more dangerous than simply expressing them. When they are stored away, they become part of our unconscious, and anything that lives in the unconscious can assert itself any time and without our control. Plus, there are a lot of benefits that come with our ability to feel and express our anger – like passion, confidence, and strength.
How to use anger in a positive way
1. Start with breath and body awareness
Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and start to focus your attention on how you feel right now in your body and in your emotions. Notice any areas of tension and send your breath there. Notice any feelings or memories that arise.
2. Get curious
Using your intuition, allow yourself to be curious about what you are feeling and experiencing. You can choose one area of tension or an emotion that you are feeling and go deeper into it. Remember to stay receptive and approach this intuitively. Allow the answers to come.
3. Locate your anger
If you aren’t sure if you are angry or what you are angry about, you can ask your intuition to guide you. Even simply asking what anger feels like or if anger is present, and then just breathing until you get a response. Your response might be in words, images, or more sensations. You can say to yourself “I am allowing my anger to be here.” And then breathe and let it come.
4. Don’t judge it
When you are tuning in to your body and your intuition, you may experience things that are uncomfortable or unexpected. It is important not to judge what you feel. That is one of the ways we shut ourselves down. Stay open and available to the experience, even if you don’t understand it or think it should be different. There is a deeper process at work that will make sense later.
5. Express yourself
Once you’ve spent some time contacting and feeling your anger, then you can start to move it. At this point, you get to be really creative. You may want to move your body in some way – dancing, stomping, jumping, punching, etc. Let your feeling guide you. Or you may want to express your anger through art or writing. You could freewrite, paint, collage, play music, sculpt something, whatever feels like an honest expression and a way to move the energy of anger.
Next time you feel the fire burn within you, channel those positive emotions and use them to your advantage!