Our emotions are our trusted advocates. While at times they may overwhelm or bewilder us, they also alert us to our physical and emotional functioning.
Fear signals we’re in danger. Sadness indicates we have lost something valuable. Frustration means our will is blocked. Happiness tells us that something vitalizes us.
But what about anger? What is the purpose of this volatile emotion? And how do we deal with it, both our own and the anger we receive from others?
I have found that many of my clients struggle with anger, at home and at work. They tend to mistrust anger, fear it, avoid it or express it in destructive ways that they later come to regret. Few of them have learnt the true meaning of anger or how to express it in a healthy way.
That is why I came up with a one-day experiential workshop (info in Dutch) that enables participants to explore anger in its various forms and shapes. In addition to that, I wrote this blog to clarify some aspects of anger in the hope it will give you more understanding about what anger is and how it can be used.
THE ENERGY OF THE WARRIOR
A lot of us think of anger as an abrasive and destructive emotion. It certainly can be when it appears as resentment, wrath, rage or physical and verbal violence. Anger also shows up more subtly as annoyance, the silent treatment, a combative stare, or a clenched fist.
But anger doesn’t have to be negative. It can also show up as a quiet ‘no’ when we’ve had enough or the fierceness with which we stand up to unfairness. That is because all expressions of anger – healthy and unhealthy – stem from one and the same source: the archetypical energy of the warrior.
This prototypical energy has several functions, the first of which is to protect us. As such, anger is the body-mind’s signal that our physical or emotional integrity is being violated.
In that case, anger give us the energy to protect our dignity, our safety, our wellbeing and our values. It protects us from being treated without respect and from being bullied, belittled and shamed. And by extension, it also allow us to protect the people and things we care about.
It’s why we fight for a cause we believe in and take to the streets to protest corrupt governments. And for those of you with children: just imagine what you would feel and do if someone would attack your little ones. You would instantly tap into an awesome power that would make you a lethal protector.
SOURCE OF AUTONOMY
The second function of the archetypical energy of the warrior is to enable us to become and remain autonomous.
It shows up in the clarity with which the two-year old who says “NO” and in the child who keeps trying that difficult skateboarding trick regardless of cuts and bruises. In the teenager it appears as a self-centered demand for more freedom and in adults it can appear as dogged determination to achieve our goals.
Anger powers our courage, our will and the actions that enable us to separate from our guardians and chart our own course into the world. It is the power we need to become ourselves and overcome obstacles and resistance as we embark on our Hero’s Journey.
ANGER AS CONTACT
The third function of anger is to enable contact. Where two people meet, their boundaries, space, needs and beliefs will inevitably clash. Relationships in which we never fight are ‘safe’ but superficial because key parts of our being are kept outside of the relationship.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you speak harshly or dramatically launch dinner plates across the living room. Those are unhealthy expressions of anger. Rather, I am inviting you to take a stand, speak your mind or confront behaviour that crosses your boundaries in a firm but respectful way.
When we do that, when we allow the warrior energy to power our words and deeds, we become more present and whole, and our relationships deepen.
So anger has many guises, some generative and protective, others destructive. Whether anger is our friend or foe, depends chiefly on what our anger is directed at and how it is adapted to the situation.
If you imagine emotions as moving energy, than happiness lifts us up, sadness takes us down, and fear pulls us backwards. Anger propels us forward and is directed at something and someone. And for anger to be a force for good, it has to be directed at the original object of our anger.
Ideally, the situation and relationship are such that it is safe for us to express our anger at the person that triggered it. Often it is not. Perhaps we will be judged or rejected for it, invite retribution, or feel guilt at the other person’s emotional reaction.
If this is the case, we may be forced to redirect it in one of three ways: by suppressing it, directing it at ourselves or acting it out elsewhere. None of these options are particularly good, but at least they are marginally less bad than what we avoid.
We suppress anger when we force it out of our consciousness all together or when we overanalyse or intellectualise it. We think or talk about our anger, rather than actually feel it in our bodies.
Another way, supposedly for the sake of civility but in reality because we’re afraid of conflict, is to downplay our anger. We say “I am not entirely happy with this” instead of saying “I am really disappointed”, or we smile when actually we’re pissed off.
Suppressing a force that is naturally expansive costs tremendous energy, which is not available to other psychological functions or our relationships. This can make us sick, down, or just appear bland and withdrawn.
And if we contain anger, we run the risk of having it build up to intolerable levels and have it burst from us as uncontrollable rage. This can cause far more damage than the original anger would have caused.
It’s equally bad when we direct anger meant for someone else at ourselves. We adopt this faulty strategy when a parent blames us for their unhealthy expressions of anger and we internalise this. The parent slaps the child when it spills a glass of milk and then says “you asked for this” or “look what you made me do”.
If things like this happen – and in adult life they still do – we learn to blame and shame ourselves rather than hold the irresponsible adult to account. Then the energy that should protect us ends up hurting us.
ACTING OUT ANGER
Finally there is the option of redirecting our anger elsewhere all together. Rather than directing it at the person it is meant for, we take it out on unsuspecting others or act it out in other domains of our life.
In this case, the anger that is meant for our boss can be dumped on our children and our spouse. Or we become criminals or gang members who channel their adolescent rage in an often violent struggle for meaning and respect.
Alternatively, we pour our anger into our work, sports, fretting about other people’s business or engaging in illicit affairs in order to get back at our partner.
Granted, it is ok to express our anger on the treadmill or against a boxing ball. At least this doesn’t cause any damage to our relationships. But eventually we need to return to and deal with the original source.
Anger not only needs to be directed at the right person, but also be adapted reasonably to them. The intensity, form and duration of our anger need to take into account the other person’s humanity and ability to receive anger.
This means treating the other person with kindness and respect, while speaking our unvarnished truth. And it means not overdoing our anger and using language that judges or blames.
In that case, it will be far easier for the other person to receive our anger and respond to it from their own mature and reasonable self. Perhaps apologise or re-negotiate, or at the very least acknowledge our difficulties.
When, however, our anger is not guided by mature empathy and reason, it becomes unpredictable in its trajectory and uncontrollable in its application.
This is often the case when our anger stems not from the righteous indignation of the adult, but the underlying helplessness, sadness, fear and worthlessness of the child within.
In this case anger can spiral out of control and become violent, ruthless and unhinged, or at the very least mean, judgmental and uncaring.
This is the anger that fuels physical violence, marital abuse, the mistreatment of children, violent crime and wars. And it is this anger that sees the strong dominate the weak without pity or shame.
Much of our adult frustration with anger originates from our formative years in which anger was our foe rather than our friend.
Perhaps our expressions of anger were rejected or suppressed by our caregivers and teachers. Or maybe our caregivers responded with threats or by withdrawing their affection when we said ‘no’, showed our defiance, spoke out in frustration or forcefully demanded something.
And possibly we were punished for our anger or subjected to unsafe expressions of adult anger ourselves, through harsh words and uncaring hands. Few, if any, of us have escaped childhood without having been subjected to some kind of verbal, physical or emotional maltreatment.
These experiences, though we sometimes may not consciously recall them, embed in us a blueprint for anger that guides us for the rest of our lives. It usually means that we replay the same patterns in adult life, at home and at work, and meet people with similarly unhealthy or immature expressions of anger.
LEARNING TO PRACTICE ADULT ANGER
Luckily there are ways to make us more anger-savvy. First, we can identify the underlying psychological programmes and heal them through a process of inner work. This allows us to replace childish expressions of and reactions to anger with mature ones guided by empathy and reason.
Second, we can learn to communicate our anger in ways that are based on empathy and personal responsibility, through tools such as Non-Violent Communication. This replaces blaming “you” messages that force the recipient to attack you with gentler – yet more effective – “I” messages that enable the other person to listen and adapt.
Martial arts like Aikido can also prove to be a useful learning path for anger. Over the course of many decades the founder of Aikido – Morihei Ueshiba, pictured above – synthesised hard martial techniques rooted in the Japanese battlefield with a philosophy of love and compassion.
The Japanese characters for Ai, Ki and Do can be translated as Harmony, Energy and Path, meaning the path towards the harmonisation of energy. Aikido, with its many circular movements, allows you to blend with the energy and intention of the partner to create soft, but effective responses to attacks.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
It is understandable that anger has a bad rap. Our newspapers and daily lives are full of unhealthy expression of anger. Still, from the boardroom to the bedroom, anger should be given a second chance.
We should encourage our children to be fierce like warriors without fear of reprisal or judgment. We should commend teenagers for demanding more freedom and our employees for asserting their will. And we should heal the old patterns that taught us that anger is unsafe.
Anger empowers us, protects us and allows us to deepen our relationships, provided it is expressed and received in a centered, mature and compassionate way. I hope this blog will encourage you to develop a different relationship to your anger and the anger of others. Contact me if I can support you with that.
Ilja van Roon
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