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The Only Way To Make Your Anger Work For You

03/24/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2015
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If you're mad as hell (and not gonna take it anymore), we have good news: That attitude might just take you somewhere extraordinary.

By Martha Beck

I was a young mom when I realized I needed to get a grip on my anger. Despite my best efforts, I'd become prone to snappishness. One morning, after cursing at another driver in a minivan full of tots, I resolved never to rage again. But then I came across a statement from Mahatma Gandhi: "I have learnt...to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world." Huh, I thought. Maybe I wasn't a rotten mother. Maybe I'd just been losing something I should have been using. Anger, you see -- yours, mine, Gandhi's -- fuels justice. Virtually every step our species has taken toward a better society happened because someone used a tankful of anger to move the world.

Of course, like any potent fuel, anger is volatile. Most people either suppress it or vent it inappropriately. The former approach is like hiding enriched uranium under your mattress (you won't see it, but it may slowly kill you), while the latter is like slopping gasoline all over your car instead of putting it in the tank. To use anger productively, we must first contain it, then channel it.

Feel around in your psyche for any anger you're carrying. Hint: Anger always says "That's not fair." It points at injustice. For example, a woman I'll call Anne suffered from continuous dull rage because her parents always favored her brother. Brenda was infuriated when her local school refused to accommodate her daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Connie was frustrated by a friend who kept gushing about her new romance, knowing that Connie was mid-divorce.

For all of these women, and for you, the process of turning rage into fuel is the same. Observe your anger, and tell yourself it isn't just OK, it's healthy. This compassionate attention is the insulated tank that takes the explosive edge off anger and makes it available as fuel.

Now you're ready to use your anger stockpile as Gandhi used his -- to correct the problems that inspired your wrath. Anger appears when something you need is missing from your life or something you can't tolerate is present. So ask yourself, What do I need that I'm not getting? or What am I experiencing that feels unbearable?

For example, Anne's parents' focus on her brother left her without the sense of being precious, which everyone deserves. Brenda wanted her daughter to have a fair chance at an education. Connie's anger at her friend stemmed from her yearning for reassurance that she'd be OK post-divorce. The truth my anger told was clear: I was trying to do too much too fast. Despite my fervent feminist-sociologist belief that raising toddlers, finishing school and starting a career simultaneously should be doable, for me it was not. Your anger is probably signaling some equally simple fact.

Once you've found it, ask yourself, What would make my rage evaporate? Anne realized that her anger with her parents would subside if they acknowledged their favoritism. Brenda wanted her daughter to be welcomed at school, but also longed to see society accept disabled people. Connie merely needed her friend to say a sympathetic word or two. I bet you'll discover that the solution -- the thing you need that you're not getting -- is fairly straightforward.

Next, imagine what you'll do to find peace if nothing changes. Anne realized that she might have to spend less time with her parents. Brenda staged a protest against the school. Connie decided that if her BFF couldn't support her, she'd demote her to second BFF.

As a young mother, I found that my anger didn't go away until I gave myself time and sleep. This broke my inner rules, which said I should be doing it all. That's when I realized that civil disobedience -- living according to one's own sense of justice -- isn't just for revolutionaries. If our inner rules, the rules of a relationship, or the culture's rules are unjust, we must break them.

But by all means, make communication your first step. Go to anyone who can make your situation fairer, and explain why you're upset. If they agree with you, praise the day and help create the new system. If they don't, go about living the life you feel is right. This is what Gandhi did to free India from oppression. It's what the suffragettes did to get women the vote. It's what African American civil rights activists did when they sat in seats the country had reserved for white people. Even if your problem is trivial, the process of living your truth instead of giving in to the system is the only way to turn anger from a bitter, explosive power into fuel for change.

I resolved my exhausted-mom situation by hiring a regular babysitter and asking for an extra year to finish my degree. I took a little flak from other people -- and a lot from myself. But I realized I was living a manageable life. If you treat anger as fuel, containing it and using its energy to live your own truth, the same thing will happen to you. You'll actually come to appreciate your anger, knowing that in ways large and small, it will always help you move the world.

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