Anybody can become angry -- that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way -- that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.
Anger has been getting a bad rap for centuries. Medieval Christianity decreed anger as one of the seven deadly sins. Buddha teaches that anger side-tracks enlightenment and is rooted in illusion. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna regards anger as a sign of ignorance that leads to perpetual bondage. And the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a source of Judaic law, advises, "Anger is a very evil trait and it should be avoided at all costs. You should train yourself not be become angry even if you have a good reason to be angry." Even current medical research conducted through the American Heart Association lists its negative health consequences, including anger as a trigger for heart attacks.
And yet anger is built into our DNA to help us survive. It can invigorate, motivate and set boundaries to protect. It defends space for our voice and point of view. Many important social changes were called into action through the energy of anger, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Civil Rights and women's suffragette movements. And perhaps because the messages about anger are so polarized, so are our ways of dealing with it. We either tend to avoid, ignore and become passive with anger, or inflame it and lash out. So what is a healthy relationship with anger, and how can we employ it in daily life?
Hot and Cold Anger Distortions
Rage: Rage is not just intense anger; it is an aggressive, amplified attempt to offset underlying feelings of shame and inadequacy. It is abusive in words and/or behavior and is used to intimidate, manipulate and control.
Beneath these outbursts are wounds wrapped in shame that often originate in childhood or more recent but traumatic experiences. While any soothing practices such as progressive relaxation and meditation are helpful, these deep experiences are most fully resolved in therapy.
Anger Underground: Anger may run, but it cannot hide for long. Anger can wear disguises, showing up in many indirect and passive ways, including overeating or excessive dieting, oversleeping, being a pushover and self-blame. It can wear a martyrdom face, expose a cold shoulder, shun difficult conversations and seek distraction as a workaholic. This kind of anger is not loud. It is subtle, cool, and just as harmful to relationships.
This anger pattern usually takes root in people who received the message that anger is not acceptable. Perhaps feelings in general were not allowed. Healing begins by first identifying the emotions that are arising and naming them. Free-form journaling is a wonderful way to safely express and get reacquainted with our emotional terrain.
The Anger Habit
Sometimes we dig a neurological groove that traps us in an emotional loop with anger as the response to most situations. This over-reliance on a single emotion is like painting an entire canvas with just one color. It limits the rich palette of feelings that add depth and texture to life, and it blocks our ability to be receptive to new experiences and others' points of view.
There are many reasons why this occurs. It feels safe to justify being right, and anger emphasizes the point. Some people feel too vulnerable showing sadness, so the emotion morphs to anger. Sometimes feelings get stuck because we haven't honored an aspect ourselves yet. For others it's simply that they haven't been exposed to emotional intelligence. And while there is often a valid point in the anger story, the limited way of way of expressing it doesn't serve us or the people around us well.
Mindfulness meditation practice is very helpful in expanding our emotional range. The anger groove gets reinforced by repeating outdated story lines -- "She's always..." "If it wasn't for him, I'd..." "Others have it better..." -- and meditation brings us into a different relationship with our mental stories. With mindfulness, the aim is not to deny or silence our thoughts and feelings or impose a superficial peace. But by loosening our investment in our story, fresh perspectives and other feelings can naturally arise in the space that is created.
Meditation Practice: Set aside about 15 minutes of undisturbed time. Bring awareness to your breath and remain present to its flow and rhythm. When thoughts arise, simply notice that they are there without suppressing, judging or engaging the storyline. Just sit with it, including any physical sensations and emotional intensity. Then bring your focus again to your breath. This cycle may repeat several times during your practice.
Anger As Your Ally
Healthy anger is not aggressive, nor is it passive. The formidable center is clear and assertive. It is responsive but not reactionary. Victor Frankl reminds us that, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lie our growth and freedom." Awareness is key to cultivating that space for choice.
It's vital to understand that anger arises from a different emotional trigger. The anger may be in reaction to fear, disrespect, lack of control, loss, feeling unsafe, rejection, hurt, lack of acknowledgment, trapped, intense frustration and more. The underlying feeling is often not visible to others and, depending on the level of awareness, may not immediately be recognized by the person expressing anger.
Guided Imagery Exercise: Try this practice for a deeper view of what lies beneath anger. Close your eyes and call to mind something that makes you angry. Experience the pure energy and sensations of anger. Is there tightness in your stomach or heat on the back of your neck? If the feelings had colors, what would they be? What other qualities are present --weightiness, agitation, impulse to flee or fight? Note the scope and level of intensity of your experience.
Now allow an image to form in your mind's eye for your anger, letting it capture the full range of your experience. It may appear as a symbol, a memory or simply a shape and color. Even if it doesn't quite make sense, trust how your anger is showing itself to you. Take a moment to study it and be present with it.
Now imagine "peeling back" your image as though it were a mask or overlay on another deeper image. Meet this new image with curiosity, taking time to get acquainted. Notice its energy, size, shape colors, textures and qualities. How do you feel in its presence? Ask it want it wants. What does it need? Is there anything desiring to be reestablished? Is there anything asking for validation, for protection? What needs to be honored? When the exploration feels complete for the moment, bring your focus back to the room and open your eyes.
This exploration may lead to change -- the need for a conversation, change in actions or environment or a shift in attitudes or beliefs. Whatever arises, let patience mature and season your understanding. Through this kind of exploration you just may find that in the right relationship, anger can be a true friend and ally, upholding your safety, valuing your unique viewpoint and advocating for your voice.
Leslie Davenport is the author of the classic book on self-healing "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery." A pioneer in the health care revolution that recognizes psychospiritual dimensions as an integral part of health, she is a founding member of the Institute for Health & Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, serves on the faculty of John F. Kennedy University and is a clinical supervisor with the California Institute of Integral Studies. Visit Leslie on Red Room.