I grew up with a challenging relationship to anger (who didn’t, right?). My mom’s extended family believed very strongly in the saying “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.” At my grandmother’s, we were always expected to be polite, even when fuming internally. I will never forget the look I would get from my grandmother if I expressed the mildest frustration with a family member. My dad, on the other hand, expressed his opinions loudly and forcefully, and expected other people to argue equally loudly and passionately. He was excitable and physically expressive. He would pace, yell, judge, and glare. When actually angry, the strength of his judgment and accusation could sometimes be scary. People like my grandparents were intimidated and appalled by people like my father, and didn’t know how to relate. People frequently refused to listen to my father’s perspectives not because of their merit, but because of the way he expressed them. He was often automatically called oppressive, violent, or angry because of how he communicated his passion.
Ironically both the anger-averse and the anger-expressive sides of my family came about their relationship to anger through similar means. For both, it was deeply rooted in the expectations and norms of their cultural background. For both, it was also deeply connected to difficult childhood experiences, and the strategies they learned to protect themselves. My dad learned to come out (verbally) swinging; that “The best defence is a good offence.” My grandparents both learned at an early age that anger is unpredictable, out of control, and should be avoided at all cost.
Why we fight over how to be angry
I share this story as an example of how people experience and express anger differently depending on their histories. Some see any expression of anger as violent, alarming, or pointless, and have learned to suppress it. In these cases, some may redirect it at themselves, or let it seep out subtly through passive aggressive or sarcastic comments. Others experience loud explosive anger as normal: the expression of passionate opinions; the justified and powerful response to a wrong; or a source of strength that helps them survive a loss, trauma, or injustice.
My grandparent’s may have been extreme in their aversion to conflict and anger, but they are closer to the norm in North America. People like them are celebrated as polite, mature, rational, etc. People like my father are often pathologized, criminalized, sent to anger management, or silenced. This is particularly true if they do not fit into ideas of normal in other ways, or if they are subject to particular stereotypes. For example, many women of colour and particularly black women, talk about their experiences of being labeled angry for behaviour that is considered assertive and confident coming from white people and others who aren’t subject to the same stereotypes (Thanks to a recent workshop participant who reminded me of this, and examples here and here).
In addition, our society’s dislike of anger is sometimes used to silence important but unpopular perspectives. The expectation that people communicate in polite and contained ways can reinforce inequities and prohibit people from getting their needs met. They can also reinforce more passive or round-about ways of expressing anger that can be equally damaging to our relationships and our own wellbeing.
Anger is neither good nor bad, it’s what we do with it that helps or doesn’t help.
Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion, because it usually covers up other emotions that are even harder to feel, such as sadness, humiliation, rejection, guilt, and shame.
At times it can be very important for our emotional safety to protect these emotions with the strength and power of anger. Anger can be a source of energy, motivation, and direction that helps us stand up for ourselves and our loved ones. It helps us to know when we have reached our limit. It is an essential part of the process of healing from loss.
However, if we are never able to feel, accept, and process these other emotions, we can sometimes find our selves stuck in cycles of anger. Often we inflict it on the people we most care about, and on relationships we depend on. Sometimes it may be experienced as traumatic, abusive, bullying, or violent. It can lead to the end of relationships and tremendous suffering for everyone, including the person feeling the anger.
What does it mean to relate to anger skilfully?
As part of our natural survival instinct, anger (as well as our discomfort with other people’s anger) drives us to act quickly without thinking. This quickness comes from a number of places: a physiological response that releases adrenaline, and increases the heart rate and blood pressure; the activation of the survival part of the brain, which discourages complex thought; and a desire to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes people describe it as uncontrollable and inevitable. While it is actually neither, the quickness of anger tricks us into thinking we have no control, and leads us to take actions we may come to regret. Building our awareness and patience can help us to identify the physiological responses, and to relate to the discomfort connected to anger with more skill.
Slowing down and giving yourself time to reflect can be very helpful. I sometimes suggest to my coaching clients that they journal about their experience of anger. This can be done in a general way, or about a specific situation. The following are some questions that can help guide your reflection.
General questions about your relationship to anger:
What is my personal relationship to my own and other people’s anger?
What did I learn about anger throughout my life?
What did the people I have conflict with learn about anger in their lives?
What does it feel like in my body when I am angry? What does it feel like in my body when someone is angry with me?
What does anger make me want to do? Is that different when it’s my own anger versus someone else’s anger?
What if I slowed down and listened to what’s underneath the anger before taking action?
When has my way of expressing or not expressing anger helped me in my life?
How would I like to relate to my own and to other people’s anger?
If you are angry:
What specifically am I upset about? Am I sure?
What might be the more vulnerable emotion hiding under the anger?
What does the anger feel like in my body? What does the hiding emotion feel like in my body?
What would happen if I sit with this feeling for a while before I act?
If someone is angry with you:
What am I feeling when faced with this person’s anger?
What is my first impulse for a response? Will that response be helpful?
What do I understand about why they are angry?
Does it feel safe to find out more about why they are angry?
Is there a boundary I could assert that would help me feel able to engage with them?
Developing a more comfortable and thoughtful relationship with receiving and expressing anger requires some hard but very rewarding work. Therapy can be hugely helpful, particularly if there have been negative experiences or trauma that helped shape your relationship to anger. Meditation and other mindfulness practices can also help us expand our capacity to sit with anger, without jumping to act it out or control it. Anything that brings calm and a sense of peace – connecting to nature, listening to music, getting a hug from a friend, curling up in bed with a book and tea – can help gradually expand our capacity to face anger, as well as the vulnerable emotions it hides. And finally, it can be essential to build loving and supportive community, and to support each other to transform unjust situations that foster anger.
There is no easy or quick answer to our struggles with anger. It is uncomfortable and inevitable that we will feel it. The more we can understand it - the more we can bear to gently look it in the face - the more power we can have to choose how we want to relate to ourselves, other people, and the world we live in.