Anger can motivate us, move us, inspire, and inform us. It can scare us, whether it comes from within or is moving toward us. Anger can feel overwhelming, even if we’re merely witnessing its wrath. It can leave pain and sadness in its wake and can exacerbate itself, if not expressed healthily. And really, what does that even mean? What is healthy anger??
Anger is one of the primary emotions into which psychological researchers have given a large dose of curiosity, exploration and study, especially over the last few decades. Anger can range from mild irritation to intense fury or rage. Essentially, it is an automatic response to one’s experience of having been wronged or offended and is a person’s way of expressing that he or she will not tolerate certain types of behavior. Anger can raise our heart rates and blood pressure and increase adrenaline and noradrenaline. If left unattended (especially if not addressing anger is a lifelong pattern), anger can lead to increased risk of heart problems, depressed immune function, depression and anxiety and contribute to a wide range of other mental and physiological problems.
And while we have come to understand that anger has many benefits, we’ve not spent near enough time supporting the overall “space” for anger to be, not only expressed but; tolerated, held, moved, and healed.
Anger is multi-dimensional—it involves our thoughts (cognition), our bodies (sensation/somatic response), and our behavior (expression). Anger is one of the most normal emotions we can experience. It is innate—consider an infant experiencing needs that are left unmet. What happens? He or she expresses anger at the injustice. And just as we wouldn’t deny an infant this natural expression without attempting to help find resolution, we need to find and practice appropriate ways to “be with” the anger of those close to us (first of all, our own!) and, because we are interdependent creatures, help our mates find a way through this experience. By cultivating our ability to engage with anger in a healthy way, we can ultimately enhance our relationships and learn to tolerate more emotional depth across the entire spectrum of emotions.
So, how do we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anger? And who is responsible for developing the way in which we come to view anger in the most reasonable way? Who provides the overall design of what kind of anger is beneficial vs. what kind of anger is unacceptable? Maybe the question shouldn’t be about the actual anger since, as we know, anger is automatic. Natural. “Natural” can’t be bad, can it? The natural part of anger—the Somatic (body) aspect—is automatic. The thought content, however, and the expression or behavior that ultimately ensues… those are the parts over which we can begin to wield a little control, a little pre-frontal cortex Mindfulness!
Anger, in itself, is not healthy or unhealthy. It just is. Simple enough. What we do with it supplies the gauge for where it falls on the continuum. How we are able to tolerate it in another provides yet another gauge–for our own ability to be with the depth & breadth of human experience.
Many therapeutic models use anger as the ground for exploring deep, emotional wounds, relationship dysfunction, and healing. The problem, in my own opinion, of some of these models, is that while anger becomes both safe and cathartic to express, it can then become “stuck.” Anger—and it’s resulting neurochemical response—can become part of an addictive cycle if not processed because even though we “think” that anger doesn’t necessarily “feel good,” the catharsis in releasing something that has been held in the body can release chemicals in the body that feel very good!
So how can we respond to, hold, be with anger from another person? And the bigger question: How can we remain present to another’s anger when that anger is directed toward us?
While anger can be “healthy” to express, it rarely feels good, or even okay, when someone is healthily expressing anger AT us, right? And yet, we want to create safe, healthy relationships and be able to ultimately release negative emotions and deepen our connections. The problem is, we generally have a very natural, and protective, response when someone expresses anger toward us. And our response as well is somatic (at a level of sensation), cognitive (triggering a variety of thoughts), and behavioral (inspiring expression). And there are neurochemicals involved in our brains and bodies as well, and parts of our brains literally shut down (the thinking parts) and other parts light up (the emotional, reactive parts). Anger is connected to an altogether crazy process, most of which (in the moment at least) occurs without any unawareness on our part.
Opportunities of Anger
Suffice it to say, we generally go into defense mode in the face of anger. We can feel like fighting back, defending, justifying, making the other person wrong, distracting… all sorts of things to take the uncomfortable focus off of something we have potentially done “wrong” or that has hurt someone we care about. Why? Well, because “wrong” doesn’t feel very good, right? Sometimes we will quickly say, “I’m sorry,” with the justifiable hope that that’s all it will—or at least “should”—take. I mean, we said “sorry” right? Why is this person still upset?
Well, remember that anger is not only cognitive. It’s somatic. That means it’s occurring on a body level—and we can no longer wish it into nonexistence than we can a broken arm. Something deeper than “thought” needs to shift and when a person says “sorry” too soon, it can often be the result of their own discomfort in handling the overwhelming experience of another’s anger. In fact, most of the ways in which we manage our emotional response to anger are really saying, “Okay, that’s all I can handle of your authentic emotion. Will you stop now?”
The 8 Tools
So, I’d like to offer some Eight “Tools” for when we are confronted with someone else’s anger. My hope is that, as we begin to practice tolerating others intensity, we provide the space for those we love to show up more fully, more authentically, vibrantly and alive! Ultimately, aliveness begets aliveness. Pretty soon, we’re living in a world where all of our emotions have room to breathe!
- If you’re in close physical proximity to a person who is expressing anger, it can sometimes be helpful to simply take a step or two backward—just to Offer Space to them so that they are able to fully express themselves while you practice some awareness around your personal sense of boundaries and needs. If you’re not in close physical proximity—maybe talking over the phone—you can imagine yourself in a “bubble” of sorts, energetically maintaining a boundary for yourself to feel safe and with a more objective view.
- BREATHE. I know, simple. And we hear it all the damn time. And still we forget and when our brains get reactive and protective, we still our breathing—this is connected to the “fight/flight/freeze” response. If we’re freezing, we generally stop breathing. So take a deep breath and do a quick scan for tension in your body. Breathe deeply into your belly. And if you have the opportunity, it may be helpful to say something like, “I really want to hear you but I’m feeling a little reactive. Can you give me a second or two to relax myself so I can hear you better?”
- Which brings me to my next point: Just because you want to stay present to the other person, that doesn’t mean you dismiss your own needs. So Speak Up before you’re running away or attacking. Let the other person know that while you want to allow them the space and safety to openly share their intensity, that if it becomes overwhelming for you—to the point where your brain begins to shut down—that you need to take a minute (or more) to ground, breathe, and refocus.
- Attune to your inner voice—the part of you that wants to just make this stop. Keep reminding yourself that we all get angry—that it’s normal and that it’s okay. It’s a momentary emotion that, with processing and sharing, lessens. When responded to with authentic openness, anger most often dissipates relatively quickly. Also, however, practice your own boundary setting. If you’re not able to stay present, calmly ask for an hour–maybe a couple–to calm your nervous system and come back with more openness. But don’t ever just walk away, abandoning your loved one in the midst of their own anguish.
- If necessary, Request that the person who is angry own their emotions—ask him to make “I” statements and to take responsibility for whatever might be “his part.” Hear what he has to say and take time letting it sink in. Remember that honoring another’s experience doesn’t make them “right” and you “wrong.” It simply allows them to share their unique perspective and feelings, opening the doorway for you to strengthen your ability to manage your own reactions and broaden your perspective.
- Practice allowing yourself to experience YOUR anger, owning your personal experience—thoughts, sensations, and expression—of anger when it arises for you. Make a habit of sharing it with someone with whom you have a sense of safety in developing this practice. Be okay not doing it perfectly! Consider that very few people have had anger modeled to them in a healthy, safe way and it’s going to take time to become comfortable expressing it healthily. Try to even find some humor in the fact that most of us just don’t do it very well!
- Reflect back the pieces that you hear from the other about why they’re angry, what else they may be feeling—practice some active listening skills and then state back to them what you’ve heard without filling in the spaces with your own emotional protection strategies.
- Ask for clarification—and space—when you need it.
Before any of these ideas will be able to sink in, the most important thing any of us can do is to develop a relationship with our own anger. Get curious about where our own intensity lives. Many of us—myself included! —grew up in homes where anger was not acceptable. It may have been expressed by an adult in a way that seemed frightening or threatening but rarely, for most of us anyway, was it expressed, processed, held, or resolved with openness and love. So most of us grew up believing anger to be a “bad” emotion. For me personally, anger wasn’t safe to experience or express. It was scary and rarely brought resolution of any kind. And I grew up believing that to be a “good person,” I couldn’t express, or even feel, anger. So I put on a smile—a big one! –and shoved it all down inside, justified my passive-aggressive style and went on about my merry way. Sadly, in shutting down my anger, I shut down a lot of my aliveness right along with it. Until one day… and that’s another story!
Thankfully, I was allowed the space in my more grown-up world to begin exploring what this deep, intense emotional rollercoaster was all about for myself. Now, I don’t always manage my anger well. I’m Greek. I’m a big person. I’m really intense sometimes. And my early wiring didn’t set me up so well to “let things go.” So I’ll continue to practice. I hope you will too!
For the Love of Your Life!