I wanted to write about anger because it’s topic that comes up regularly with my clients. Anger can be painful, and it can be elusive. At times, it can block the healing process, or it can catalyze it. Regardless of how anger shows up, it often plays a prominent role in therapy work. Because of this, I’ve started to pay attention to anger in a new way. Like all emotions, anger is a signal. It’s a message from our internal world, telling us that the self needs some sort of tending-to; or sometimes that the family or community needs tending-to. And in order to do this, we need to better understand anger itself.
My starting point for deeper exploration is always to look at cultural and social constructs. This is the water in which we swim. And that water is infused with messages about how we are to act, think, and feel. We take these messages in, often without knowing or intending to, and internalize them as truths. And so I started by asking a simple question: what does society/culture tell us about anger?
Messaging about anger is all around us. We’re told that anger is damaging or destructive; that holding on to our anger can cause any number of negative outcomes from emotional disturbance to cancer; that we should learn to forgive and let go. We are told to control our anger. We are told to avoid interactions that might incite anger. We suggest that people who experience a lot of anger attend anger-management programs. We are told that anger will paralyze us and block our growth. Women are told that anger is unseemly. Black women expressing anger are associated with a particular trope - the angry black woman - which has been used to pathologize women of color, and minimize or negate their very valid feelings of anger. In short, anger gets a really bad rap, so our relationship to anger has been mangled and cut short.
However, as I have encountered anger in the world - in myself, and in others - I’ve started to question, more deeply, the beliefs we hold about anger. Is anger something any of us is purposefully holding on to? And if so, is it something that we should be working to let go of? Is it damaging us some way? Is it something we should be working to minimize or avoid?
There are lots of reasons to be angry. Toddlers are angry when they don’t get their way… heck, let’s face it, grow-ups are angry when they don’t get their way! People are angry when they are mistreated, or when things change unexpectedly. We are angry when we feel let-down or betrayed. We are angry when we feel someone else has put us or someone we love in danger. We are angry when we witness acts of injustice. This list can go on and on. But what started to become apparent to me is this: not only are there lots of reasons to be angry, but there are also lots of different types of anger. And so I began to wonder; if anger can be destructive, can it also be constructive? If it causes inaction, could it also cause action? If it harms, could it also protect? And if all of these things are possible, could there be some merit or value in holding on to your anger, as opposed to just trying to figure out how to let it go?
Interestingly, when we think about anger, we almost always think about the times when it looks ugly. But how often do we think about the anger that has fueled movements and sparked revolutions? The anger that eventually got women the right to vote. The anger that sparked the civil rights movement, or sent people marching in the streets to protest the vietnam war. Or the anger that spurred the ActUp! movment. This isn’t just ugly, chaotic anger. This is righteous anger. It is the kind of anger that created and fueled important social change. It is protective anger. Anger is a call to action.
As we continue to build out our ability hold the complexity of our experiences with anger, we can begin to understand when and where anger becomes a useful tool; as well as how to listen to anger to understand what it needs. And may be asking for a specific action. It may be asking for justice, or for validation, or even just for someone to care. Anger may simply need to be heard. So when it comes to dealing with anger, maybe I really good starting point is just to let it speak.