Anger: How + Why to Stop Suppressing it and Make it Your Ally
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Anger seems to be one of the trickiest emotions, at least for many of my clients. Maybe you’ve received the message that anger is inherently bad and destructive “should” be tamed. Maybe you learned that anger is harmful. Or perhaps you’ve gotten the feedback as women that if you express your anger, you’re a bitch.
No wonder we have wrestle so much with acknowledging our anger!
Most of my clients are powerful, highly successful women. AND: their fluency with their own emotions is minimal. Which means that they are carrying around emotions that they don’t have the language for, that get suppressed or come out in some ways that may not be helpful for them. So we start with the basics: inviting them to acknowledge that they have a full range of human emotions.
That’s right, friends: you are not a robot. You are a whole human. And humans have emotions. We’re supposed to. If you notice that you feel feelings, this is great news: you are a human. In our human experience, we do not get to pick and choose what feelings we feel, at least not if we’re committed to being fully present to ourselves and others, and living a fully expressed life.
I remember having a conversation with someone several years back, and she was talking about anger- I don’t remember exactly why. I remember saying to her – “oh, I don’t really ‘do’ anger. As if it was a badge of honor! While what I said was true for me at that time, it was only because at that time, I hadn’t yet owned my own experience of anger. I didn’t have permission within myself to go there, much less to own my emotion, much less to move through it in a healthy way. So I just denied that that whole spectrum of emotions existed.
When we mute our anger, we may be denying our actual experience. Probably not consciously, but we’re essentially sending ourselves the message that we don’t have a right to feel what we feel, or that we straight up don’t acknowledge an emotion that actually is present. And that means we may be bypassing something that actually needs addressing. Another thing that happens is we push down our anger here, and it pops up over there, in some unexpected way, or possibly gets directed at a person or situation that is completely unrelated. For instance, have you ever had some situation at work get under your skin, and you don’t deal with your feelings about it, so you come home and take it out on your partner?
Some of us are afraid that if we let ourselves feel angry, we’ll get stuck there. There is research that indicates the physiological experience of an emotion actually only lasts 90 seconds. By allowing ourselves to actually feel our feelings, we can allow them to move through us rather than getting stuck in them, consciously or unconsciously. Now some of you may have the experience of being mad for months or years- that’s not a feeling, that’s a mood. Some people take on anger as an identify- probably because of some stuff that you’ve experienced during your life that was not your fault. In that instance, if that’s something you choose to address, I recommend hiring a well-trained professional to support you in that process.
When we allow for our anger, we get to have our actual experience; we validate ourselves. We stop tolerating bullshit. We clear up miscommunications in our relationships. We decide to advocate for change, on our own behalf, or on the behalf of others. We create a cultural shift, where we get to have our emotions, and others do to. We teach our kids, our teams, our friend groups that all parts of our humanity are real and welcome, and we get to create and teach helpful rather than harmful ways of communicating and experiencing a normal feeling.
Our biology is to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn when we experience big emotions, like anger or fear. But because we are human animals, at this evolutionary stage, we typically use cognition to override our emotional and physiological experience, which can be helpful short term in the moment, as in not having an explosive outburst every time your boss says something you don’t like. Yet when we don’t process the physiology of the emotion, it does not magically dissipate. Some people run as a way of processing the physiology of anger. Some people do heavy weight lifting. I have a client whose process includes driving around the block listening to music that evokes emotion for her, and scream/cries. When she comes back home to her family, she has gotten it out of her system. Something else you can try is an on purpose temper tantrum. Here me out. This is not an in-the-moment temper tantrum, like in the floor of Walmart- there are memes about that- but rather an on purpose, time limited, in the privacy of your own safe space, tantrum. You are going to feel awkward as hell when you first try this. But remember the thing about feelings only lasting 90 seconds? Give yourself a whole 90 seconds- plus maybe some warm up time- to thrash around and make the sounds and be intense about it. You’ll feel ridiculous- but then, you will feel amazing. At least that is my experience. And then, after you’ve process the physical experience of anger, then have a conversation if you need to.
I sometimes think of anger on a spectrum like fire. Fire creates heat, obviously, and transforms materials- alchemy. Fire can destroy, and sometimes is utilized as a tool to do just that, so that what needs to be burned away can allow for renewal and new growth. My family visited Yellowstone last year, and we learned that natural fires, like those caused by lightning strikes, in moderation, are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. The park rangers explained that they do not intervene with naturally occurring fires unless people are at risk, because the burns are so essential. Out of control fire, on the other hand, destroys shit unnessarily. I would assert that anger is the same. Out of control, we might burn shit down. As part of the whole healthy eco system of human experience however, is balance. What if our anger is essential?
What if you decided to view anger as neutral? No more valuable or less valuable than any other emotion? It’s what we do with our emotions, and the impact it has, that is ultimately helpful or harmful. For instance: if you have a bad day and feel angry and scream at people you love about it, that may be harmful. Whereas, if you witness or experience systemic oppression and get angry and advocate for laws and cultures and systems to change, that’s helpful.
What is your relationship with anger?
What emotions do you tend to avoid?
What scares you about anger?
What possibility could exist from allowing your full spectrum of emotions?
What form of intentional anger will you try?
Let me know how it goes. And if you’d like support with fully identifying and expressing your emotions, reach out. I coach women, leaders, and other interesting people about this very thing, every day.