This article first appeared in my newsletter November 18, 2016. Click here to sign up to receive my online newsletter.
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A powerful emotion
For most of my life, I’ve been frightened of anger. For much of my life, I didn’t recognize my own anger. This week, in part triggered by the US election, I’ve been reflecting on anger – my own and other people’s.
If we have any doubt about the power of anger, we can look to the US election. Anger was a big factor in the results. Some people’s anger was a driving motivator that led them to support the candidate who won, who was brilliant at tapping into that current of anger. Some people’s anger was a driving motivator that led them to withhold their support from the candidate who lost – though they may not have supported the other candidate either.
The country and the world will deal with the impact of the results (as they would have, whatever the results).
As a child, I learned to be terrified of other people’s anger. Whether at home, at school or in the community, I experienced two kinds of anger (probably more, but this is what I remember).
Cool controlled anger, cutting words spoken in a level tone, stabbed me to the heart, made me feel like a defective human being, and caused me to be consumed with shame.
Hot explosive anger, shouting and hitting, immobilized me with terror, made me want to disappear, and left me shattered for days.
I’m guessing the grown-ups in my life had no idea of their impact. As an imperfect adult, I know I too have expressed anger in both these ways. Some of the things I most regret from my life so far are words or actions taken in anger. Some injuries cannot be repaired, and I live with that.
What I learned to do about anger was everything in my power to avoid it by trying to placate or please others, to hide from it by being as invisible and silent as possible, and not even to allow myself to feel my own anger. In short, fear and suppression.
Not everyone had my reaction to anger. Some people relish it. I once lived with a person who said, “I enjoy my rages.” (Naturally, with my aversion to anger, I would choose to have someone in my life who could help me with that!)
There’s much more to say, but here are some things I know now, that I didn’t when I was a child.
Anger is just a form of energy
As a child, I could not distinguish between the anger itself, and the words or actions people used to express their anger. But – whether electricity or nuclear energy or human emotion – forms of energy are neutral. How you use the energy is what makes the difference.
Nuclear energy can provide heat and light to millions of people – a gift. Nuclear energy can kill millions of people and destroy and contaminate everything in its path – a travesty.
Anger can fuel motivation to right injustices and solve problems. Anger can fuel motivation to harm people or even kill them. The anger itself is not the issue. It’s how the anger is used.
Anger is a secondary emotion
Before the anger, there was something else – fear or grief or pain. Looking at what came before the anger gives us a clue to parts of our lives that could use some healing or extra attention. The less time we spend blaming others, the more we can discover where we have power to make useful changes.
We are each responsible for what we do with our anger
Part of being a grown-up is taking full responsibility for our words and actions.
Out of control anger? I have experienced those flashes of rage when it almost feels as if some other power has taken over my body. And… I do not believe it was impossible to control my words or actions in those moments.
A counsellor who works with men who have been violent towards their wives or girlfriends told me one way he responds when someone says, “I was so mad I couldn’t stop myself.”
Counsellor: Mmm. Do you have a boss?
Counsellor: Do you ever get mad at your boss?
Counsellor: Have you ever hit your boss?
Client: Are you crazy? No.
Counsellor: Ah. So sometimes you can control it.
Anger is a great wake-up call
Our anger alerts us to what matters to us, to things we may have ignored. We can acknowledge the anger, and let ourselves feel it. We find safe and respectful ways to express it.
Then we can go to work and use the fuel of anger to make positive changes in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Some of the best things I’ve done in my life have been the result of anger. I’ve left or changed abusive situations. I’ve changed lifetime habits for the better. I’ve stood up to bullies. I’ve sometimes been blessed to be in a position to take on causes of other people who were not in a position to fight back. I had nothing to lose; they did; so I could write the letters, have the conversations, speak to decision makers, and change some abusive unjust situations.
So… what makes you mad?
What’s that telling you? And what next?