A Master lived in the mountains. He answered several of life's hard questions for the inquirer without hesitation. When asked how to handle anger, he broke his walking stick in half and bellowed, "Do you think I'd be living alone in this deserted place if I had the answer to that?" Sooner or later we all have to come down from the mountain, and deal with fellow humans in the market place. Someone is invariably going to step on our toe. OUCH!!
I have seen anger expressed in many of its forms, by omission and commission. We often have a signature way of expressing anger: a way of being angry that we automatically use over and over again when we are in conflict. Habits have power over us when we remain unaware and react unconsciously.
Anger in and of itself is not good or bad, it is just a feeling. Feelings well up in us without conscious invitation. It is what you do with the feelings that will make a difference in the quality of your life. Most of us do not know how to express anger appropriately; we have never been taught. Anger is feared, denied, projected and denounced. Often people associate any expression of anger with the extreme end of the spectrum which is of violence. Often and especially in relationships, it is the inability to express anger properly that can escalate into violence.
At one end of the anger spectrum, we see irritability, grumpiness, negativity, criticism, resentment and judgmental behavior. These are milder forms of anger, but anger nonetheless. Our society seems to be more tolerant of the lesser forms, and our family conditioning allows it. Maybe because these particluar forms of anger are so prevalent, they are not addressed. The milder expressions denied and concealed are the ways some people let out frustration in little spurts, denying that it is anger and calling it something else. In the middle, there is anger that is less intense than violence and more amenable to appropriate expression. As it moves towards the other side, we encounter greater intensity as rage, fury, indignation and wrath. So where are you on this spectrum? Generally, every individual has a troublesome spot.
Clinically, with the exception of violent people who are so extreme, it is the anger avoiders that have more work to do. They deny their anger, or fear it and fear it in others. They are also more likely to project it onto others. Not me, but them. Often avoiders since childhood have pushed down angry feelings and may not be able to identify anger in their lives. Nobody helped them differentiate violence from normal levels of dissatisfaction that could be assertively and cleanly expressed.
Studies have shown that recognizing and expressing anger appropriately leads to positive outcomes. Some such outcomes are: improved health, intimacy, creative expansion as a person, as well as liberating old patterns of social injustice. When strong accumulation of energy arises within us, sometimes red hot, a change needs to take place. Another less acknowledged positive function of anger is that it has the power to override apathy, guilt, and helplessness. This gives us enough energy for self direction, a fulcrum that may lead us out of the stuck places of lower energy in which we find ourselves.
The conscious and unconscious being in conflict is like having a "blind spot". For example, a woman I know denied being angry. She had answers for resolving many things by telling her family to "turn the other cheek". She, however, loved to attend boxing matches and football games. She was videoed by her son when she got excited at these public spectator sports yelling, "Kill him! Kill him!" Monday morning she was back to her ‘other cheek’ way. She was unable to connect the dots as to how she projected her denied rage onto others. Her three children felt unheard and experienced having no permission to express anything that was not sweetness and light in her presence. She couldn't express her own anger directly and caused her children and others around her to feel guilty when they had their feelings. She controlled others and frustrated them with conflicting messages.
It is easier to work with anger that is available. Sometimes it is not pretty, and can be quite toxic; however, it is more available for exploration and change than the suppressed and the denied. Anger is passion which indicates there is energy available for work if a person is ready to change. It is a big "if" due to the fact some people are addicted to anger. In the moment of their explosion, they feel powerful, and for others it is a rush; it is a high that makes them feel at least temporarily more alive. Anger then feeds the addiction which is followed by a surge of adrenalin and other feel-good hormones. At this point it becomes more than a bad habit; it is emotional excitement. You may know of people who create some drama when life evens out. These people rely on their anger in this way to feel more alive.
We all encounter daily situations that can—if we allow—trigger our anger. If we reacted to every opportunity to get angry, we would be constantly angry. Consider people who carry a well of shame, a high level of sensitivity, and low level of self esteem; the slightest criticism may set off any or all of these characteristics. It can become explosive and blaming as well as projected onto whoever gets in their way. Inside of the raging adult is a child possessed, feeling vulnerable and out of control. (Road Rage for example.)
Changing anger without compassion may change into something else we often see in our society. An instance is when an alcoholic stops drinking without understanding and compassion, and denounces other alcoholics who did not do it his way. From my experience, we do not forgive ourselves or others until we develop compassion. It also means having compassion for yourself again and again, as the old habits come back to visit.
Anger is passion and if we do not know how to express it in a healthy, assertive way, we suppress a spectrum of emotions as we cannot selectively suppress emotions. If we suppress anger,we also take the edge off of our positive emotions. The consequences of suppressing are a flat lining of joy, happiness, energy and creativity in our lives. It takes an enormous amount of energy to sit on anger and split it off from our real living experience. Poet Eric Hopper said "Anger is a prelude to courage." He could have added that anger also is a prelude to intimacy, creativity and passion in life.
This article is an excerpt from Laura Young's book Journey into a Passionate Life. The companion workbook provides proven techniques on how to address anger problems and redirect that energy, allowing your anger to work for you!
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