None of my clients ever wants to be angry.
To them, anger is a loss of control. It’s unenlightened. It’s petty. It might be okay to quietly seethe, but when I ask them to actually express their anger, they freeze up. “It’s not that bad.” “I want to be better than that.” “I don’t think it’s productive to be angry.” “I should be more understanding.”
Personally, I resist feeling anger for several reasons.
I still sometimes think of anger as a "bad" emotion, a purely destructive force with no redeeming qualities. It is a very powerful emotion with potential to wreak havoc. But like a raging river, it can either flood the surrounding areas or generate enough electricity to power a city. Healthy anger can be a motivation to change, to right an injustice, to protect the small and undefended, to keep us true to ourselves and our values.
I struggle with "feeling" my anger without venting all over the people around me, so I end up just stuffing it down. Unfortunately, even when the triggering situation is past, adrenaline continues to swirl through my system. Sometimes it dissipates naturally over time, but many times it ends up getting stored in my body - especially if the underlying issue is not addressed. These stored feelings are uncomfortable and if I don't take care of them, they can lead to numbing and addictive behaviors, chronic tension, unpredictable explosions, or even illness.
By the time I let myself acknowledge its presence, it feels bottomless. I'm afraid that once I start letting myself express it, I'll be swept away and stuck in it for the rest of my life. Personal experience has taught me that's not the case, but the fear remains. When I do remember to let it move through me without resistance, I find that it dissolves or shifts into something else.
Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor discovered after a stroke that if she allowed her feelings to come and go, no emotion lasted longer than 90 seconds at a time. A minute and a half can feel like a long time when I'm in it, but I’ll take it over years of seething resentment anyday. Learning to accept, feel, and learn from my anger has been one of the most powerful steps on my journey.
Understanding and Accepting Anger
My understanding of anger has come from a few valuable sources, one of which is Karla McLaren's book The Language of Emotions. Her position is that all emotions have good information to share with us, if we can take the time to slow down and listen. Anger is a sign that a boundary has been violated. The questions it asks are, “What needs to be protected? What needs to be restored?”
I've also had many transformative experiences with anger through my heart-centered hypnosis work, both as a client and a practitioner. I've seen, heard and felt the anger move, change, shift, and reveal deeper emotions underneath (often anger is a masking emotion for sadness or fear). When we let our anger move freely, it can be an incredibly healing experience.
What about forgiveness? Often we tell ourselves (and others) to just “get over it” or “be the bigger person.” What I don’t like about this approach is that 1) it’s dismissive of our experience and 2) I think forgiveness is less of a conscious choice and more of a natural process that happens when we deal with our anger in a healthy way. Otherwise, what looks like forgiveness on the outside often becomes a buried grievance underneath.
Healthy Anger Release
Some of the following techniques are loud and dramatic, and some are much quieter. Even though I'd much rather retreat to my room with a journal than beat the crap out of a pillow, I've found that giving myself permission to be loud and take up space when I’m angry feels extremely freeing and empowering. So don't be afraid to try something new!
Before You Do Anything Else: Get In Your Body.
If at some point during your release you realize you can’t connect to your emotions, you can't feel anything in your body, (perhaps accompanied by a feeling of being frozen or a flood of analytical thoughts), slow everything down. Get a drink of water. Put a cold washcloth on the back of your neck. Breathe deeply in and out a few times. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice what you can see, hear, and feel around you. You have to be in your body for this stuff to work.
Physical Releasing: Throw a Tantrum
If you watch a toddler throw a tantrum, they get all into it. They’re not hanging back, trying to be enlightened or evolved or empathetic. And yet, when they’re done, they’re done. They go back to being their playful, loving, and creative selves without lingering resentments.
It may look violent and uncontrolled, but done in the right way, a tantrum can be just what you need to release those emotions.
Here are some ideas for getting started:
- Hit something in a non-damaging way (like hitting the wall with a towel).
- Scream into a pillow (or into your hands, or in your car).
- Throw things (safely), like pillows or balled-up pieces of paper.
- Tear up some paper.
- Exercise - speed walk around the block, go to the batting cages, rage-clean the fridge.
- Cry. This is nature's way of letting you release stuff - don't judge yourself for it.
With the throwing/tearing/hitting exercises, try yelling out your resentments and frustrations as you release.
In Public Spaces
At work? Can’t just start cussing while you hit your desk with a foam bat? Try one of these:
- Mentally give yourself permission to be pissed.
- Journal about how you're feeling until you feel the emotion shift or dissipate.
- Imagine that you're surrounded by a protective bubble of light, and then set it on fire and let it burn with all your rage. Channel your anger into the fire instead of the people around you. (This is a McLaren technique).
- Try a few silent screams in the restroom: Open your mouth and exhale forcefully as if you were screaming, but don’t engage your vocal cords. It will sound like you’re whispering “ah” very loudly.
- Listen to some music that suits your mood.
After you’ve discharged the initial anger, you may notice other feelings coming up - sadness, fear, loneliness, or shame, to name a few. You can release these in similar ways, or ask yourself what you need right now.
Do you need a loved one to listen to you? Do you need to wrap yourself up in a warm blanket? Really connect with what sounds most comforting. If you were with a little child who was feeling that way, what would you do to take care of them?
When the emotional charge is mostly gone, return to those questions: “What needs to be protected? What needs to be restored?”
Where can you shore up or create boundaries in a healthy, non-abusive way? What do you need from yourself? What would you like from the other person (knowing that you may not get it)? What lingering thoughts or beliefs are causing you pain in this situation? This is where your healthy, more enlightened self can step back in and help you see a way to move forward.
But What Will My [Spouse/Roommate/Children/Dog] Think?
I know it might feel weird or awkward to excuse yourself to the bedroom to yell into a pillow. Goodness knows I try to wait until I have a minute alone to do these things. If that's not possible, what I can tell you is that you are demonstrating a healthy way to release stored emotion. People don't get many examples of that.
When you hit a pillow, you are not creating violence - you are preventing it. This isn't punching a wall as an implied threat, it's discharging the emotion so you can return to the situation with clear eyes.
It's Never Too Late
No matter how long you've carried around your anger, it's never too late to let it go and see what it has to say. You may not have the time or resources in the moment to deal with your frustration. You may have to suck it up for a short time to do what needs to be done. I guess the upside of the fact that anger tends to hang around in our systems is that it's still there when you're ready to deal with it, whether it's been 10 minutes or 10 years since the original incident. Whenever you get to it is the right time.
I want to end this article with a reminder that even though anger is a healthy emotion, too much of anything can be bad (and anger can often be a masking emotion for depression). If you feel angry/irritated/resentful all the time, please reach out for support.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions! And if you enjoyed this post and would like to read more like it, subscribe to get them in your inbox.