Growing up in the South, anger was one of those emotions that was “unbecoming” and therefore rarely got expressed in a healthy way. I’m not sure I ever learned how to “do” anger. I didn’t have a road map for it. Both my parents grew up in households where anger was expressed explosively, if not abusively, and so they learned to fear anger on some level…or at least to avoid it. It took me years into my 20s of finally moving through different developmental stages of anger (lots of tantrums and throwing things had to happen, it seems) before I finally arrived at a version of healthy (not perfect, but healthy) anger expression and assertiveness that I feel confident in.
I think many of us learn, in one way or another, that anger is an emotion to be feared.
We fear our own anger. We worry that if we really come in contact with it, we could do some serious harm.
We fear anger from our loved ones. We are terrified to disappoint them, to disagree with them, to hold boundaries with them, to say or do something that upsets them, and so on.
We fear the collective anger of marginalized and/or traumatized communities. And because our fear activates our threat response system, we with greater privilege duck and run, get defensive, and turn the other way in the face of whole communities of people telling us they are hurting, that we are hurting.
We fear our children’s anger. There is power in anger and we don’t want to feel powerless with our children, to lose face, to be wrong, to not be enough, etc.
This is heavy stuff, y’all! Are you seeing the issue with all this fear and avoidance yet?
First let’s talk about how we got here.
Some of us are told as children that our anger is not okay. That it is too much, too big, or otherwise inappropriate. Little girls are often told their anger is not “lady-like”. Meanwhile angry boys are told they are “just being boys”. More on this bizarre and toxic cultural dynamic in another blog post…
Others of us witness such explosive rage in our families that we become as small and quiet as possible to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. We learn the long-term repercussions of repressed and misdirected anger. Sometimes we even vow never to get angry, for fear of “becoming” our monsters.
Still others of us have been told explicitly or implicitly our entire lives that we are not worthy of the most basic of human decencies, the most basic of human rights, that our stories are not important, that our bodies are not our own. Um, yeah, I think there’s some valid anger there.
In our society, we criminalize justified anger from traumatized and marginalized communities, and yet we dismiss truly hateful acts.
Okay, so how do we make space for anger – our own and other peoples?
As a therapist, I consider myself privileged to bear witness to my clients’ anger. I can’t tell you how many stories of shame I’ve heard from clients where counselors have previously responded to their anger with fear, distancing, or even rejection. And I share that not to turn around and shame the counselors, but to say that this is NORMAL. This is what we are taught. This is our implicit bias, and it’s what we’re up against within ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Here’s a quote I love and often share in my practice:
“Just like our organs, our anger is part of us.
When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves
and take good care of our anger. We cannot say,
‘Go away, anger, I don’t want you.’ When you have
a stomachache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you
stomach, go away.’ No, you take care of it.
In the same way, we have to embrace and
take good care of our anger…
Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying.
Your anger is your baby. The baby needs his mother
to embrace him. You are the mother.
Embrace your baby.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh
WHOA. Am I right?? I remember the first time reading this and feeling like my heart had just cracked wide open. What if, instead of fear or skepticism or wariness, we approached anger from a place of compassion? From a place of heart-led curiosity? What if we not only approached our own anger that way, but the anger of our loved ones, our children, our communities? What would be different about how we move through our days? Our relationships? Our lives? What kind of space might we then be able to offer our own anger and the anger of others?
“What?! Give anger space, you say?!” I see that eye twitching…
Think about it. Healing doesn’t typically happen when we feel trapped and confined, controlled, “managed”, or beat down and ignored. The potential for healing is in our ability to offer ourselves and others space, to expand our compassion, to loosen our reigns, to stay curious, to stay present.
What do you think about this concept? I’d love to hear from you! You can send any thoughts, feelings, or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply hit reply to this email.
Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to sharing more on anger in the weeks to come. It's one of my passions!