“Turn into your feelings. Don’t deny them,” my therapist used to advise me. Are you kidding me? Anger is bad for you, bad for others. It comes out as a Vesuvius of vitriol, coating everyone in its path with the hot lava of hate and fear, and unmet needs, broken promises, guilt, shame and a perverse sense of self righteousness from the spewer. Nothing good can come of it. This was something I truly believed in my core.
That turned out to be incorrect.
Anger is a necessary emotion. It advises us when we are about to step across our sense of right and wrong. It warns us about injustice. Anger can teach us about boundaries or absolutes we may hold in our value system. Anger can advise us to set up and hold new boundaries. Anger can also give us the energy we need to “get up and go”, to move away from danger and to find a safe harbor.
My upbringing gave me a playbook for rage, both the seething, physically-out-of-control action, verbalization, and threat chapter, or the chapter that turns inward, towards depression and self-flagellation; retreating with negative intention; abandonment wrapped up in hiding oneself away. Either shouting and pursuing, or retreating and shutting down. Those were the examples I grew up with.
I am a “triple scorpio”, a horoscope description that gave me permission to be passionate in all arenas in my life. It gave me a free pass to be out of control. I could be over-the-top aggressive, belittling all in my path, or I could descend into the manipulative cave of making you seem wrong because of my overwhelming pain –all in response to you or your actions. I conceded the anger sword to you.
These extremes are not useful. Identifying myself as a “passionate” person – meaning that I could get away with extremes of any kind because I was made that way – is not useful. BEING angry is a far cry from feeling angry. Retreating into an overwhelmed state, or manipulating the anger into depression and self loathing, was not useful. But deeper than both those examples is the fact that I feared anger and tried to block it.
Blocked anger will sneak out sideways – finally finding expression in an unrelated situation, in a “straw that broke the camel’s back” sort of way. It pours forth as rage. It implodes with self-loathing. That is, indeed, loss of control. When I was finally ready to investigate anger, I started by blaming my family. They made me this way. I blamed my horoscope: the die had been cast and of COURSE I would be this way.
Then I blamed my circumstances. The fault of others were legion. Eventually the mirror told the tale. I really needed to look into myself and see what my anger was trying to do for me. Without blame and criticism, I had to check out the purpose.
It was hard to hold on to a feeling that I found odious. I thought that if I was doing my recovery right, my yoga right, my relationships right, that I wouldn’t feel anger. That everything would feel smooth and calm. Not so. There are things that frustrate and disappoint, that evoke past transgressions (experienced or expressed), that hurt my feelings or challenge me. If I don’t have the capacity to feel these, to move toward them, to trust that they won’t hurt me, then they will lodge not just in my psyche, but in my body. They accumulate. I locked them in and block them off. Then, unexpectedly, they burst forth in an uncontrollable expression of rage. Not in the right circumstance, not in the right way and often not with the person or situation that is at the root of the emotional explosion.
So there it is. What is at the root? How did this overwhelming sense of betrayal or disappointment or injustice begin? Can I feel the anger long enough to follow it through the stories and the emotions, the pain and discomfort to find out what is really going on? And once I get down through another layer can I pause and feel that, too?
CAN I FEEL IT WITHOUT USING MY MIND TO JUSTIFY, RATIONALIZE, CRITICIZE, UNDERSTAND AND DISMISS IT?
Can I feel it without telling myself stories to make it true or not true, justified or not, without changing the process or progress to ameliorate the outcome? Can I just be? Holding myself, rocking myself, loving and accepting myself? Sometimes the root is so far and so deep that it’s in the “kid-core.” That does not need to be reasoned with. It benefits from being seen and accepted. Please sit, and avoid explaining away the feelings. Just be mad.
It will pass and we move on. Naturally. Not because we are denying or stuffing or intellectualizing, but because we are healed. My anger is information – not a call to action. I still get angry. Sometimes my experience manifests as a sensation welling up in my upper arms and chest. Sometimes my throat constricts and tears burst into my eyes. And I sit there and I notice it.
Why did I avoid it? Because I have a fear of being out of control. I was afraid I wouldn’t stop expressing it. I was afraid I would hurt people. Like not wanting to cry, I had the idea that I would get angry and then never stop. That brought fear. It all got confused and fused together. The truth is that these are feelings, not a call to action. Be in a secure place, have comfort nearby and be safe. Maybe your counselor or therapist can help you through the first few times. Even my sponsor could hear me and nothing bad happened. Let. It. Go.
Turning to face your anger is healthy (and I can hear her still.) Once the volcano has erupted safely and the pressure is off, each successive experience became more manageable. (I am powerless over my feelings of anger and my life has become unmanageable. Time to ask for help.) So don’t’ “wimp” out. Take your anger seriously and turn into it. The next time you get mad, that’s all you will be. Just mad. Not loaded with years of unacknowledged pain and isolation that fuels the rage.
Anger is my friend now and I listed to the guidance. Because my anger is no longer rage.