by Dr. Denise Renye, Licensed Clincial Psychologist, Sex Therapist, MED, MA, PsyD in San Francisco, CA
In many of my sessions with patients lately, the topic of anger has been coming up. This feeling is often perceived as a dangerous or “bad” emotion that can harm you and others. Thus, many people are scared of anger and are told to do whatever they can to squash it, to keep it hidden. I see this particularly in women (and folx who fall closer to feminine on the gender expression continuum) because we are instead encouraged to people-please and not rock any boats with anger. We’re encouraged to be “nice,” and anger isn’t a “nice” emotion. Men (and folx who fall closer to masculine on the gender expression continuum) experience the opposite – they are socialized to feel and express anger, but not sadness. (Think of common, old school sayings like “Boys don’t cry” or “Don’t be a sissy.”)
Don’t Fall for the False Dichotomy
However, I’m here to say both are false! In fact, emotions are not good or bad, right or wrong. It’s healthy for all people to express anger and for all people to express sadness. We need both emotions — they provide us with important information. When we feel angry, and we don’t take it seriously or make enough room to feel it (very different from expressing it), we abandon ourselves. And in that abandonment of ourselves, we may displace the anger onto someone or something else. We may also subvert the anger, which then can resurface as over- or undereating, misusing alcohol or other drugs, vegging out for hours on end, binging TV or video games, and other self-sabotaging behaviors.
Our Culture’s Relationship with Anger
I’ve always been interested in studying society and, more specifically, sociocultural expectations. In my early 20s, I read the book The Anger Advantage: The Surprising Benefits of Anger and How It Can Change a Woman’s Life. The authors state that, as a culture, we don’t learn how to process anger. I agree. Again, we are taught to push it away — or indulge in it.
Lessons in the Magic of Anger
I learned a lot about anger and what it can tell us when I was a clinical supervisor in an early intervention program in Philly. (And, let’s be real, I know a lot about it from being a Philly native. This is a city that does not shy away from anger.) At that time in my career and life, I worked with families of children birth to 3 years old who were being evaluated for developmental delays. Anger was a big part of what these families were dealing with internally as they grappled with the fact their beloved child was delayed developmentally.
In my role at the time, I met with many families who in addition to receiving diagnoses for their child, were also dealing with poverty. Their feelings were absolutely valid; they were contending with numerous devastating blows. I tried to support them by making space for their anger. As we did that, we uncovered deep grief underneath their angry feelings. They were experiencing a loss that words could not capture.
Making the Most of Your Emotions
That’s what emotions do – they inform us about the impact the world has on us and help us process it. Feeling an emotion is very different from expressing it. Further, some ways of expressing it are healthier than others. Feeling anger is an internal process; it happens inside and can feel big and overwhelming at times. But again, when anger arises, it’s for a reason. Pay attention to your body. Follow the embodied experience of the feeling. You’ll find anger brings a message with it. What is it trying to tell you? Did someone violate a boundary? Are you noticing an injustice in the world at large?
From there, it’s important to take a pause. Rushing from feeling angry to then expressing it may result in harm to others, yourself, or inanimate objects (like throwing your phone at a wall, for instance.) What I’m describing here may sound like a tall order, and it is. We aren’t taught in our culture how to deal with anger. Our whole country was founded on squashing the anger of others, Native Americans and African Americans, to name just a couple.
Learning to Sit with These Feelings
I know it’s hard to pause in the moment when the fire is blazing inside. However, it can be done! And pausing to notice and reflect on your feelings is very different from squashing, dissociating from, or denying them. Two practices that help cultivate pause are yoga and meditation. If you can sit with anger, noticing its nuances instead of blowing your top in the moment, it will create space and time for you to make decisions. It can be an advantage in your life as opposed to a disadvantage. Anger can be like a runaway train if the bodymind is not guided. Yoga and meditation are two ways to train the bodymind. Doing so allows you to gain nuggets of information regarding situations you want to move toward or away from. This is gold for living an integrated, whole-person kind of life.
When it comes to expressing anger in healthy ways, I recommend screaming into a pillow, going for a run, dancing to angry music, sending letters and making calls to your governmental officials, attending protests, and journaling to name a few. There are more options than these, of course; the important thing is to find something that works for you. Anger will come up again and again. The question is, how will you handle it? If you’d like support doing so, reach out to me. I’m here.
Cox, D. L., Bruckner, K. H., & Stabb, S. D. (2003). The anger advantage: The surprising benefits of anger and how it can change a woman’s life. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
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