I am so excited to kick off my emotion blogs with one of my favorite emotions-- Anger!
Anger is such a powerful and passionate emotion. It tends to get a bad reputation because when it’s out of balance it can lead to rage and fury, and leave destruction and devastation in it’s path. I have learned to love the fire of anger though, because it can also fuel us into something better like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Just like all of the emotions it hard wired with signals for us if we can learn to slow down and heed its messages before getting burned in the flame.
According to DBT theory anger is doing it’s job when an important goal is blocked, (ie you don’t get your way) you or someone you care about is being hurt or attacked, you or someone you care about is insulted or threatened. Tara Brach simplifies this even more by stating anger simply means we have a need that is not met.
I think the first time I really understood the power of anger was when I was working at my first job as a therapist. I was going over emotions with a young client through art and her picture was related to Martin Luther King Day. "Holy cow," I thought, as I finally made the connection. What if no one ever got angry about racial injustice? Things would never change. Martin Luther King Jr. himself expands on this by saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” To me this could also echo, “Please don’t stop listening to your anger.”
I started thinking more about this idea of anger as a vehicle for change, and how it can impact our personal lives as well. I see it over and over in EMDR therapy as people repeat dysfunctional patterns they have learned until they allow anger show them they deserve to be loved more fully by both themselves and others.
Brene Brown touches on this in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness as well. She explains, “Anger is a catalyst….It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.” Anger makes the way for all of these beautiful things if we heed the smoke signal when it comes through.
I think where we tend to get into trouble with anger is when it takes over our bodies before we can catch up. Keep in mind it is designed to do this so we can attack and fight when needed. I self compassionately remind myself of this when I too get carried away as should you!
The first intervention is to learn how to feel anger in our bodies and to bring ourselves down. I feel like such a cheesy therapist here. Most of you know the tools: The stop sign, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and deep breaths all apply here. For some comedic relief check out this link to anger regulation in one of my favorite childhood show, Family Matters.
In all seriousness, let me tell you something about these, though. They are evidence based interventions! When we are angry our heart rate increases and our breathing is shallow. Slowing down and taking deep breaths kicks in our parasympathetic system and brings us down. It’s biology and absolutely necessary to get the more mature parts of our brain in control. We can also use more proactive strategies that strengthen this system ahead of time such as meditation and yoga.
Once we are no longer flying off the handle we can slow down and listen to our anger. What is the threat or unfair treatment? What is the unmet need?
Another hard part is to really look at if what we are angry about is true. Much of the time we react with anger without having all the facts or jumping to conclusions (Yes, even you! :P). Also, often under anger are stories of vulnerability, feeling ashamed, rejected, or not enough. As I like to tell my clients although these feel completely true to us, they are also horse poop! Often times we can meet these lies with gentle correction and compassion for ourselves soothing that anger that is trying to brew.
Sometimes, however, we are not wrong. If this is the case, it’s time to problem solve. If our boss is overworking us for example, it’s time for a chat. If our significant other isn’t prioritizing us, maybe we can work toward a solution. You might be sensing a theme here, as often times what is needed is better communication or better boundaries. The good and the bad news is as much as we like to blame our anger on others both of those are controlled by you! I got a kick out of myself after complaining over and over angrily about a toxic person, when the problem was finally solved in an instant when I told them what they were no longer allowed to do! My anger was probably like, "Whew, thanks for finally listening!"
If our anger is still more extreme than we want or we are still feeling the fire when we don’t want to we can pull in some opposite action to bring it down.
One of my favorite lines from the movie Frozen comes from the wise trolls when they say, “People make bad choices if they're mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way, and you'll bring out their best.” This is my first defense against anger and it kicks it’s you know what. Usually if people have upset us they are also hurting themselves or they wouldn’t do things that are unkind. In fact if you really want to up your game you can practice what Tara Brach calls Radical Compassion. It works by thinking of a time when being upset didn’t work out so well for you either….yup, there it is. Just like me, you’ve done some nasty things when angry too. This one is a real pride killer, but the anger dies right along it’s side. The people who anger us are human, and while in some cases boundaries are needed, some grace is often necessary too.
So when we feel the wrath of anger coming over us. Let’s check in. Take a deep breath. Get centered. Do we have something to change? A place in our heart we need to soothe? Maybe we need some boundaries, but could there be room for forgiveness too? Let’s be kind to both our anger and the unmet needs of others, and let it fuel us to be better to ourselves and the world around us.