Anger is an emotion that oftentimes demands to be felt. What’s interesting, however, is the fact that it is usually superimposed over other feelings. Fear. Uncertainty. Self-doubt. Hurt. Disappointment. Loss. Guilt. Shame.
Three years ago or so, my therapist asked me when it was that I last got angry. I stared blankly at her; I honestly couldn’t recall. I left that day with the recommendation that I try to seek out the edges of my anger – I guess it was evident that I was holding back some strong feelings, or taking them out on myself, rather – and try to sit with it for a while. I hadn’t the faintest idea where to begin.
It’s true, even to this day, that I don’t often get angry. It’s not the first emotion I experience – I tend to get to what’s beneath it first. I’m not angry; I’m afraid. I’m not angry; I’m disappointed. I’m not angry; I’m surprised. Embarrassed. Anxious. Like most, I had moments of anger as a pre-teen and as a young teenager. I quickly learned that anger was a dangerous emotion; difficult to control, with a tendency to lead to damaging actions and words. Somewhere along the line I decided that anger wasn’t something I should feel – or direct outwardly, at least. I’ve never had any trouble getting angry at myself, and even that has always felt more like disappointment. Cool, disapproving.
When I was told that it was alright, and perhaps even necessary, to get angry at things outside of myself, I slowly began to pay attention to the things that irritated me more. The things that angered me, societally and personally. While I continued to try to understand the feelings beneath it, I no longer pushed anger away at its first appearance. I began to trust that I could – and usually would – behave appropriately when angry. I learned that channeling anger into hurting myself was fundamentally damaging to my being (who knew?). I found that anger could be a strong force for change, and that the fact that I could – can – so easily access the emotions underlying anger to be a blessing, so long as I stopped using them to discount the fact that I’d ever been angry to begin with.
When I “learned” how to get angry, I didn’t begin to spiral out of control as I’d feared. I didn’t begin to hurt the people I care about. Instead, I became more assertive. I found motivation and a sense of purpose, and the belief that I could create change. Most importantly, I stopped hurting myself.
Emotions are difficult precisely because they so often seem to be out of our control – and in a very real sense, they are. The fact is that a full spectrum of emotions will happen to us. We will – and should – experience all kinds of feelings, some pleasant and some not. There are only three things we can do about this – try to suppress them, channel them into something else, or sit with them. Sitting with difficult emotions, and even channelling them into something more positive, is extremely hard to do. It’s also extremely rewarding.
While I think that I will continue to take cues from friends about what an appropriate level of anger is for a given situation for a while longer, allowing myself permission to feel anger in the first place has been a surprisingly impactful step in my journey of self-discovery.