The Gift of Anger – Part 1
by Prema McKeever
As we sit together in our session, she tells me about her terrible menstrual cramps, the chronic pains in her neck and shoulders, and I notice the tension in her jaw as she talks about stressors in her life. I ask her to tell me about her relationship to anger; when or how she notices she feels angry. Looking surprised, her immediate response is “Oh, I’m not an angry person!”
I’m talking with a man close to 60 who is furious at his employer because they are not paying him the benefits he is legally entitled to receive and lives below the poverty line while raising his grandchild. He asks for my advice for how to “get rid of the anger”.
I remember all the times that I would break down crying if I felt someone was angry at me. I was so fearful of anger – other people’s and my own – that I would freeze with a numbed-out mind or collapse in tears of shame if someone was angry at me. It didn’t matter if it was my swim coach yelling at our team in the heat of a competition, or a partner expressing anger at something I said or at a dynamic within our relationship. I could not access my own protective energy of anger, set a boundary and express my true feelings and needs in those moments.
Anger is a part of the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system and is the core of our self-protective energy. We’ve nick-named the sympathetic nervous system the “fight or flight” branch, and anger energy comes up when we feel that our boundaries are threatened, or we feel attacked verbally or physically. Healthy, self-protective anger is linked to our life-force energy, that sense of “I can” that supports us in going out into the world and being creative and feeling alive. Anger also comes up commonly if we feel that someone or something is restricting us, holding us back, hindering our expansion. It gives us the energy and impulse to protect our right to be here, to exist and to thrive free of manipulation from others.
There is a difference between feeling our healthy anger, our internal signal that tells us that ‘something is not ok with me’ versus directing (or dumping) destructive anger on someone else or being on the receiving end of someone else’s anger. What I am speaking to is the importance of recognizing when a part of us feels angry, bringing it into our awareness to feel and inquire into it, and separating out any feelings of guilt or shame that may be tagging along or coupled with this anger that puts us into freeze, denial or avoidance.
We are taught in our early family life how to express and respond to anger. Too often our natural anger or frustration was not respected, held, and supported in healthy ways. Instead we often learned that if we are angry, we are punished; physically or relationally. Maybe we were shamed and exiled to our room or met with larger and more powerful expressions of anger by our parents. Attachment Theory teaches us that a child will give up their own needs and authentic expression in order to hold onto a sense of belonging with the family by betraying themselves – to “save” the relationship – and this continues into our adult relationships. We learn quickly to mold to the rules of our family, and every family has their own rules on anger.
Here are a few inquiry questions to bring you into conscious awareness your own relationship with anger while starting to separate healthy anger from feelings of shame or guilt. Stop and take a few minutes to reflect on your family’s story of anger…
*Who was allowed to express anger in your family?
*How was it for your mother or father to express anger with you or each other?
*What happened to you when you protested and expressed your anger?
Pause and take a few breaths, and then tune into your body, ask yourself “what is it like as an adult when something in me feels angry?” See if you can notice without judging yourself the healthy and unhealthy ways parts of you express or avoid expressing anger to those closest to you. You can finally, turn your attention to any areas of anger or frustration you feel in your body at this moment, ask yourself “what are the words or messages my body and feelings are expressing right now?”
To accept all of who we are, and not deny any part of ourselves is new and radical idea. When we give ourselves permission to feel our healthy anger, we then have our boundaries and we also give the same permission to others. When we include all our emotional parts we feel more whole, bigger and our energy doesn’t have to go towards overriding or suppressing. Let me remind you it’s not about letting anger run us or becoming an “angry person”, but rather being tuned into its wisdom and gifts.
To be continued in part 2 – Anger and Trauma. More about Prema and her work on www.sacredinquiry.com
To find out more about how we need to feel our feelings to heal our trauma and restore our aliveness be sure to check out Giten Tonkov’s upcoming new book ‘Feel to Heal’ – an in-depth exploration of this and so much more. Coming March 5th and available on the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release Institute’s website!
What if your Therapist responds to your anger ( which wasnt directed at her) – with anger or annoyance and makes dismissive comments like “you are being really negative?
Prema McKeever says
Hi Kay – Great question! I hope that your therapist is able to separate out enough of her own possible issues around anger and can be a helpful support for you in exploring all your feelings. I would suggest that you be transparent with her – let her know that you experienced her being angry & annoyed and it felt her comments were dismissive. And see what she says – hopefully it will bring forth an honest conversation in which either or both of you may be surprised by what you discover. It could be that she wasn’t feeling any of those things but you interpreted her look that way based on your past experiences with others. It could be that she actually was and that can be a great doorway for you to explore what it’s like to be in your feelings even when met with disapproval… really there are so many directions it can go and it’s rich ground for healing!