The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. ~Joe Klaas, Twelve Steps to Happiness
Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness. ~Viktor Frankl
In the Unleashed Woman Book Club call a couple years ago we got to talking about the idea of “going with the flow”. The conversation was inspired by a FB post by Toi Smith. Toi wrote ::
“silence is beautiful.
not speaking up is sexy.
going with the flow makes you tolerable.
doing everything without complaint makes you loveable.
making yourself always available is the expectation.
-love letter to women from patriarchy”
We talked about all the ways we have been trained and conditioned to go with the flow. To not speak up. Eventually this led to a conversation about anger.
A couples therapist recommended a book to my now ex-husband and I about anger when we were trying to find ways to save our marriage. It’s not really an anger management book per se, but it talks about all the ways anger is bad for us and how it “destroys our lives” (that’s a direct quote from the book).
I’m guessing you can imagine my response to this book. Wanting to throw it across the room was the most tame of my responses.
I did skim through it. There were some interesting, and perhaps in the right context, valuable exercises. But the premise that anger will ruin our lives had me rolling my eyes and wanting to burn the book.
In general my issues with the book, beyond this uninformed premise, are:
1. It does not come from a trauma-informed perspective
2. It does not come from a systems perspective
3. There is not discussion of the neuroscience or neurobiology of anger (it did talk about the physiological affects of anger)
4. Because it does not come from a systems perspective, it does not tie anger to social/political/institutional reasons for anger
5. There is zero discussion of epigenetics and how anger (or other unprocessed by our ancestors emotions) may be passed down
6. It did not offer any somatic-informed approaches (it only talked about the mind and thoughts)
7. It was written by three white middle aged men with PhDs who I am assuming are at least upper middle class in economic status and carry with them all the privilege that comes with this.
Again, admittedly I only skimmed the book, however the general sense I got was that anger is bad. And there was no science to back up their claim.
(That said, again, the exercises in the book, which are mindfulness based, could be helpful for people in processing some anger and in helping to control their (potentially harmful) actions that stem from anger. We can’t always throw the baby out with the bathwater, even if the baby is mostly made up of elitist and privileged bullshit).
I have become very weary of anyone who claims that anger is always a “bad” thing. Or that is it always destructive (and in these cases destruction = bad. My view is that often destruction = good, growth, change. But that may be another conversation for another day). That we should move past anger as quickly as possible. That anger will “destroy our relationships and our lives”.
Anger, as I have shared before, is an active emotion. It needs movement. It requires physical, emotional, and cognitive movement.
What this means, is that when we are in the height of anger, we do need to physically do something to help release it. This could be going for a walk or run, screaming into a pillow, punching a pillow/punching bag/mattress/cushion, doing jumping jacks/pushups, running up and down stairs, etc. Once enough adrenaline and cortisol (two chemicals that are produced by our bodies when we are stressed, which includes when we are angry) is burned off, we can then move into calming practices, like the nervous system soothing exercises I share with you each week. But those chemicals have to be burned off and begin to flush out of our systems first otherwise our nervous system will stay activated and we won’t be able to fully connect to our frontal lobe (where logic and empathy live).
It also means that when we are angry, not in a rage, more that we are simmering, that we can use this anger as a motivator for action and change.
It means it can be an encouragement to have those difficult conversations with our partner about how they have hurt us, or those difficult conversations with our boss about how we aren’t compensated fairly, or to make difficult decisions that will change the trajectory of our lives.
Sometimes there are other emotions beneath our anger. Sometimes there is sadness, grief, frustration, hurt, betrayal, or any other number of emotions. And it is important to be self-aware and to recognize when our anger is protecting us from some of those even more challenging emotions, particularly those of hurt, betrayal, and grief.
And it also is true that sometimes we are simply angry.
Angry because of any number of injustices that take place daily in the world and possibly even in our lives.
Our rage is valid.
Historically speaking and present day speaking.
When we take the opinion that anger is a “bad” or “negative” emotion or that it will “destroy our lives” then our tendency is to shut our anger down (or at least to try). To stuff it. To ignore it. To pretend we aren’t really angry at all.
Let me tell you something, that doesn’t work our so well in the end.
Remember how I said anger is an active emotion? It will come out, even if you (try to) stuff or shut it down. It will show up as:
• stomach/gastrointestinal and/or digestive issues
• chronic pain
• chronic illness
• mood swings
It will manifest itself, in one way or another. And you can choose to try to ignore it, or you can meet it, shake its hand, and find ways to release, process, and be (positively) motivated by the anger.
Anger in and of itself is not bad.
Sometimes how we act when angry can be harmful to both ourselves and others. And finding ways to release, process and be motivated to healthy action is important. I am in no way condoning physical, emotional or psychological violence to ourselves or others using the excuse that we were angry.
We can all learn to find that space between “stimulus and response,” to expand it and find our ways to responding to and with our anger in appropriate ways.
And, because sometimes some people act inappropriately, or even in harmful ways, when angry, does not mean that anger itself is “bad” or will “destroy our lives.”
Anger can be our way of protesting the status quo. It can be our way of saying we will no longer go with the flow. We will no longer be compliant and complicit. We will use our voice and our intelligence and our resources to promote justice, to demand justice.
Our rage is valid. It is the culmination of generations of rage that has been suppressed and passed down. What we choose to do with this rage, well, that is up to each of us, individually and collectively.
This essay was originally written for my newsletter in September 2017 and has been edited for publication here.
If you would like to receive my weekly newsletter you can sign up here.