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  • Writer's pictureLiz Vines

What to do with Anger: Getting to know the Messenger

Updated: Mar 21


Most people I sit with have a complicated relationship with anger. For some of us, fear keeps us away from fully experiencing or expressing our own anger. Many of us have witnessed the horrendous destruction and pain that can be brought on by anger and decide that we want nothing to do with that emotion. We might find ourselves doing some pretty incredible mental gymnastics to avoid letting anger show up in ourselves or, god forbid, out in the world. Others have no trouble expressing anger, but struggle to find ways to rein it in to not damage relationships.


Why "not getting angry" doesn't work:

As a professional anger denier, let me tell you, this does not work. It's probably not news that bottling up emotions isn't the way, but society and past experiences can still make a convincing argument for why we might want to avoid anger. Anger is energy. This is not esoteric. As part of the fight/flight system, anger comes with an increase in adrenaline and cortisol. Blood rushes away from the digestive organs and into the muscles to prepare us for action. If we don't allow anger to complete its biological process, we can experience very real consequences to our physical and mental health. Anger is a messenger, and the message is action. If we push this down and convince ourselves that we shouldn't be angry, we miss out on understanding what is going on for us in a deeper level, and we miss an important opportunity to process the stress hormones that are flooding our bodies. There can be profound relaxation and understanding on the other side.


What is Anger and why do we have it?

Anger tends to show up quickly and with great force. Many of us feel anger somatically - even those who don't tend to experience emotions bodily often report feeling hot, tense, explosive, or noticing a rush of energy that moves upwards. This experience is part of the fight/flight system. Anger serves a biological purpose of protection against threat. This means that we can explore what anger is protecting us from. One challenge here is that because our fight/flight system works so well, our anger may show up in response to something that is not actually dangerous. Especially if we have a history of trauma, it can be hard to evaluate the accuracy of our this alarm system. On top of that, as part of the fight/flight system, anger comes on a wave of disregulation, making it even more challenging to listen to what it is that our anger wants us to know .


How to Listen to Anger:

What causes the anger to arise is important. Acknowledge that there is something within you that needs your attention and that because you're (understandably) in an activated state, it may take some time to figure it out. It can help to start by moving your body - an outdoor walk is ideal, but any kind of movement can help burn off some of the excess energy so that your nervous system can settle and give you access to clarity. Once the biggest waves of anger have passed, let the angry part of yourself tell you what it's angry about. It might help to write it all out on paper. As you do this, notice if there are more waves of activation. It may be helpful to take pauses in your writing/listening to go move some more, or you may decide to just let it pass and continue listening to your anger. Remind yourself that this is just one part of you. Other parts have different perspectives, but right now you're hearing from your anger.


Find Clarity, Form Boundaries, Take Action:

Eventually things will start to emerge beneath the surface of anger. You may encounter fear, worry, grief, or sadness. Anger often shows up to protect us from these more tender emotions. Take time to tend to each of these emotions just as you did before with anger. Anger is the messenger that wants to urgently tell you about an old wound that is coming up again that is in need of your attention and compassion. There may be more work to do here in order to tend to old wounds, and there may also be much more insight from this place when you can see why anger came up, and what it wants. From here, you may have more clarity about an action (anger's original purpose) that you'd to take. That might look like setting a boundary with others and/or yourself, sharing your experience and feelings with someone, making a request, etc. The goal is for this action to come from your whole grounded self, rather than from one specific angry part of you.


A note about Activism:

There is plenty to be angry about in our current political climate. This method of listening to anger still applies here, and I want to clarify that the end goal is not to listen to anger until it goes away and turns into sadness, hopelessness, etc. Anger is not the problem. The problem is in avoiding/pushing anger away so that we don't fully process it, or in acting from the height of activation, rather than taking time to regulate and listen to anger. You may very well arrive at a decision to speak out, protest, and take action. The gift of anger is that it has the potential to help us understand why exactly we feel so passionately about something. It can help us clarify our values, boundaries, and define the kind of world that we want to build. By listening to and understanding our anger, we are better equipped to make decisions that align with our needs and ethics and better able to clearly articulate the urgency in our calls to action.


~*~


Emotional expression in the form of creative arts can be profoundly helpful when getting to know anger and other big emotions. Doing this in a group setting gives the added benefit of practicing communication and group dynamics, as well as the opportunity to feel seen and witnessed. To learn more about my upcoming expressive arts therapy processing group, click here.




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