Engage Your Rage: Transforming Anger
Not many people claim that anger is their favorite emotion. Most of us try to stuff it, shout it out, ignore it or give it away like a hot potato. Many people try to talk themselves out of anger or engage only their intellect to manage its impact. However, unhealthy anger not only affects your emotional and mental heath, but your physical and spiritual health as well. Because anger can be rooted and expressed in so many different ways in our lives, using a mind/body/spirit approach towards exploring and working with this challenging emotion is most successful.
Sometimes the cause of anger is purely physical — you’re hungry, tired or overworked. Take care of the need to eat, take a nap, take a break, and you will feel better. Paying attention to your body will help you recognize when these basic needs are the problem.
Often, feeling angry stems from someone doing something that hurts you, such a co-worker taking credit for work you’ve done or a friend gossiping about you to someone else. Perhaps your partner has left a mess all over the house (again!) or your sister is thirty minutes late for a dinner date and hasn’t bothered to call and let you know. In these cases, it’s important to let the person know how their behavior is affecting you.
One of the clearest ways to express yourself is to use non-judgmental language. “When you do x, I feel y. I think z.” For example, “When you are fifteen minutes late and don’t call, I feel angry and hurt. I think that you don’t value my time at all.”
Notice that the “when you” portion states a simple fact: being 15 minutes late. If you say, “When you don’t respect me…” you’re making an assumption. You don’t truly know if the person doesn’t respect you, so you need to first address the fact. What did the person do that made you think they didn’t respect you? That would be the “when you” part. Your assumption would be the “I think” part. Your feelings — angry, hurt, sad, afraid, irritated, frustrated, etc, — would be the “I feel” part.
After expressing how the person’s actions made you feel, you can go on to tell the person what you need from them. “I need for you to call me when you’ll be more than ten minutes late.” You can also provide a consequence. “If you’re more than a half hour late, I will leave.” It’s taken all your life to practice whatever unhealthy anger patterns you experience. It will take a little time to develop new, healthy patterns. Go easy on yourself and allow for mistakes!
It is also helpful to acknowledge that there are times where communication with someone you are angry with is not possible. Rev. Cynthia Burke, a music director and inter-faith minister based in Rhode Island, recalls how her unhealthy anger pattern was to hide it and remain in denial. Her needs weren’t getting met and relationship issues were not being addressed, particularly in her marriage. During a difficult time, when unable to speak with the person with whom she felt angry, Burke used her spiritual practice to express her anger, talking to the person “soul to soul” during her heart-centered meditation. This helped in both the mental and spiritual realms. For her body, Burke found expression in music — song-writing and dancing.
“I still needed to deal with my anger,” remembers Burke. “The anger energy in me needed expression, so it came out in creative ways — through music and theater. I wrote songs whose words helped me work through what I was experiencing. As the anger and other emotions were expressed, the anger became something sacred. You could call it ‘sacred anger.’”
Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where you’re being bullied, and using “When you…I feel…I think…I need…” might not be effective. Bullies rely upon intimidation and depend upon the bullied person to be isolated and vulnerable. Here is a situation where it is often helpful to get help in confronting the person. Form a coalition if you can. Get support from co-workers, family members and/or friends. Assert yourself; stand tall with your shoulders back and head held high while looking into the bully’s eyes. Say what he’s done that you don’t like. Stick to facts, such as, “I researched that report on the Pacific Rim markets, but you took credit for it at the meeting,” rather than, “You stole my work and then made me look bad.”
With a bullying boss, it’s helpful to take notes whenever you feel bullied, so that you have documentation should it come down to a discussion with a human resources professional or lawyer. If you think the person could become abusive verbally or physically during a confrontation, make sure you plan carefully, such as having others with you and a course of action should the confrontation escalate. Bullies often back down when confronted, looking for an easier target. “Sometimes the cause of anger is purely physical — you’re hungry, tired or overworked. Take care of the need to eat, take a nap, take a break, and you will feel better.”
Ghosts From the Past
Often our anger is more complicated and rooted in the past, requiring us to look at more than the present moment. We need to examine the event that sparked the anger and the memories that are triggered by the present situation. In order to deal effectively with our anger, we need to first figure out what part of our anger is about the present and what part of it is about the past. Anger from the past usually stems from a time we were powerless as children and things happened that shouldn’t have. Because we did not have the power to do anything, our complex emotions got stored and buried within us. When confronted with a related situation in the present, or sometimes any situation that makes us feel powerless, these old feelings come up.
There are many ways to deal with and heal the past. To gain control over how you re-experience the past, it’s helpful to work on several different levels. On the mental level, you can explore and understand what happened in your past and what patterns you picked up from parents and other adults. How have these patterns served you in the past and how do they no longer serve you in the present? How would you like to change your reactions?
On physical and emotional levels, let your body guide you to discover where tension or anger is stored in your body. Explore alternative healing modalities with trained professionals that allow you to access the information that is stored in your body and can inform you about what you needed in the past and did not receive. Allow yourself to feel the emotions of the past and release them in a healthy way.
Gary Blier is an alternative healing practitioner in Warwick, RI, who treats people with allergies and devastating illnesses who could not be helped with conventional medicine. Over the years, Blier has observed that one common component in people’s illnesses and afflictions is often a stored emotion, such as rage or anger, stemming from childhood events. Blier developed his healing process through healing himself first. By identifying the negative emotions his body was storing and coaching the body to let go of them, Blier began to change his behavior.
Blier notes, “My wife would say something and I would fly off the handle, completely out of proportion to the issue at hand. I was prone to misinterpreting a situation and my wife and sons had to deal with my unwanted and unexpected anger outbursts. It made my household an unsafe place. I’ve done enough work on myself now that my household is a safe place where everybody is growing in freedom, not huddled in fear.”
Spiritually, you can ask your highest guidance for help and support in dealing with anger of the past. Utilize a ritual stemming from your spiritual path or religious tradition to release the pain and help you heal.
Sue Gracey, a retired teacher and court reporter, has found a new perspective on anger through her Buddhist meditation practice. “When someone I’m close to doesn’t allow me to speak in a discussion that matters to me, I can find myself yelling or storming off. I used to think that was fine, but now, aware of the transitory nature of feeling, I don’t want to put out that negative energy. Meditating seems to strengthen a part of my brain, leaving me calmer and more open. I used to believe that meant stuffing the anger, but I don’t think so anymore. I now trust that I’ll pass through the negative emotion. It’s better not to blow up.”
Once you understand the part of your anger that stems from the past, you can begin to separate it from the current issue. Clarify why you feel angry or what is threatening your well-being. Once you identify the threat, you can begin to communicate your needs effectively and create change.
Here’s your chance to complain about relationships: with your kids, partner, parent(s), coworkers, friends, etc. Write each gripe, everything that makes you angry or frustrated or unhappy, on separate index cards or slips of paper.
Put all the cards or papers in a bowl. Place the bowl of gripes in a sunny spot for an entire week. Each morning notice the bowl in the daylight and imagine that the Golden Healing Light of the sun is helping to resolve each situation in some way.
At the end of the week, pick one complaint out of the bowl. Sit in a sunny spot. Close your eyes. Feel the golden healing light of the sun upon your face and give thanks for the sun and all the healing work the sun has been doing to resolve the issue.
With your inner eye, envision the piece of paper radiating with light. Hold the sheet of paper up to your heart imagining that the golden light is entering your heart now. As the light enters your heart, imagine that your feeling or perception of the situation has shifted. Allow an image to form in your mind’s eye to symbolize this change.
When you are ready, open your eyes. Draw a picture of the symbol or write a story about any change that has occurred in your perception of this issue.
Salome’s Silky Scarf Dance
Find a large silk scarf or piece of light fabric. If you have the luxury of choosing, pick one that has a color that makes you think of anger. Hold the scarf in your non-dominant hand (left if you are a rightie, right if you are a leftie.) If you want, you put on some “stormy” music, classical or whatever type you prefer.
Imagine that the scarf personifies your anger, and you are witnessing it without judgment. Allow the scarf to move in your hand as you move or dance with your anger. Does the scarf cover your face in the beginning? Does it wave madly up and down? Does it wrap itself around your body? As you move, do you find it changing? Does it become quieter or wilder?
You don’t need to interpret with your mind. Just allow the movement to take place without judgement or ideas about what it means. Write any notes down or draw a picture of the scarf mid-dance and give it a title. Did the exercise provide any insights into your anger?
Reprinted with permission from Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor by Jane Middleton-Moz, Lisa Tener and Peaco Todd. Health Communications, Inc. 2003.
Since much of our anger from the past is about feeling powerless, it can also prompt us to take action towards becoming powerful agents of change in our relationships, our community and our world.
- You feel enraged by a political maneuver by the Town Council and write a letter to the editor of the local paper.
- Your boss bullies you one time too many and you begin to look for a new job.
- Your friend dies when hit by a driver who was talking on his cell phone. You start a new non-profit organization — FADWOP: Friends Against Driving While On the Phone.
Sue Gracey has used activism to channel her anger at injustice and other social ills. She recalls helping to co-found the non-profit organization Hospitality Homes when she felt angry after hearing about a woman who traveled from Los Angeles to Boston for her eighteen-month-old daughter’s surgery. The woman arrived in Boston without a place to stay and had to sleep on a cot in medical building office. Hospitality Homes was formed to make sure that people visiting Boston for a loved one’s medical care would have a place to stay in the home of a volunteer host.
Prayer can be a form of taking action, too. Through prayer we can establish our intention for things to be different and we can ask for universal or divine support to help make that change happen. We don’t have to do it all alone.
To Forgive is Divine
One of the most spiritual aspects of dealing with anger is forgiveness. There is an entire field of study on forgiveness and a great deal of research which has concluded that forgiving is of greatest benefit to the forgiver. Our resentments generally cause much more harm to ourselves than to anyone else because carrying around resentments weighs us down.
Forgiveness is a tricky thing, however. You can’t force it. It may take days or decades, but if you put out the intention to forgive and let it happen in its own time, forgiveness will usually come and set you free from the bonds of resentment.
Forgiveness expert Lewis B. Smedes points out in the Art of Forgiving (1996) that, “The pain that someone sticks us with asks us a simple question: What are you going to do with me?” We can try to get even and make things worse. We can try to repress it, but it will eventually blow to the surface. A third option is to forgive and heal the wound. Forgiveness does not mean you absolve someone from guilt for whatever he or she did. It does mean that you get to a point where you no longer feel resentful or wish bad things for the person who hurt you or others.
Kim Greenberg, dancer, artist and mother of three, dances to release anger and resentment and she dances to forgive. Greenberg began drinking at the age of twelve to deal with the anger and other strong feelings she experienced as a result of an abusive childhood. In Greenberg’s adult life, the price of not dealing with the feelings was self-destruction. “I used drugs, alcohol, food and even shopping to avoid it.”
Seventeen years ago, with the help of twelve-step programs, Greenberg became abstinent and her recovery began. “Probably a year after getting off drugs and alcohol, feelings came rushing to the forefront and I started asking, ‘Where is this coming from?’” Fortunately, Greenberg had discovered dance at the age of three. “Dance was my lifeline. If I didn’t release the resentment, I would get sick to my stomach. I knew I would get sick in other ways, too, whether it be cancer or something else, and that the resentment would destroy me.” As she danced out the feelings, she began to release. Her goal had not been forgiveness, but forgiveness did come. Once the feelings of anger, rage and pain had their opportunity to be expressed through dance, transformation came naturally. Forgiveness was part of her body and spirit’s response to life.
Greenberg also reflects on how forgiveness helped her with parenting. “I can be more present for my children. I have more clarity in situations that come up in their lives. I teach them how to respond differently from how I was taught because I’m not teaching resentment and anger. I can share a healthy perspective. I’m teaching freedom, teaching them how to express their anger in a healthy way.”
Steps to Forgiveness
- Recognize that you hold a resentment.
- Set the intention of forgiving the other person, even if you don’t wholeheartedly feel like forgiving.
- Acknowledge how the person’s behavior hurt you and allow yourself to feel the hurt.
- Take responsibility for your own happiness, letting go of seeing yourself as a victim.
- Practice techniques that help you heal your pain: journaling, meditation, counseling, therapy, prayer, yoga, dance, creativity, cleaning, cooking, art, spending time in nature — whatever works for you.
- Realize that the person is human, that they have flaws, and that they may have been coming from a place of their own pain when they acted the way they did. Create an intention to feel compassion for the person.
- Works towards reaching a point where you can wish the person well. Since forgiveness is a process, you may find yourself doing these steps in a different order. That’s fine.
The Gifts of Anger
While anger is often an unwelcome and terrifying part of the human experience, it also offers some amazing gifts.
- Understanding our anger and communicating our needs can lead to increased intimacy, more fulfilling relationships and a greater chance that our needs will be met.
- Releasing resentment can free up our energy for healthier endeavors.
- Acknowledging and taking care of our anger can improve our health.
- Channeling our anger constructively can open up our inspiration, creativity and artistic expression.
- Anger can be a catalyst for deeper connection with our spiritual life.
Rev. Cynthia Burke’s desire to explore her anger through artistic expression became part of a larger journey, exploring emotions and the human experience through “The Dance of the Seven Veils,” a multi-cultural performance piece that takes participants and the audience through an experience of unveiling their own souls. The dance, performed throughout New England and New York, involves ecstatic dance, sacred poetry, world music and chants from spiritual traditions of the world. Says Burke, “What appeared to be my own journey seemed to be a metaphor for the journey of all human beings and the evolution of humanity. The question I kept asking about my anger was, ‘How does it serve?’ I looked at my anger and what I did with it. I asked, ‘What good can come out of this that can help the world?’ Directing my process towards service somehow felt like an important part of the exploration.” For Burke, the path of dealing with anger ended up being so much richer than what she’d expected. “I learned that there will be something about this anger work that helps somebody or some situation somehow. I don’t have to know how. I just need to trust.”
References and Resources
- Jane Middelton-Moz, Lisa Tener and Peaco Todd. Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. 2003.
- Jane Middelton-Moz and Mary Lee Zawadski. Bullies: From the Playground to the Boardroom, Strategies for Survival. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. 2002.
- Lewis Smedes. The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How. Ballantine Books, New York. 1996.
Lisa Tener is co-author of Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor (2003) and a creativity coach. Her interest in alternative healing modalities led her to develop the concept of Anger-obicssm, a holistic system of exercises that tap into people’s inner wisdom, creativity and sense of humor to transform unhealthy anger. Contact Lisa at 401-295-0160 or visit http://www.lisatener.com for more information.