Skillfully Working with Anger

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When I was a kid I was allowed to get mad, well, at least sometimes. My mom would let me hit or scream into a pillow in my room. I spent countless hours outside with a broom handle beating the shit out of a tree. (Yes, it’s still alive.) I played sports, and I channeled that anger to push myself beyond my edge and do everything I could to win. It felt good to yell and to hit things. And permission from my mom to “let it out” felt like a gift in my childhood.

Somewhere along the way, though, I stopped letting it out and started holding that anger in. I held it in my jaw and deep in my body where it couldn’t come out, although sometimes it did. In those moments where I wasn’t able to suppress that anger, it came out as hostility towards my kids or rage toward another driver. It seeped out as headaches and muscular pain.

Containing and holding this anger wasn’t working. I was hurting myself and those around me. I was afraid of my anger and felt ashamed to admit that I had it and was unsure about what to do with it.

In his book To Be a Man, Robert Augustus Masters defines anger as:

“A heated or aroused state that combines (1) a gripping sense of being wronged or thwarted and (2) a compelling pull to take care of this.”

He goes on to say that:

“Anger’s presence and expression, however impassioned, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re off track or that we have regressed. Anger can be a tremendously beneficial force, a fieriness that provides both heat and light, helping establish – to take but one example – healthy boundaries. Just because it is easy to abuse our anger (letting it, for example, turn into ill will and violence) does not mean that it is a negative or unwholesome emotion.”

Aggression and anger are not the same. Many of us have learned to suppress and deny our anger because we are convinced that anger hurts people. Anger itself does not hurt anyone, but when anger turns into aggression or violence, it can become a deadly tool used to punish, shame and damage those around us. Very few of us have been equipped to express our anger in a way that is clean while honoring the intensity of feelings in the body that want to come out.

While unclean anger can get turned into aggression and take the form of harsh criticism, passive aggressiveness, contempt or intimidation, we can learn to skillfully work with our anger in ways that are assertive and firm but not violent or punishing. We can learn to honor our own feelings of anger and share them in a clean way. But first we have to deal with the feelings in our bodies!

When we feel sad or lonely, we cry, and this is an incredible release for most of us. Feeling these softer emotions – letting out the tears or the deep snot-drenched sobs – allow these “feels” to move through us. After a good cry we may feel lighter or more content, perhaps exhausted, but generally more clear and refreshed as if we were able to let something go. Most of us don’t choose to cry, but tears pour out of us as if a spontaneous dam was released in response to touching the emotions below.

But what about the aggression that naturally flows out of us when we feel frustrated, angry and completely fed up? What do we do with the strong feeling in our bodies to yell, scream, punch, kick, swear and generally go berzerk?

Go berzerk. Let it out. Touch that raw somatic expression of anger that wants to come out. Here are some of my favorite ways to touch anger and hostility and move it through my body. By allowing these feelings to be acknowledged and expressed, we put ourselves in a much better spot to communicate anger in a clean way without demonizing, shaming or blaming another for our feelings.

*Keep in mind that these activities are best done alone. Yelling, screaming and swearing in front of other people, especially our children, is not cool and is scary behavior. Create a safe container for this raw energy that isn’t going to freak anyone out. If you need someone to hold safe space for you while you touch these places, consider working with a counselor who is not afraid of their own anger.

Swearing and Screaming

These practices generally feel hard at first to allow in our lives, but with a little persistence and practice, you will be swearing like a sailor and screaming like a maniac. These activities can be done in a car, alone at your house, in the middle of the woods or while swimming underwater. The first couple screams might feel forced or weak, but stick with it. Remember to allow yourself to feel your anger and how pissed off you are. Try to yell and swear from your low abdomen, as this is where much of your power and anger dwells. I suggest screaming and swearing and generally throwing a fit until you feel pretty exhausted. Many of us had this degree of expression shamed and punished in childhood, so if it feels uncomfortable and “naughty,” stick with it. You are doing it right.

Push your Body

Another great way to release the bodily feelings associated with anger is to physically push your body to its edge. You can go out to the sidewalk in front of your house and run sprints, channeling your anger until you are exhausted (who cares what you neighbors think?). You can drop to the ground in a moment of anger and do as many push-ups as possible until you collapse. You might head to the gym and workout harder than you ever have, or hang a punching bag at your house, or chop firewood (literally or figuratively). No matter what you choose, this degree of physical exertion helps to lessen the pent up feelings of anger, hatred or frustration that you are holding in your body.

Conscious Rant

Taken again from the wisdom of Robert Augustus Masters, a conscious rant is a really nice way to engage your aroused state and release pent up feelings that you don’t want to dump on another person.  You can do this rant alone, in the presence of a counselor or with a trusted friend or partner.

 “… fully express what you are feeling, perhaps shaking your fist, perhaps crying, perhaps melodramatically saying the things you wished you could have said earlier, letting yourself be outrageously alive. No longer can you contain yourself; the lid is off. … After a few minutes, you start to wind down, you lie or sit down comfortably for a while.”

 This is an incredibly useful tool, not just for anger, but for any strong emotions that feel pent up and need to be expressed.

While some of these practices need to be planned out ahead of time, some of them can happen spontaneously as anger arises. Emotions are like going to the bathroom. Sometimes you can go right when you need to, while other times, it’s best to wait until a more appropriate time to take care of business. Sometimes stepping away from our children or office to have an under-the-breath conscious rant or a marathon push-up session in the office bathroom is all we need to move some of this pent up energy.

In the same way that crying provides an outlet for our softer emotions to be felt and expressed, it is crucially important that we create healthy, clean ways to allow some of the harder emotions to move through us as well. No matter what method of releasing pent up anger and aggression seems most accessible to you, it is crucial for you to find a pathway to acknowledge, access and release all of the “feels” that are wanting to be touched inside of you.