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by Morella Devost, EdM, MA
What is happening in our communities? As I write this, people are mourning eleven Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh. The pipe bomber had his first court appearance. Every day, we see proof that old-school civility in politics and evening news has been replaced by insults, vitriol, and blaming.
We have an anger problem in our country (and world), and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But before we are tempted to point the finger, let’s all pause to explore what’s really behind the collective anger issue.
The problem is not that there is anger. The problem is that we don’t know what to do with it.
I believe not knowing how to channel our anger is a collective problem that stems from centuries of religious and cultural squashing of emotional expression — especially anger. I also believe we have an inherent fear of anger because of the fire it carries with it. We all feel it. Anger carries an inherent energy that moves us to take action, and we’re afraid of the things we might be capable of doing when angry.
If you’ve ever allowed yourself to feel your anger, you understand why someone might break a whole set of dishes against the wall. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.
But what if there’s a righteous place for anger?
I recently had the opportunity to interview a Chinese medicine practitioner on the subject. He said that in traditional Chinese medicine philosophy, anger is the primary emotion of spring. It’s the energy that gives rise to something new. This is the fire in our bellies that moves us towards action, protesting, rallying, joining committees and action teams.
As a counselor, I’ve long viewed anger as the right emotion we feel when our rights, needs, or boundaries (or someone else’s rights, needs, or boundaries) have been violated. Anger is the energy that moves us to take action to restore them. That anger moves us to stand up to a bully, to speak up for ourselves and for others; to stand up to injustice; to go to the police and report sexual assault.
But for the most part, we have been taught to suppress our anger. Many of us grew up in households where anger was not properly expressed, and were raised in religious communities where anger was a sin. Now we also have New Age “spiritual bypassing,” where anger is seen as unenlightened.
Our judgment of anger as wrong is harming us both individually and collectively. On an individual level, the suppression of anger contributes to depression, self-harm, and even physical health issues (if you are skeptical that your anger can contribute to health issues, I suggest you read about stem-cell biology, epigenetics, and psycho-neuro-immunology).
On a collective level, suppressing anger leads to both the slow-simmer and pressure-cooker expressions of anger. The slow simmer is what we see showing up in road-rage, the loss of civility, and the angry talking heads on TV news. The pressure-cooker expression is what we see in the quiet yet intense build-up that results in gun violence and mass murder.
I think we’d all agree that the collective slow simmer is providing the fire for those who are pressure cookers. Collectively, we are still expressing immature, juvenile anger. We are all a part of it.
We need to mature. We need to learn how to feel and adequately channel our anger. And we need to be role models for the next generation. We need to take personal responsibility for this. It’s not somebody else’s job; it’s our job. It’s not somebody else’s problem; it’s everybody’s problem. What we do individually creates the collective experience. We are not exempt. So, what do we do?
I invite you to be courageous in acknowledging your anger. It takes courage to feel it and admit, “Yes, I am angry.” As I said before, anger can be scary because we feel the fire within, moving us towards taking action, and sometimes it carries great strength with it.
Once you acknowledge your anger, instead of (a) telling yourself you shouldn’t feel angry, or (b) attacking the person who triggered your anger, get curious. Yes, get curious about what your anger is telling you.
What is the need, right, or boundary that was violated? Once you listen for the answer, then ask yourself, what action is needed in order to restore that right, need, or boundary? Is it a conversation? Or is it some other form of action?
Your anger is telling you that you are being called to take action toward creating a new reality, a new way of being in your community. Whether that community is the one within the walls of your home, your neighborhood, your town, or your country.
Listen to your anger. When you listen intently, and you find the wisdom behind your anger, you’ll notice that anger never calls for violence or attack. The wisdom in anger calls for enlightened action that respects all, acknowledges everyone’s rights and needs, and seeks to establish harmony, trust, and peace.
Anger is nothing more than fire in your belly asking you to get moving towards creating a better, more harmonious, more respectful reality. Therefore, your actions fired by wise anger will be harmonious and respectful.
So again, ask yourself: What is the constructive expression your anger wants you to take? Perhaps it’s time to look into volunteering, calling your representatives, going to a march, or forming a committee. Perhaps it asks you to go help those who are having a harder time.
And when anger is triggered close to home, the action typically comes in the form of a conversation with your loved one. It asks that you communicate which needs or boundaries were violated and how you would like for them to be respected. Sometimes this type of conversation takes practice, and I find that NVC (non-violent communication) is unmatched in that area. In addition to NVC, Emotional Freedom Technique can also be helpful. With these tools, you can gracefully move through the intense fire of anger and find the message behind it.
It is your job to get better at expressing your anger constructively. It is my job too. We must all collectively learn and teach how to appropriately feel and channel our anger. As we do that, we will be contributing to create more harmonious societies where we respect each other. We will not do it by pretending anger has no rightful place nor by judging others as “angry.”
Morella Devost facilitates profound transformation for people who want to thrive in every aspect of life. After receiving two master’s degrees in Counseling from Columbia University, she also became a Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP facilitator, and Holistic Health Coach. Morella is a Venezuelan-Vermonter who works with people all over the world from her beautiful office in Burlington, Vermont.