A Closer Look at Anger

What emotions have to teach us

Feb 15, 2021

Emotions Self-Awareness Self-Improvement Life Lessons
graffiti of a woman’s face on brick wall

Photo by Viktor Talashuk

Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you mustn’t be frightened, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Let’s talk about anger. It’s not an emotion I’m fond of, or can easily express. Rather, it’s one I try my darndest to suppress. Truth be told, it terrifies me. Anytime it wants to surface, I close the lid, reel it back in. Often, I just transform it into sadness. Aren’t they just two sides of the same coin?

So the question that comes to mind — how do we express anger in a healthy way? How many of us actually manage to do so, consistently? Some say punch a bag, or take a baseball bat to a wall. I don’t foresee that as a viable option for me, personally. Then there’s the traditional counseling route, or exercise. Interestingly, a quick Google search on “how to deal with anger” brings up search results dealing with “anger management.” I think expressing anger positively is a different beast from managing anger. Expressing it implies a lack of ability; managing it implies a lack of control… overexpressing, so to speak.

There is so much stigma around anger, in general. And not enough is said about the constructive need for it. The bible talks a lot about “righteous anger” — the only form of anger which is not sinful. It arises when we witness an offense against God or His Word. Even Jesus displayed this type of anger (Matthew 21:12-13). There are plenty of moments in life when we witness an offense against a good thing or a moral value. This is what I want to learn to express. But how?

Awareness. Doesn’t every desire to change begin with awareness? Noticing the undesirable behavior in order to implement the desired one. It begins with bringing our attention to our reactiveness. Why are we reacting? To what, exactly? This takes an enormous amount of fortitude to step back and see ourselves from a larger lens. We step back in order to step forward into a new way of being.

Our reactions are clues. Little breadcrumbs that, if followed, lead to our deep-seated motivations and emotional needs.

The danger lies in taking them as gospel (no pun intended), without ever questioning them or analyzing their validity. That is, of course, because we want to be right, always, anywhere, with everyone, under any circumstance. Blame our ego, that little sly, inherently self-serving narcissist of a force.

But alas, if we want to learn why we react the way we do — be it anger, melancholy, envy, or just the slightest frustration — and actually change it, we’ll have to pick up that old magnifying glass and peek in closer. There is no shortcut here, I’m afraid, at least none that I know of. We must do “the work,” as Byron Katie says.

Maybe it can be as simple as starting with filling out the statement, “I’m angry because ______.” It seems juvenile, I know. But didn’t Jesus say, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3)? Maybe all change begins by starting from the beginning, asking the simplest of questions, and easing into the hard stuff. As complex as we humans are, we are also quite simple when it comes to our metamorphosis. All that’s needed is desire + tools + support. Some of us even do it without any support. Astonishing.

I think anger terrifies me because I assume it will change me, steal my identity and make me unrecognizable. Oh the senseless pictures we paint for ourselves… But what if learning to express anger in a healthy, effectual way will actually enable me to be more wholly myself? What if, instead of making me unrecognizable, it opens up the door to recognize myself for who I truly am, faults and all? As if it was the missing piece to a puzzle I have been putting together since birth.

We all have these shadow sides of us that scare us, that we are terrified to show the world, or even to show ourselves.

But the more we hide them, the more harm we cause, seen and unseen. As we embark on the journey of lifting the curtains that veil our “darker” emotions, we will find that it’s not so terrifying after all. We may not like what we stumble upon, it may even repulse us. This is where radical acceptance and compassion are called for. Acceptance of our frailty, our tendency toward self-centeredness. Compassion for the wounded parts of us, the tender sorrows we bear.

I think the more shadows we can accept in ourselves, and ultimately come to embrace, the more we can accept in others. Self-compassion breeds empathy. And perhaps that’s the intended design of this whole human experience — one individual doing the work to grow out of their pain and into their wholeness ripples into creating the space and the energy for another to join in and do their own work. And the world becomes lighter, unencumbered by the afflictions we gravely carry.

First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:5

Emotions are not the enemy. They never were. Each one of them serves a distinct purpose. Anger, for instance, can do several things when used in a healthy way: direct our attention to an injustice, show us what we’re passionate about, serve as self-defense, allow us to use our voice, or expose the areas of our life that need changing.

As Brene Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” We need to feel the range of human emotions to feel fully alive and to make our contribution, even the ones that terrify us; even the ones we’d rather stuff away for good.

As I invite anger to rear its unpleasant head and see what it has to teach me, I invite you to do the same with the emotions you’ve been afraid to step into. And we’ll sit with them, open-hearted and curious, hoping to learn something that will increase our emotional intelligence. Maybe, as Rilke so eloquently said, they just want our love. And to remind us, we are not forgotten. Aren’t these the fundamental things we all want?