A journey toward accepting—and even embracing—anger.
I never thought it was okay for me to be angry. As a woman, I learned that anger would make me shrill or annoying. As a deeply committed yoga practitioner, I believed that it was “not very yogic” of me to get mad at anyone for any reason. I swallowed my anger for a long time—until I couldn’t anymore.
I got stuck in bad relationships. I let people treat me badly. I had hives and stomachaches all the time. But slowly, over time, I started to listen to my anger. I stopped avoiding it and started to say something when things didn’t feel right—even in tiny little ways like, “Hey, I don’t like it when you’re late all the time.” I no longer wanted to accept that things simply had to be the way they were. It was when I started to tune into my anger, to let it guide me towards standing up for myself and my boundaries, that my body and my relationships started to heal. Connecting to my anger helped me find my power.
Anger isn’t the most popular emotion. We often get the message that we should focus on compassion and forgiveness, and that anger is somehow not a spiritual emotion. But trying to paste over our rage with forgiveness can literally make us sick. When we learn how to work with our anger, it can not only help us navigate our intimate relationships, it can teach us who we are and what really matters to us. Our rage can light our way in the dark.
As human beings, the reason we’ve survived as long as we have is, arguably, our connections with others. We are incredibly helpless as babies and need our caregivers to survive. Even when we become able to walk on our own, we need others to help us find food, make shelter, and protect us from wild animals. For the most part, humans live in groups. That’s how we survive.
Our core emotions, including anger, help us navigate that social world, letting us know who is safe, who is unsafe, and when someone is doing something that might endanger the group. Our anger is essentially a signal that something is wrong with our intimate or communal social ecosystem. Anger, like all of our core emotions, has a function: It wants us to protect ourselves or someone else, to fight, to get away from someone, or to create some kind of change. When we are able to follow through with an emotion’s function in an appropriate way, it does not need to stick around and keep signaling to us. We can return to a relaxed neutral state.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons not to fulfill the natural impulses of our core emotions. A child whose parent yells at her, for example, might feel angry, sad, and afraid of that parent—all reasons to run for the hills. But because that connection helps her survive (and she would probably get eaten by a bear in the hills) the child swallows those feelings and continues to try to please the parent. A woman feels furious about an injustice, but she knows that angry women are seen as unladylike, so she smiles through clenched teeth instead. A young man feels angry at his partner but fears being seen as violent, so he pretends everything is okay instead. This isn’t usually a conscious choice: Our survival is related to our social standing, and our nervous systems will always choose survival over anything else, including emotional expression.
Swallowing our emotions, especially our anger, might help us survive in some ways, but it can also make us sick. In the book Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly explains how swallowed anger can contribute to chronic pain: “What most of us don’t think about is that when we have anger, we respond, often unconsciously, with physical pain. Unaddressed anger affects our neurological, hormonal, adrenal, and vascular systems in ways that are still largely ignored in the treatment of pain.” When we do not find ways to channel and express our anger, it can affect every aspect of our lives. Chemaly goes on, “Unprocessed, anger threads itself through our appearances, bodies, eating habits, and relationships, fueling low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self- harm, and actual physical illness. […] Ignoring anger makes us careless with ourselves and allows society to be careless with us.”
There are (at least) two types of anger. Righteous anger usually arises against injustice. It is notably calm, collected, and clear as a bell. This anger is so powerful it will break any social code to be heard. You can also call it the “I don’t give a f—” anger. Think of climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose anger helped her organize protests all over the world. Her speeches are like slow, clear, articulate waves of rage that wash over her audiences. She’s a small young woman, and her rage has made her one of the most powerful people on the planet.
Unfortunately, righteous anger is relatively rare. The second type, anxious anger, is much more common. This is the anger that comes up in our intimate relationships. It shows up when a need is not being met or a boundary has been crossed. It lets us know that something has to change in our relationships, but it also makes us anxious because it can bump up against our need to keep our intimate others close.
Either way, anger is an energy of change. It is incredibly powerful and also incredibly optimistic. Chemaly explains that anger:
“Is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be, between a difficult past and improved possibility.”
Anger believes that change is possible and gives us the energy to fight for that change.
Anger is an incredibly spiritual emotion. It clarifies what could be and what should be. It reaches out against injustice and refuses to settle for less than the change we know is necessary. When we do not acknowledge our rage, it gnaws at our spirit and our body.
Forgiveness is only appropriate after anger has fully expressed the hurt that the forgiveness is meant to address. Compassion does not need rage to step to the side—we can feel deeply compassionate towards someone with whom we are furious. Empathy does not negate the truth of injustice. Trying to skip anger in favor of forgiveness is a classic version of spiritual bypassing, in which we avoid doing real spiritual work in favor of whatever looks like spiritual work instead. The true discipline of anger is to express our fury with kindness, self-awareness, and an uncompromising insistence on change.
Loving ourselves, each other, and our human community is a deeply spiritual practice. Anxious anger tells us who we are, what we need, and what our limits are. Righteous anger tells us what kind of world we want to live in and won’t abide what it sees as ethically wrong. When we continually swallow our emotions, we are complacent to injustice. When we never express our needs or boundaries, we begin to lose ourselves—which isn’t particularly good for our intimate relationships anyway. If we can listen to the messages of our anger and learn how to channel that energy, it can actually help us become closer to the ones we love in our lives while living as our true, authentic selves. Rage is the energy of hope and possibility: It is a deeply spiritual flame.
YogaSol, Elena Ray
So what do we do with our anger? The first thing we must do is pause (though we might certainly want to punch, kick, or scream). Anger has a message for us, and it’s deeply important that we find out what it is. Here are some questions we can ask:
- Which of my values is being violated?
- What boundary has been crossed?
- What need is not being met?
Sometimes the simple act of asking ourselves these questions and exploring the answers is enough. Sometimes we need to take action as well. If we are experiencing anxious anger, we probably need to communicate something to an intimate other. Consider these points:
- Get clear on what need is not being met and/or what boundary has been crossed.
- Express your problem as your problem: “I have a need for ...” and “It’s important to me that …”
- Avoid accusing the other person of anything. Most of the time our loved ones truly want to meet our needs and respect our boundaries, they just don’t know what they are.
- Sometimes asking for what we need can infuriate the other: Asking for change threatens an established relationship. Let the other person feel their feelings, give them space if needed, but gently, kindly, stick to your guns.
- For more on effectively communicating with anger, read Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger.
Direct communication around anger is not always possible or advisable. Righteous anger is usually about a larger issue, and this clear, ringing bell of rage will often tell us exactly what we need to do, but we might be unable to do it or our actions might not have the effect we want. When our rage still sits heavy on our stomachs, it needs to be discharged somehow. Here are some ideas:
- Write a letter and don’t send it.
- Tell a friend how you feel.
- Dance, run, go kickboxing, or otherwise move your body.
- Create art that expresses how you feel.
- Do something: Donate to a cause that matters to you, set up some sort of group action at your work, show up to a protest, call your local representative and speak up. Vote.