In Defense of Anger - Feeling It

This is a vulnerable post to write. Anger has always been my shadow – the one thing I have never wanted anyone to see. Anger was synonymous with being aggressive and vicious, manipulative and violent.  Most of all, it reminded me of my father and the ways his explosive anger towards me and my mother hurt us. The scars were deep.

I never wanted to be “that” kind of person. I wanted to be a good girl. A kind person.

Yet, all my life, I would irrupt in anger and rage. It would be unexpected and random, provoked by the smallest things. My body would fire up and my face tense up. My pupils dilate, lips thin, and face contort in rage. Words - caustic and malicious - would spew out of me as if I were possessed. I blamed, making sure that the offenders knew their fault – and knew it well. I was like a wild fire going through a forest, wiping out everything in its path.

When it was over, I would calm down and come about, as if from an unconscious trip. I would see the wreckage and regret what had happened: the things I had said, the hurt I had caused.  I’d feel a wave of shame wash over me. I’d cry: “How can I do something like this? This is not me. Why can't I stop?”

I would make amends in deep shame for hurting those I loved so deeply. It was always people I loved. I hated the idea that I was becoming more and more like my father. And yet, it would happen over and over.

You’re probably wondering, why am I writing in defense of anger?

I worked hard to dismantle my anger, or “cool the flames,” as Thich Nhan Hanh calls it. In fact, I was resolute on eradicating it. It was in the name of a big cause: I was not going to be like my father. I was going to be a loving person that I knew I was.

I found calmness and serenity in meditation and used my breath to separate myself from my anger. I learned from Buddhist teachings that my anger is not me; in fact, I am separate from these “toxic emotions”. I followed emotional intelligence work and found support in the perspective that anger is a “negative” emotion that has to be managed.

I felt like celebrating: I had found my way out. I was saved. 

Three years ago, I had a rough year. I felt stuck in a job where I was being underutilized and frustrated. I made bad financial decisions and lost money. I wanted to move and logistics made it impossible. I had suddenly lost friends in a situation where I felt unseen and misunderstood – and I had no say in it. And my body was acting out with mysterious and undiagnosed allergic reactions, one of which left me hospitalized and had me miss more than a month of work.

My world was falling apart. I was falling apart.

In the years building up to this, I had worked hard on my anger management. I learned to breathe through my anger. I practiced acceptance and non-attachment.

I noticed that I was not angry any more.

I also could not feel anything else. I became numb – not only to anger, but also to joy, excitement, hope.  I lost touch with my desires and turned into a life-less lump with just enough energy to do the most routine work and necessary errands. Nothing really mattered. I had lost my appetite for life. I could no longer feel.

I had resigned.

I had stopped fighting.

I had stopped living.

I woke up from this nightmare when I realized I was not living my own life.  I was following other people’s scripts. I was living in response to past hurts and scars. I was stuck in a prison of my own making, constantly trying to prove something to someone.

In all those years of being made feel small, of not being heard as a child, of being told I am too much and too emotional on one side, of thinking I am not good enough for this boy or that teacher on the other, I felt powerless. Powerless to be myself. Powerless to follow my own path. And this powerlessness was building up.

It was uncomfortable feeling powerless. Hell, it hurt feeling powerless, as if I were being held down against my will.

And, I had no tolerance for feeling powerless. I believed that feeling powerless must mean that I am powerless.

So I kicked and screamed against powerlessness in the only way I knew how: I took out my anger at someone else at the smallest provocation. I made them responsible. I retaliated and punished in the most caustic ways. I made them suffer. I made them feel small so I could feel big, powerful. That is what I learned from my father – and to a great extent, that is what I learned from our culture.

And here is why I am writing in defense of anger. 

Anger itself was never to blame. It was not “my anger that made me do it”, as if it's some ailment I was born with.

Anger is a human emotion – as natural as feeling joy or disappointment. Anger is the emotion that I natural express when I feel powerless, dismissed, discounted, and scared. We all have some kind of a similar reaction.

What I did not know was that feeling anger is separate from expressing anger and is separate from blaming others for making me angry. They were all jumbled up together in my mind.

So I disowned ALL anger.  I did not want to hurt anyone with my angry behavior – ever. So I judged feeling anger as bad, a poison to get rid of. I held it down, until it had to explode, Molotov cocktail style.

In shutting down my ability to feel anger, I had in fact disabled the alarm that was warning me that a fire was raging inside.

Deep inside, nothing was changing. All the things that I was angry about in my life were still there.  I was on the wrong path. I was not being seen. I was stifled and not able to express myself fully. I was feeling powerless to live my own life in the way I wanted. My life force was dying, and it was dying to get out any which way.

When a woman is frozen of feeling, when she can no longer feel herself, when her blood, her passion, no longer reach the extremities of her psyche, when she is desperate; then a fantasy life is far more pleasurable than anything else she can set her sights upon. Her little match lights, because they have no wood to burn, instead burn up the psyche as though it were a big dry log. The psyche begins to play tricks on itself; it lives now in the fantasy fire of all yearning fulfilled. This kind of fantasizing is like a lie: If you tell it often enough, you begin to believe it.
— Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

Today, my anger is my fire alarm. It's my body’s – my soul’s – way of saying: "Something is not right here. You are being hurt. Take a look here".  It is a signal to me to pay attention and ask: what is important to you and what is being stepped on.

What I realize today is that underneath that anger and powerlessness were desires I was never able or vulnerable enough to admit, even to myself – desires for connection and love, for being seen for who I am, for wanting to receive love, for wanting partnership and help. 

I notice today that when I get triggered into anger, it is around places where I feel powerless. Where I don't feel seen for who I am or where I am judged.  So I look deeper. I check  with myself for a feeling of powerlessness and feel into what that’s like in my body with no judgment. And then I check for unspoken desires or things that are important to me that might be getting stepped on. 

Don't get me wrong, it's not that the anger went away. It's still there - and I want it to be there. The difference is that I befriend as if it were a messenger, my guide to what's deeper. And I listen to its message. In the process, my anger shifted from the explosive kind full of rage, to the calm kind - I get to express what is important to me and stand up for myself - full of power. 

Universe, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
— Serenity Prayer from 12 Steps Program

My anger was my shadow, and like all shadows, it wanted to be seen. Having no familial or cultural role models to show me a healthy way to work with anger, I am learning to chart my own path and break the cycle of angry generations powerfully ranting about their powerlessness (it's in my Russian blood).

The crazy thing is that all this time I was trying to manage my anger as if it was this wild beast inside of me that needed taming and socializing so that I could be a normal and good human being. I made efforts to tranquilize her and make her behave.

There is indeed a beast inside, the wild one. And all she wants is to be free. She was yelling and begging to be seen. She wanted to feel wanted and important. She wanted to play in her own way. She wanted to be loved for who she is. And she had a message about what was important to me.

My story of anger is about standing up for her freedom. It’s about going into the anger instead of avoiding it.  It’s about feeling the powerlessness - with all its sensations and discomfort – and alchemizing it into power and self knowledge.

My anger become my power when I learned where true power comes from. No one can give me power, and no one can take it away. The power lies in me – always.