“Anger is the energy Mother Nature gives us as little kids to stand forward on our own behalf and say I matter.” – Joann Peterson
“Healthy anger leaves the individual, not the unbridled emotion, in charge,” wrote Gabore Mate in When The Body Says No. Yet, how often do we experience — and see — people lash out in rage, with seemingly no control over their emotions? Their unbridled outpouring of anger is harmful not just to themselves, but to the recipients of their ire and to innocent bystanders, who may be caught in the cross-fire of their raging emotions.
“Suppressing anger may have negative consequences, but should we encourage its expression if it harms others?” When we see how children suffer due to their parents’ outbursts, the cracks that uncontrolled anger can cause in relationships, and the rising incidence of road rage, how can we encourage people to give expression to their anger? And when we consider the very real consequences of suppressing anger, should we really be telling people to not get angry?
In When The Body Says No, Gabore Mate writes:
The repression of anger and the unregulated acting-out of it are both examples of the abnormal release of emotions that is at the root of disease. If in repression the problem is a lack of release, acting out consists of an equally abnormal suppression of release alternating with unregulated and exaggerated venting.
Toronto-based psychotherapist Allen Kalpin points out that “both repression and rage represent a fear of the genuine experience of anger.”
I found Kalpin’s description of genuine anger surprising, even as it rang completely true to me. His explanation made me realize the confusion in our commonly received ideas about this emotion.
Healthy anger, he says, is an empowerment and a relaxation. The real experience of anger “is physiologic experience without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system, along with a mobilization to attack. There is, simultaneously, a complete disappearance of all anxiety. “When healthy anger is starting to be experienced, you don’t see anything dramatic. What you do see is a decrease of all muscle tension. The mouth is opening wider, because the jaws are more relaxed, the voice is lower in pitch because the vocal cords are more relaxed. The shoulders drop, and you see all signs of muscle tension disappearing.
If anger is relaxation, how do we explain the tightening of the facial muscles, the tension in our muscles, the raised voice, the complete lack of anything that closely resembles relaxation?
Here Dr. Kalpin makes a crucial distinction. The question is, What do people really experience when they experience rage? It’s fascinating to ask people. If you really ask, the majority of people will describe anxiety. If you ask in physical, physiologic terms what they are experiencing in their body when they feel rage, for the most part, people will describe anxiety in one form or another.
The tightening of the voice, shallow breathing and tensed muscles are signs of anxiety, not of anger. This anger isn’t experienced physiologically, it’s only being acted out.
Acting out through bursts of rage is a defence against the anxiety that invariably accompanies anger in a child. Anger triggers anxiety because it coexists with positive feelings, with love and the desire for contact. But since anger leads to an attacking energy, it threatens attachment. Thus there is something basically anxiety-provoking about the anger experience, even without external, parental injunctions against anger expression.
“Aggressive impulses are suppressed because of guilt, and the guilt exists only because of the simultaneous existence of love, of positive feelings,” says Allen Kalpin. “So, the anger doesn’t exist in a vacuum by itself. It is incredibly anxiety-provoking and guilt-producing for a person to experience aggressive feelings toward a loved one.”
So how do we begin to untangle anger from rage? Mate writes:
Anger does not require hostile acting out. First and foremost, it is a physiological process to be experienced. Second, it has cognitive value—it provides essential information. Since anger does not exist in a vacuum, if I feel anger it must be in response to some perception on my part. It may be a response to loss or the threat of it in a personal relationship, or it may signal a real or threatened invasion of my boundaries. I am greatly empowered without harming anyone if I permit myself to experience the anger and to contemplate what may have triggered it.
Depending on circumstances, I may choose to manifest the anger in some way or to let go of it. The key is that I have not suppressed the experience of it. I may choose to display my anger as necessary in words or in deeds, but I do not need to act it out in a driven fashion as uncontrolled rage.
Converting your rage into healthy anger
And how do we convert our rage into “healthy anger”? The best way is through reflection and mindfulness-based practices, by training our rational mind to override our emotional mind, using our capacity to reason and problem solve.
Instead of reacting immediately to an external situation, try taking a few deep breaths. This will help you to lower your racing heartbeat (which is a symptom of anxiety, not anger).
Focus on your body. Where are you feeling the tension? Is there any area in your body or in your surroundings that feels more neutral? Put your focus there. If your mind wanders back to the aggravating incident, bring it back to the point of neutrality.
Examine your anger more directly. Where, in your body, do you feel it? What does it feel like? Do these sensations change when you pay attention to them?
Do you notice any other emotions lurking beneath the anger? Explore them. What is the message? What do you need at this time? Was a boundary crossed? How can you reinforce it? How can you best respond to your anger without blowing your fuse?
Commit to taking whatever action is needed — be it a walk, journaling, or a difficult. conversation.
“The difference between the healthy energy of anger and the hurtful energy of emotional and physical violence is that anger respects boundaries. Standing forward on your own behalf does not invade anyone else’s boundaries.”
When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress is an excellent primer on understanding the powerful role that emotion and psychological stress play on the onset of chronic illness, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Sign up for the Seeds of Wisdom newsletter — a mix of links to new articles, questions, thought snippets, and interesting links — sent straight to your inbox.
Delivered every fortnight.
Linking up with Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter