A case for Anger

It’s a commonly applied concept in both psychological theory and popular culture that anger is a “secondary emotion” and one that can be destructive for both the person experiencing the feeling and whomever it is directed towards. The ask is usually to “get underneath” the anger. I have always believed that experiencing anger was an important part of healing from trauma, and that this experience was necessary to release shame. I used to say that after the shame was processed we would arrive at the underlying feelings. I still think that can be true, but I’ve come to see even that as a bypass away from seeing anger and rage as valid emotions that are at their core, safe to hold. And in many cases necessary to make space for along with cooccurring feelings like sadness, disappointment, etc. Anything we see as a destructive result of anger are ultimately the result of behaviors, not feelings.

In the mental health field we often tell the story that unchecked anger will inevitably lead to harmful behaviors and actions. But this isn’t true, in fact I believe that anger is one of the most potent and powerful emotional energies that can completely alchemize our way of being if we let it. How can we really be in support of justice and liberation without learning to hold our anger and channel it into action? When we reflexively focus on releasing anger we tell our nervous systems that anger is not safe, that it cannot be tolerated, and that it is somehow “bad.” Those “destructive expressions” of anger are really ways of trying to discharge and project that anger away. We frequently associate a lack of anger with wisdom and spirituality, and I wonder if our current definitions of anger deliberately frame it that way. Because the systems of Mental Health and Wellness are steeped in white supremacy and inequity as much as anything else, and when you are not angry you probably will not fight back.  What would happen if (we) held this anger or grief long enough to understand it, or as Resmaa Menakem has said, hold the discomfort long enough for it to transform into something else?

This sort of bypassing emerges in all areas of trauma work, and absolutely in the denial and coddling of covert racism. I also see it in relation to the concept of forgiveness, and the bypass of telling those who have been abused that it is their responsibility to forgive “for their own good” because they are carrying “toxic energy.” To be clear, in both my personal experience as a survivor as well as 10 years of facilitating complex trauma treatment, I have generally found that forgiveness of the abuser can be collateral result of recovery. However, it is not necessary and is not the goal. 

Forgiveness of another can be an extension of forgiving yourself, meaning that when you have forgiven yourself and truly internalized that you did nothing to cause or deserve the abuse (and that although it happened to you it would’ve happened to anyone in the same position) we can have the awareness that it wasn’t personally directed towards us- even if we were told that it was. And in that sense, we were the unfortunate recipient of someone else’s unprocessed trauma and pain that they then inflicted into us as the nearby target…and this can lead to something we could call forgiveness or empathy for this pained person. But it’s not an either/or. 

Some aspects of this have felt clear to me for some time, but recently I’m finding that in spite of believing that anger is a natural and critical aspect of healing I have often in the same breath cautioned about how anger can become destructive. I now believe this is wrong; I feel like transparency is important and especially as we gain years in the field it’s important to give ourselves the ability to evolve- to say “I see things differently now.” I also think this was an extension of my own need for healing around anger, learning to tolerate it and hold it without needing to discharge it suddenly through an explosion or bury within myself and say “now I fixed it.” I feel in the past I’ve done a disservice to those I work with by suggesting it should only be a phase of healing, and I’m making this transparent in my current work.

For therapists and space holders we can feel a lot of pressure from within and without to act like we have it all figured out, that our healing journey is over. In my experience it has only deepened a therapeutic relationship to model that our views and perspectives can and will change, if we are committed to growing. That they too can be wrong, they can disagree with us, they can trust themselves, and forgive themselves for not knowing everything. My invitation for you dear reader, is to ask yourself to what extent you allow yourself to completely accept what you’re feeling.

Especially as it relates to anger, do you trust that it has meaning? Do you believe that it safe to feel?

How can you be more present when your emotions are overwhelming, and give them permission to move at whatever pace they moving?

What would happen if you allowed anger to move you?

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