How Anger Can Heal Us

Bill Hayward, "Only In Bed"Anger, generally considered the most forbidden and primal of all emotions, is more accurately the most complex, nuanced, and misunderstood, particularly by mental health professionals.

Anger has positive psychological and social purposes that range from releasing negative sentiment to motivating us to find solutions — to correct wrong behaviors, challenge social injustice, and redress grievances. At times, we harness anger strategically with the goal of restoring emotional or social balance. In general, anger mobilizes our psychological resources and boosts determination.

How we perceive anger and the behavior associated with it is culturally and generationally determined. Experts have identified broad social factors that may be responsible for creating the climate in which anger may turn to violence, including poverty, income and gender inequality, and the overuse of alcohol and other substances. Because, as a society, Americans fear the loss of self-control through the “progression” of anger to violence, we have regulated it through laws, religious customs, therapies, medicines, and social punishment.

But, what most experts fail to understand is that the cultural and individual suppression of anger causes potentially greater harm.

When anger is ignored, denied, or repressed, it festers or flares, eventually finding expression through illness, poor judgment, passive-aggressive behavior, violence, suicide, or even terrorism. The classical definition of depression is anger turned inward.

Still, what may be even more shocking is the historical evidence suggesting as strong a relationship between violence and love as between violence and anger.

An honest look at love over the course of history reveals that what people have framed as the love of God, Monarch, Country, Money, and Power has led to more death and destruction than any single motivating emotion. The Crusades, Inquisition, WWII, and Middle East Holy Wars are high on this list of love and loyalty’s consequences. Although more benign, “romantic love” frequently leads to disillusionment, heartbreak, or despair, the source of much of our domestic violence or “crimes of passion.”

As a society we blindly ignore love’s darker side. We pursue love as if it were the holy grail, applauding its daily expression and even inventing holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s and Father’s Days to acknowledge love’s loyalty. We engage in classes based on intimacy and love, which teach us to suppress or substitute anger with forgiveness, meditation or prayer. And with the assistance of trained professionals, we promote “anger management” courses or behavioral therapies that shame people for openly expressing anger and train them to use reason instead.

In effect, we are using “psychological treatments” that defy the natural laws of human emotion and unwittingly contribute to our overall sense of fear, confusion, and instability.

In fact, anger and love share the same purpose: to help resolve some of life’s difficult dilemmas. One is no less valuable than the other in that purpose, and both potentially have undesirable consequences. Anger helps us heal from an emotional injury or threat, real or imagined. And while love’s energy is directed toward finding wholeness through mutual exchange or coupling with another, in anger we seek wholeness by separating from the world. Anger ultimately serves to balance us. Through it we find affirmation and integrity as we attempt to restore our sense of well-being.

Pure anger, like all emotions, has no language. Early in our lives we are taught to put words to anger that tell a moral story, usually one in which we have been wronged. And while there are facts to these stories that are based in reality, the entire truth of what provoked our anger in any given episode has many sides, most of which we are unable to perceive. As such, we cannot fully trust the stories we create from anger any more that we can trust our love stories. While these narratives may motivate us to take action, they can actually contribute to our rage, rather than allowing us the catharsis of actually feeling our anger organically.

Like most of us, I was shamed as a child for demonstrations of anger and held accountable for maintaining conventional social rules around them. Later, in my training as a psychotherapist, I learned to help patients acknowledge their anger and use insight to contextualize anger and keep it in check. I taught techniques of forgiveness to help patients let go of anger. When I became a parent, my responsibility was to guide my child toward “maturity” by teaching her to use words rather than tantrums to express angry feelings.

But the years have taught me otherwise. I now recognize that these prescriptions demand that as individuals we sacrifice authenticity in the service of quelling larger social anxieties expressed by our government, citizens, and mental health professionals.

Based on ignorance, fear, and shame rather than a true understanding of the psychology of anger, we have created a mass delusion surrounding anger that has led to greater harm than good.

Americans are outraged by “random acts of violence” in our nation, but so long as we maintain our misguided views of anger and misunderstand love we will fail to stem the tide of violence in our schools, malls, streets and homes.

To challenge this we need to create a radical change in our thinking based on knowledge rather than myth. We must teach our children and remind ourselves about anger’s healing purposes. We must learn to respect and honor the expression of anger in all its vicissitudes rather than fear and suppress it. Expressing anger should be considered as natural, authentic, and spiritual as expressing love. And we must trust and encourage direct access to anger, because it is the sublimation or subversion of it that leads people to pull a gun’s trigger.

Against expert advice, we must learn to express anger without words in its purest, most primal forms: screams, howls, grunts, flailing. This allows us to feel deeply connected to our authentic self and to what we share in common as humans along with other sentient beings. Expressing anger in its primal forms has the effect of prayer, chanting, or meditation. When we fully embrace the experience, it’s likely to result in a sense of calm and peace. We are wired to be contemplative before taking action. By “clearing” anger with non-language driven methods, actions will naturally follow that rebalance us — without violence.

To achieve this we must create safe spaces in our homes and elsewhere as we do for meditation or prayer, in which we can access our anger, where we can scream, pound pillows, bark, and howl, rather than use words.

Furthermore, we must investigate the twisted relationship between violence, love, and loyalty and teach our children to be wary of love’s delusions rather than to be charmed by them.

It has taken me decades to understand and respect anger, and even longer to celebrate the freedom and authenticity that has come from openly expressing it both in my “angry space” at home and in social exchanges when necessary. I have gained enough distance and insight over the years to know it’s not in the words I use to express anger that I find value, but in the action of expressing it. I have also learned that what I might say in angry exchanges is neither true nor false. It is simply one side of a very complex story. From that perspective I have even learned to enjoy angry encounters.

In my fantasy of the world, I imagine that we are all as sophisticated as my dog Max, who growls, barks, howls, and shuffles his feet when he is angry and licks and purrs when he feels love. There are no delusions, fantasies, or words attached to it. True maturity requires embracing the totality and authenticity of our experience, not managing it.

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