Earlier this month during a meditation class, the teacher asked, “What’s holding you back from living with a more open heart?”
The answer popped lucidly into my mind, as though it were sitting just beneath the surface waiting for someone to ask.
The unexpected answer was as clear as it was uncomfortable: anger.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I thought to myself, “I’m a sensitive dude. I meditate, journal, and try to do no harm. Anger? Really? WTF?”
As much as I wanted to deny the existence of anger in my life, I could tell that I was onto something. Like it or not, it was time to face the anger I had been ignoring and carrying around for a while. I also had to figure out what the fuck to do with it.
Over the following days, I started addressing the repressed anger I noticed in myself. Though difficult, digging through my past few months, even years, was so valuable in identifying where it was coming from. Along the way, I became happier, lighter, more energetic, more playful, and more creative.
In this article, we’re going to talk about one of the trickiest topics in the emotional realm: anger. We’ll discuss why anger can be so difficult to identify and ways to work with it.
The misplaced taboo against anger
In case you need a reminder, you are the apex predator. As humans, we have been able to tame and shape our environment in a way that no other animal could even dream of.
Doing so would have been impossible without the capacity for anger and violence. If we were content we would never bother changing the world. If we were discontent but had no ability to channel anger and violence, then we wouldn’t have succeeded in shaping it.
Anger, like any emotion, is a normal part of the human experience.
What’s abnormal about anger – and the reason it caught me off guard – is that it’s an emotion we tend to bury instead of deal with. We’re never taught how to work with it. And unlike joy, disgust, or a few other emotions, working with anger demands nuance and skill. Most people just ignore it until they can’t anymore, letting it build up until explosion. But of course, explosion is frowned upon, so for many of us, the anger gets redirected to random outlets, like bad drivers cutting us off, the people we love, or ourselves. To hedge against outbursts, many of us numb ourselves or disconnect. All of this creates the illusion of having no anger and encloses us with self-denial, preventing us from fully stepping into our lives, relationships, and power.
The nuance that makes the difference: no singular feeling owns you
In addition to the tendency to suppress anger, we avoid it because most of us hold incomplete understandings of how our emotions work.
We tend to believe that the borders that define our emotional lives are crisp and have straight edges. In reality, most of us experience a complicated array of emotions in any given moment.
Imagine that you’re on a diet and getting good results. You’re also kind of hungry. Then, a friend who doesn’t know you’re on a diet offers you a piece of chocolate cake. How do you feel? Virtually all of us will experience the following:
- Desire for the cake
- Desire to say no to the cake
- Frustration with your friend for tempting you
- Anger that you’re tempted – after all, you’ve been dieting awhile
- Frustration with yourself for being frustrated with your friend who didn’t know any better
- Understanding that your friend wasn’t trying to frustrate you
It’s important to understand that our emotional lives don’t always have clean edges. They’re swirling, variable, contradictory, complicated, and fleeting. Instead of avoiding anger, our best bet is to identify it without identifying with it. One of our biggest fears about acknowledging our anger is that the anger will define us. As long as we work with it skillfully, it won’t. In other words, it’s our job to understand that we have room to work with anger, without being controlled by it.
The first step is to learn to identify the anger seething within you. And I want to be clear about something: the question isn’t “Am I harboring anger?” but “What am I harboring anger about?” Trust me – it’s there.
To say you don’t have any anger is like saying that there’s nothing you love or nothing you’re afraid of – it’s absurd. But again, as a society, we’ve made embracing anger taboo, so many of us have become so disconnected from it that we deny its very existence.
When we picture anger, we often picture roaring fires. A driver cuts us off and we lean on the horn, and/or flip the bird. Someone jostles us on the street and we feel the heat and tension rising in our body. Someone betrays or pisses us off and we feel the urge to punch them in the face and verbally tear them to shreds.
This type of anger is obvious. It so thoroughly takes us over that we can’t help but lean into it. We physically shake ourselves off, punch the wall, scream, rant, or vent, and a little while later, it’s gone. Because we can’t help but deal with this type of anger, it’s often short lived.
What surprised me was that the anger I was feeling wasn’t the easily identified, roaring fire I’m used to. Instead, it was much closer to a bed of embers – hot, dangerous, quiet, easy to miss, and capable of burning for a surprisingly long time and starting a much larger fire.
So, how do you find the anger you’re unaware of?
First, you have to make a commitment to being honest with yourself. Because anger is so commonly suppressed, we often tell ourselves that it’s not really there and that we don’t deal with it. If you want to get further in touch with yourself, you’re going to have to strip away the lies, and shine a bright light on your life.
Sometimes, we don’t want to even touch our anger because it feels violent or dangerous. More often we’re ashamed of the things we’re angry about.
After you’ve decided to be uncomfortably honest with yourself, the next step is simple. Close your eyes, spend a few moments centering, and then ask, “What am I angry about that I haven’t let myself feel?”
Keep in mind that the answers may be deeply uncomfortable. A short and very incomplete list of examples:
- You can secretly empathize with people and decisions you find morally repulsive
- You dislike some of the people you’re tasked with loving
- You hate or are disgusted with yourself
- You’re mad at people for dying
- You’re harboring intense amounts of fear and inadequacy
- You’re incredibly frustrated with many of the ideas, people, values, and circumstances that define your life
- You resent your friends because their lives seem better than yours
- You hate your job and hate yourself for working in it
Again, the trick is to acknowledge the source without falling into the trap of letting it define you.
You’ll notice that once you allow yourself to feel one or two things you’re mad about, many more will waterfall out. That’s good. We want that. We want to be as in touch with ourselves as we can.
Again, nuance matters. Just because these feelings are coming up, doesn’t mean that they own you or that they’re entirely true. You’re an adult. You can hold space for conflicting feelings. You can dislike your friends and family while also caring about them with enough warmth to melt the world. You can feel disgust at a rival’s morals and ethics while also empathizing with them. You can find parts of yourself that you’re totally ashamed of, and still feel love, compassion, and optimism about who you are.
Strategies to process anger
The last step in working with anger is learning to process it in a way that’s healthy and constructive. I’m not talking about venting (that’s healthy but often not enough) or complaining (I’m not convinced there’s any benefit to complaining for its own sake). Instead, I’m talking about strategically letting the anger move through you so that you can release it.
Personally, I’ve started keeping a list of the different things that piss me off, and then, every few weeks, sitting down to process it. I call it the anger list. Here are four ways of processing it:
1) Journal like you’re channeling the devil himself. This is often my first move. Turn on some angry music (I like System of a Down’s album, “Toxicity”) and write about every little thing that pisses you off. Feel free to write things so cruel, vile, and nasty that you feel the need to text your friend saying, “Hey, if something happens to me, break into my apartment and destroy every journal and laptop I’ve ever used.”
Again, you don’t need to believe everything you write, and just because you write it doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t worry about that stuff. Instead, just let it out.
2) Tell the world to fuck off. Another effective way of processing anger is to play what I call the “Fuck everything” game. The game is simple: you spend time simply saying aloud, “Fuck you,” to everything you need to. A good round should go on for a little while, and could start like this:
- Fuck you J* for being way richer than I am.
- Fuck you B* for dying. I can’t believe you left me like that. I miss you.
- Fuck the Spring for being bright and beautiful when all I feel is darkness and gloom.
- Fuck myself for waiting for so damn long to address my needs.
- Fuck my friends for living all over the country instead of living here.
- Fuck this stupid neighborhood for being filled with people who think it’s appropriate to stop me on the street and babble at me when I’d much rather be left alone.
- Fuck K* for being such a stupid boss. I can’t believe how poorly you handle this stupid fucking team and all of the projets we have to work on. I can’t believe we have to report to you you stupid &^%$.
3) Rage. Like many emotions, anger can be held in the body.1 To fully process it, we need to get into our body and express it. There are a lot of ways of doing this. A few include:
- Doing something physically demanding – a series of all out sprints, hitting the gym and lifting as heavy as you can, going on a long ass hike, etc.
- Doing something that simulates violence – throwing big stones with all your force into a lake, axe throwing, pounding a punching bag, etc.
- Throwing a controlled and passionate temper tantrum – punch your pillows, cry, tear at your hair, smash shit with a bat, jump, stomp, and scream, etc. This is especially fun if you blare fast angry music.
4) Chanel it into art. Take all the shit that you’re angry about, and then use that energy to draw, paint, sculpt or compose a piece of art that reflects how you feel – the more horrible the better. Or, alternatively create a beautiful depiction of the things that are pissing you off, and then destroy it. Or both.
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive nor do these exercises need to exist in isolation from one another. The goal, really, is to confront whatever you’re dealing with and let it out in a controlled and effective way. If you’re drawn to other strategies, use those.
After you’ve worked through some of your stored anger, give yourself a bit of space to let everything sink in and return to normal. Go for a walk by yourself without your phone for a bit. As time goes on, you’ll notice that you feel lighter and that life flows through you with a bit more joy and ease than it used to.
- I know that to some readers, claiming that any thought or feeling is held in the body sounds nuts. I get it. For most of my life I didn’t think there was any meaningful link between my mind and body and I certainly didn’t think that my body held onto things. As I dive more into psychology and meditation, I’ve become convinced that our body stores a lot of we’ve failed to process.