Learning how to feel and deal with anger is an essential skill for navigating relationships. Anger gets a bad rap, and for good reasons. Out-of-control anger causes a huge amount of harm. Most of us are rightfully scared of anger because our experiences with it have mostly been negative. We haven’t had great role models who show us how to relate with anger in a way where we can channel it’s intelligence and power effectively without causing harm.
There’s definitely a place for simply containing and controlling anger so it doesn’t “burn down” lives. If your anger is a volcano that's causing harm to you need to learn basic anger management techniques to keep your cool and prevent harm. You can find some great tools for help with that work here:
Yet we also can’t simply erase or pretend away our anger, or any emotion, without its energy coming back to bite us in some other way. As the saying goes: “Emotions are like children. You don’t want them driving the car, but you can’t stuff them in the trunk either.”
There’s a way of getting to know how to feel and wield our anger so that it empowers our lives in non-harmful and life-serving ways. Here are a few ideas and tools that might be helpful as you explore anger.
Get To Know Anger in Your Body
It’s hard to access the wisdom within anger when we can’t stay present with the physical intensity of the experience. Most of us aren’t comfortable with the sensations of anger, so we either numb out or act it out when it rises. Instead of feeling and dealing with the raw, physical intensity of anger we get tangled up in stories and demonize and blame ourselves or others.
The next time you’re angry, try to notice the avalanche of blaming thoughts that might be tumbling through your mind. Step back from the stories you’re telling yourself about who did what, who is wrong etc. and instead give your attention to the sensations of anger.
Get curious about the felt, texture of anger in your body—the physical sensations of anger.
Here are some common physical sensations that go with anger you might notice:
tight belly / solar plexus
furrowed brow / face
breath holding or shallow
Stepping back from the flood of explanations for why you’re angry, and sinking down into the body of anger for a few moments can help you take responsibility for the feeling you're having.
Next, we’ll look at how you can channel that energy into action that will create an outcome that results in more of what you want rather than more problems.
What’s Anger For Anyway?
Your relationship with anger is closely tied to your relationship with boundaries— all of the places where you negotiate where self and other meet, interact, collide, mingle, or merge.
Anger helps us clarify and communicate our boundaries.
If we’re feeling angry, it may be because our boundaries are being crossed, and what we experience as anger is the process of our body-mind mobilizing to set a boundary to protect ourselves from a perceived threat. If we avoid anger habitually, we may set boundaries in indirect, passive aggressive ways which alienate other people.
If we don’t know what our boundaries are or how to make them known, or if they’ve been violated due to traumatic events, learning how to feel and channel anger as a clean boundary-setting force is vital and empowering.
Do you know how to say no in a way that is clear and clean? If not, you might start practicing with small, less loaded situations. One intial way to do this is to start notice your preferences.
If you don’t actually want to go out for pizza when you’re partner asks, and you’re in the habit of saying “maybe”, or “I don’t know,” how about simply saying a clear “no thank you” instead?”
If you feel uncomfortable with how close someone is standing next to you at a party while talking to you, can you honor your body’s “no” by taking a step back?
When we deny or ignore too many of our “No's” they can build up over time, eventually festering into resentment and bitterness.
If you struggle to say no for fear of someone else’s response, it can be helpful to think of setting boundaries as a means to honor and protect what is important to you—whether it’s your physical space, time, energy, values, or people you love.
Each time you say “no” or set a boundary, you are also at the same time saying “yes” to something you value.The more clear your “no” gets, the more wholeheartedly you can say “yes” to life.
The goal with boundaries is clarity and flexibility. The threshold between ourselves and the world changes depending on context, and is ever-evolving and nuanced. The more we learn to listen to anger as a boundary-setting energy, the more free we can be to dance with others in relationship with flexibility.
Next time you’re angry, you might ask yourself: what boundary is this energy trying to help me set and how could I do that clearly and cleanly?
Anger as The Harbinger of Vulnerable Needs
Another function of anger is to signal to us we have needs that aren’t getting met. When we feel angry, we can take it as a cue that something might be out of alignment that needs to shift to rebalance our lives. Often it’s needs that have been unmet for a while that accumulate into an angry energy (think resentment in long-term relationships!).
Anger is the tip of an emotional iceberg, the surface expression of other deeper emotions that are often more vulnerable to feel than anger like sadness, fear, or shame. When we hang out with the energy of anger long enough without either imploding or exploding, we have time to sink our awareness down and get to know our more vulnerable needs.
For example: Your partner comes home late and you notice you’re angry with them for not letting you know ahead of time.
Option One: You could express your anger by blaming your partner for their actions, or leak your anger by complaining about other things not related to them coming home.
Option Two: You could notice your anger, and touch the sensations of it with your gentle, curious awareness, and listen for the deeper needs beneath the surface response of anger. Maybe you were worried or scared about where your partner was, or sad because you were hoping to tell them something important from your day. With this information, you could express your need with your partner in a way that’s more likely to evoke their understanding.
If we only share our anger with others, we’re likely to push them away. When we can use anger as a signal or doorway into other more vulnerable emotions, we can share our hearts in a way that invites others to come towards us and our needs.
Next time you’re angry, try sinking below the surface charge of the experience and being curious about what you might be needing. Would there be a way to claim and express your need without making anyone, yourself or others, bad or wrong?
Like fire, anger has a hot, transformational potential that is powerful. Like fire, if it’s not contained and channeled, that power is destructive and chaotic.
To harness the power within anger effectively, we have to remain aware of our heart — the part of us that is connected to others and to all life—while we’re angry. When we learn to feel the deeper impulses within the energy of anger, whether it’s setting a boundary or expressing a need, we can channel the intensity of anger towards accomplishing its higher purpose. We can use our anger to protect what we love and value, to stand up against falseness or lack of integrity, and to reach out for what we need.