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.
Here's a perceptive article for men from "The Good Men Project" that touches on some of the hurdles men feel when considering therapy.
I specialize in and love working with men in my practice. While my business name is in the category of touchy-feely-sounding names the author of this article complains about (!), I respect men wherever they are when they walk into my office and aim to be the kind of "pragmatic, down-to-earth, and helpful" therapist most men hope for.
Read the full article, including thoughtful suggestions on how to find the right therapist for you here:
"Why Men Might Not Go to Therapy"
And If you'd like to find out more about therapy with me, please be in touch and we can set up a time to talk and see how I might be able to help you.
Intimate relationships are inherently difficult. But why? One of the major influences on my grappling with this question, as a therapist and in my own marriage, has been Stan Tatkin's work. This short and entertaining Ted Talk below gives a brief introduction to some of Stan's ideas about how the challenges couples face are rooted in the way our brains and physiology are wired.
If you'd like to learn more about Stan's work, I recommend these materials of his:
Wired For Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style can Help Difuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. (book)
Your Brain On Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships (audio recording)
And if you want to explore some of the ideas he presents in real time with your partner, please contact me. I'd be happy to talk more about my work with couples.
For most of us, being in a committed, intimate relationship is one of the hardest things we can do in life. Staying in a relationship, or tolerating it, is one thing—difficult and painful in its own way. And when it comes to the challenge of staying emotionally engaged and connected with another person over time, I would say you’re in for the ride of your life.
We can let go of so much unnecessary pain just by giving up the fantasy that other couples have it all together or don’t struggle. It’s a myth that we should be able to make our relationships work without help. Relationship is hard for everyone. The good news is, it is possible to get better at being in relationship.
But getting better isn’t only about feeling better—it also asks us to grow. Growing is inherently and unavoidably uncomfortable. But growing doesn’t need to be as hard as it is when we’re alone and isolated from connection and support in the places where we feel uncertain or scared.
For many people, admitting we need help feels like a sign of weakness, or even a cause for shame.
Especially for men, who are socialized to display strength even when we’re feeling scared, insecure, hurt, or sad, saying “I need help” or “We need help” feels strange, risky, even forbidden.
There’s still a dominant story-myth in our society that says strength is persevering alone and keeping your chin up and chest out in spite of feeling shaky inside. So it makes sense that so many of us shy away from acknowledging our need for help in an area as vulnerable as our closest relationships.
I want all of us to be more comfortable saying these three powerful words in our relationships:
“We need help.”
When in comes to emotional and relational growth, we need good support to heal and grow. As deeply social creatures it’s just the way we’re wired. There’s only so much any of us can do alone. Without support, we’re overwhelmed by emotions and act them out or tune them out instead of learning from them. It’s through sensitive, emotionally attuned relationships that we learn how to relate with emotions wisely and effectively, so that they can be energies that inform and enliven us rather than unconscious forces that cause upheaval.
Even though needing support is so essential and normal, so many couples remain isolated and from the help they could use finding their way through the emotionally intense and complex terrain of intimate relationships. Many couples only seek help after their relationship has withered over time, or been shattered by a betrayal of trust.
Imagine if all couples knew in their bones that encountering challenges in their relationship was normal rather than a symptom of failure, flawed character, or being a bad match. Imagine if instead of waiting until they were unraveling, couples said “we need help” early on, and got good support (like couples counseling) as a healthy component of self-care.
Despite the many messages you might have received about what you should be able to handle, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you for feeling challenged, humbled, or at your edge in your intimate relationship. Saying “I need help” or “we need help” can be the first step towards feeling better.
It’s a brave and fierce move to stand in the vulnerability of being at your edge, and to reach out for the support that will help you grow into a new reality.
A beloved therapist I worked with in my twenties would often say a phrase to me that was a balm for me to hear: “Take your time..,” he would say, “take your time.” As you read these words, I invite you to try reading a little slower than usual. I invite you to take your time.
You might be reading this because you’re looking for some relief from some form of anxiety. I want to suggest that one of the simplest and easiest ways to start to soothe many forms of anxiety is to slow down, to take your time.
Try it. Why not start right now, right here? Reading is one of our many modern-day activities where there’s a tendency to rush ahead at a speed that leaves our bodies scrambling trying to catch up. As you read these words, you might notice if there’s any sense of rushing in the way you’re here, and play with reading more slowly. What’s it like to read at a pace where these words and ideas have time to be felt in your body, instead of just skimming across your mind? What’s it like to take your time as you read?
I believe that when many people report feeling anxious, that they are expressing symptoms of what I call speed-sickness. We live in a world that worships speed. Our society moves at the speed of information and digital technology, the speed of thinking, the speed of engines and economics and efficiency and productivity and growth and self-improvement. Modern life runs on technologies and values that rush us through time at a frenzied pace that forces us to disconnect from the rhythms of our bodies and our heart. We can’t continue living at this speed without eventually becoming exhausted and sick. And sometimes, anxiety is an early wake-up call to slow down.
While there can be many causes for feeling anxious, consider the possibility that a portion of what you identify as anxiety in your life is simply a calling from your body to slow down—a message, an invitation, from your deeper being to inhabit your moments in a way that allows you to see, touch, taste, feel, and savor life rather than always rushing ahead to a future goal. From our everyday mind’s perspective, attuning to this realm of experience can feel slow, and even threatening. From the body’s perspective this way of being is essential, ancient, and the ground of well-being.
So again, even right now as you’re reading, I invite you to consider taking time to let your mind settle down into the body like a flock of birds returning to a tree.
You might return some attention to the feel of your body sitting wherever you’re sitting. Notice how the ebb and flow of breathing feels as it changes the shape of your body with each breath.
Even as these words and ideas flicker across your mind, give some of your attention to the physical sensations of sitting and breathing and simply being on this vast, solid earth in this moment.
I have met many people who feel like life is moving too fast, and worry that something is wrong with them for not being able to keep up. Let me be a voice that says with conviction that nothing is wrong with you for feeling the need to slow down. It is the pace of mainstream, modern life that is insane, not you. The pull to slow down, and the courage to listen to it, is a radical act of sanity and caring. Here are some ideas to play with as you explore listening to this call more.
The good news is, no matter how often you’re sucked into living speedily, and no matter how estranged you may feel from your body and heart, every moment is here waiting as an invitation to pause, to slow down, and to take your time.
If you're looking for a supportive place to practice slowing down, that's an integral part of what I offer clients in my therapy practice! I hope you'll be in touch and we can talk more.
When I was about twelve years old, my father found out that a young woman who worked at his restaurant had died by suicide. I remember watching my Papa’s response to the tragic news in the attentive way a son observes his father. I remember seeing his body collapse under the weight of shock and loss, and his hands lifting to cover his face. I remember hearing his quiet sobs, and sensing that I was witnessing something essential about being human.
Seeing my father surrender to his sorrow was one of the most valuable gifts I ever received from him. It showed me that a man can weep, and planted a seed that I would later need in reclaiming my own capacity to grieve.
Grief is one of the most natural and universal experiences we have as human beings. Our hearts ache when we lose what we love. Of course, we’re heartbroken by deaths, changes in relationships, illness, and the myriad transitions of life. Beyond these, we’re all wounded by the widespread destruction of life—near and far—occurring across our earth.
It’s imperative that we be able to feel and to name our heartache in response to these enormous losses. Giving voice to grief is how we continue to love what we’ve lost, as well how we acknowledge the hole in our hearts that remains in the absence of what we loved.
By the time I reached my twenties, I had learned, like so many men today, how to silence my grief—I was unable to feel or speak of my sorrows. Eventually, this build-up of unattended grief showed itself as a nagging tightness in my throat and chest, and a pervasive low mood that could easily have been misdiagnosed as depression. In not facing my pain, I had also stifled my capacity to enjoy life.
From the muck of this low place, I was fortunate to stumble upon practices and people that helped me befriend my grief. Thawing out my frozen heart required me to drop beneath the speed and noise of daily life, and to learn to pay attention to the inner life I had forgotten.
Yoga and meditation practices were integral to this process. I learned that I could become aware of my body, mind and heart, and that all of what was within—even if painful or frightening—had something valuable to teach me. I was also blessed to find wise and sensitive people who gently reminded me that I could let my vulnerability be witnessed—that my heartache could be held and healed in relationship.
Turning towards my sorrow was daunting and awkward at first. The waters of grief were unfamiliar, and I feared that in entering them I might get lost or drown in my sadness. But I soon discovered that facing my pain was actually less painful than avoiding it.
As I began to feel, speak about, and weep deeply for the losses I had been ignoring, I felt profoundly relieved and rejuvenated. Slowly, the weight of unfelt and unspoken sadness lifted. In its place, the energy and joy I had lost began to return.
Given that loss and grief are such a basic part of being human, it’s astounding how widely unacknowledged and unexpressed they are in the modern world—especially among men. Consider this: when was the last time you saw a man weep freely without apology or shame?
When we men don’t take time to digest our losses, our hearts become clogged with grief. The pain of grief-congested hearts can be seen all around us, presenting as other forms of suffering like depression, addiction, overwork, or chronic loneliness and anxiety.
We men need to remember how to tend our grief well. We need to practice welcoming the heartache within grief as something that can help us grow into stronger, more compassionate human beings. And we need to teach our boys to do this courageous work as well.
I carry the memory of my father weeping with me as a reminder of the kind of man I want to be, and the kind of man I want to help my son become—a man who is strong enough to weep for what I love, and as I weep, to be cleansed and healed by my tears.