This time on the podcast we talked about anger. How can we be with anger and use it to help us to hold our boundaries and mobilize us towards justice? And how can we avoid reacting out of it in ways that manifest as aggression, violence, or hatred (whether turned inwards towards ourselves or outwards towards other people)?
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After a check-in about the situations which we – ourselves – are currently feeling anger about, we started by delineating between ‘non-reactive’ and ‘reactive’ anger…
Anger and reactivity
Non-reactive anger refers to being with the energy of the angry feeling but not acting out of it in ways that hurt us (repressing) or others (reacting). Reactive anger is when we react directly – often quickly – out of the angry feeling. Paradoxically, such a reaction is often an attempt to avoid really feeling the anger (or other tough emotions). If we can learn to feel safe-enough to stay with the anger, and allow the experience, we may well be less likely to engage in reactive anger responses.
Pretty much all conflict advice suggests taking time out in the first rush of anger, or when angry feelings are intense or overwhelming. We’re likely to be reactive at such times and it is best to refrain from doing anything out of it for 20-60 minutes at least, like pressing ‘send’ on that email! This gives an opportunity to return from our sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic one, if we can manage not to escalate or stoke the anger by rehearsing stories about the situation.
Staying with anger
The feeling of anger – like all feelings – is valid and vital. If we try to avoid feeling anger – or attempt to eradicate our capacity for anger – then we’ll damage ourselves and our capacity to feel other emotions as well. This is well depicted in the film Inside Out. When we can feel all emotions then we’re able to flow through them more easily. When we only allow some we can become stuck in certain states, or cut off entirely. There’s more on how to stay with feelings in MJ’s zine on the topic, and our podcast here.
The risk of avoiding or eradicating anger is that it becomes cast out of us and ends up being turned back in on ourselves like some external voice who is angry at us. This is one way of understanding what’s been called the inner critic.
Without the capacity to be angry outwards we may well struggle to hold our boundaries, either letting people walk over us, or hiding behind brittle barriers, or swinging between the two extremes. We may also struggle so much with shame, inner criticism, and self-hatred that other people’s anger with us becomes unbearable, because it feels like it confirms those harsh and toxic beliefs we have about ourselves. This is part of why it’s important to embrace our inner critic and do the work of learning how to stay with feelings of anger-in and anger-out without reacting to avoid or eradicate them. Not that this is easy of course.
Anger and trauma
Reactive anger-in and anger-out can map onto the common trauma responses of fawn and flight, which can be seen as two ends of a spectrum. Those whose childhood survival strategy was fawn, or people-pleasing, often do whatever they can to ensure that people around them will not be angry with them (either in hot raging or cold withdrawing ways). Those whose childhood survival strategy was fight, tend to blame, override, and belittle others. Both are strategies which attempt to control others’ behaviours whether by objectifying yourself or objectifying them.
It can be useful to develop whichever of these strategies comes less habitually to you in order to get more intentional and bring them into more of a balance. Again becoming able to tolerate anger, shame, and other feelings can make it less likely that we’ll act out of our trauma responses.
Being with anger
So the aim with anger, as with all tough feelings, is to learn how to notice it and be with it, rather than repressing it or instantly acting out of it in a reactive way. It can be good to make it our business to really get to know it, and to practice giving it space and warm attention at the ‘flicker’ stage, before it becomes a flame or fire. The aim here is not to get rid of anger – or any other feeling – but rather to be with it as part of the whole of our experience, and to act from it – if and when we do – in ways that are compassionate and respectful both towards ourselves and others (not overriding one for the other).
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Under these circumstances anger has vital functions in helping us to clearly discern when we are being harmed, to hold our boundaries to protect ourselves, and to prevent that from continuing. It also helps us to see injustice on a wider scale, from feeling our own experiences. The energy of the anger can then be channelled into non-violent movements towards change.
Anger as a resource for fighting injustice
Audre Lorde’s essay on the uses of anger is a helpful resource to help us to use anger precisely, as a form of energy that we can tap into for empowerment and fighting injustice. She also speaks about how guilt and fear can block us from experiencing and expressing our anger, and how important it is to address this so we can fight injustice alongside each other as a symphony rather than a cacophony ‘We have to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart’.
Anger is vital in all contexts where marginalised people are required to take on the burden of the shame of their oppressors. When people speak out about oppression or abuse, the culturally normative response is: denial that it even happened, minimisation of its impact, victim blame, and defending oneself against any culpability. Now the marginalised person – or survivor – bears the weight of both what they went through, and this reaction. In a gaslighting move, they now have to carry the shame of the oppressor or perpetrator, as well as the pain of the initial experience. Seeing how the most marginalised are scapegoated and shamed in this way can ignite our anger in ways that can drive movements for justice as we’ve seen with #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
Intersectionality and anger
An intersectional understanding is important here also, because race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, survivor status, etc. all influence who is and is not comfortable around their own – and others’ – anger, and who has access to different modes of expressing anger. For example, #BlackLivesMatter highlights the huge dangers black men face if they express any anger towards authority, and how they may be assumed to be threatening – and killed for it – even if they don’t.
Members of most marginalised groups are easily dismissed as ‘the angry black person, trans person, lesbian, working class person, etc.’ if they speak out about oppression. People frequently respond with anger back towards those who have named oppression, rather than towards the oppression itself, for example being more angry at being labelled racist than at racism itself.
Survivors of all kinds of abuse, and disabled people, may have very real reasons to be highly fearful of anger in others, given what this has meant for them in the past, or how dependent they may be on that person for their survival.
Men are frequently socialised to express no emotions except anger, while women are frequently socialised to be pleasing to others and to hide any anger. However, such socialisation can manifest in different ways from person to person. For example, a boy who was encouraged – but always failed – to be ‘tough’ may struggle to be angry or assertive. A girl who survived by joining the ‘mean girls’ may default to anger and bullying. Class, culture – and other intersections – also have a part to play with anger being a more-or-less accepted part of masculinity or femininity in different places and different communities.
A discussion of your intersections and early survival strategies in relation to anger could be a great relationship conversation to have, to help guide who you develop relationships with and what containers you create for those relationships.
Anger, shame, and kindness
Getting in touch with our anger can be an antidote to the shame we’ve been burdened with, helping us to focus anger outwards towards unjust systems, rather than inwards towards ourselves. It can also help us to find compassion for all of us who are caught up in these oppressive systems and dynamics, which can help when these things play out in our interpersonal relationships. While people often see anger and kindness as polar opposites, we’d suggest that it’s possible – even vital – to find our way towards angry kindness and kind anger.
In addition to the Audre Lorde essay, we’d recommend:
- Pema Chodron on how to stay with anger with patience, refraining from reacting.
- Judith Butler on rage and non-violence.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020