On Anger

Anger is part of sensitivity too. It is not a matter of getting less angry or rooting anger out. Something else happens. Personality broadens, deepens, has more room….Instead of it simmering in the background, building resentment, or becoming diffusely explosive, one can feel it spread like light... ’

Michael Eigen, The Sensitive Self

Anger is often a central element in recovering our energy and clarity. Freud pointed out that depressives tend to skew their anger, frustration and disappointment into self-hatred, bitterness and diffuse resentment. When we disavow anger and desire, so much grinds to a halt. So tuning into anger, learning to allow and engage it, can initiate and support us in learning to 'feel bad well' well – and thus to live with vitality, integrity and courage.

We need to consider the value of opening to and ‘including’ anger, learning to allow ourselves to experience it viscerally, and attend to the messages that it contains. 

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean. Maya Angelou

We need to forge a way of relating to anger which neither denies nor indulges it, yet meets it unflinchingly and uses it’s vitality well. If we are to regain this energy, we need to let anger reach us in ways that serve us. And most of us need guidance. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen speaks of his growing appreciation for the richness of experiencing anger. Eigen’s voice is counter-cultural. Who has ever encouraged us to move nakedly toward anger; to know ourselves in this state and to be curious; who has ever suggested it might yield pleasure or sensitivity, that it might enlarge us?

Such a stance is rare. Most of us sensed young that our anger was not welcome, and buried it fast. Now we dread its appearance: we have been rejected for anger in the past and imagine we will be again; we fear our angry self will wreak havoc or lead to loss. There is some truth to all of this. Some people can’t tolerate anger, and living anger recklessly can be enormously destructive. But repressing anger causes other forms of wreckage: stunting our expression, limiting our relationships and compounding depression and despair.  Until we learn to live anger well, our distortion of it will almost invariably compound our sadness.

But it is possible to make room for anger – to be curious rather than hostile. When we encounter anger in this way, it emerges as a guide about what matters to us. Rather than being something we are under pressure to reject, we can see it as something we have a right to be in touch with, reflect on, and communicate from.  If we can develop this permissiveness toward anger’s presence, we become freer to explore it – without repression or fear.  What does anger feel like? What does it want? Who is it directed toward and why?

One aspect of this acceptance – as it is with any feeling - is physiological:  

To really feel anger is not vague – it is very specific. It’s the physical “what” of our experience. [it is to] reside in the emotion – really feel it – sensation by sensation…

Ezra Bayda, Being Zen 

We can learn to experience anger intimately – in our bodies – as it moves through us. This is to encounter anger rather than react to it or act on it. Being in direct contact with this physiological layer is almost to live in slow motion; staying close to our experience as it unfolds, and for its own sake. This helps us get used to feeling anger - at least initially – when we are alone.  It allows us to get much closer to anger than we are used to - to live in the eye of its storm. Not to flinch or fly into rages, but to sit with it and let it be, to find out what it feels like, to trust it a little.

For Bayda, our expression of anger in the form of blame, attack or rumination, is always already at one remove from anger in its raw form. These are symptoms of anger rather than its essence. 

This visceral, immediate physiological layer is not the whole of anger.   Once we have learnt to be with it, what of its other layers? What would it mean to clarify anger? [1] The time has come to look beneath, listening carefully to what our anger captures about who we are and what we grieve or long for.

A guide from beyond

‘….A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! ……

Be grateful for whatever comes, for each has been sent as a guide from beyond…

Rumi: The Guest House

Evidently, anger arises under certain conditions: when a need or hope is not being met, when a boundary has been violated, when something precious feels at stake. Attended to with sensitivity, anger reveals to us our hopes and longings. To listen to our anger is to be exposed to ourselves at our most basic and raw. Anger is disturbingly innermost: it cannot lie.

Learning to experience any problematic emotion is a long-haul journey, and for many of us anger will be the most difficult of all.   Progress will be slow and gradual: our job is begin to befriend and make room.

It is also important not to become prescriptive in our relationship to anger.  There is no single way we will know anger; our histories are too particular, anger is too unruly a force, and each of us must find our own way to move anger from a dysfunctional compounding of our pain or stasis. We must slowly uncover how anger can serve our life rather than destroy or deplete it, and instead allow it to enhance how we feel within ourselves and relate to one another.

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.