Anger is often labeled as a negative emotion, and many of us push it away or judge ourselves for not being “enlightened enough” when we feel angry. While anger can do damage when held in or unleashed on another, it can also lead to clarity and strength when handled with care.
Between emotion and action
The key is to pause before taking action, taking time to connect with the emotion and inquire into the reasons behind it. Let’s look at three different reasons for anger and some positive ways to handle it.
1. Present boundaries
Anger is an instinctive, healthy response when someone crosses a boundary. It can be a surprise if the boundary wasn’t conscious, or if the person acted so sweetly that the answering anger seems unreasonable.
For example, 27-year-old Zachary has been visiting his parents for several days. He comes in one day to find his dirty laundry washed and neatly folded. He knows his mother Corinna acted with love, and at the same time he notices the tightness in belly and jaw that signal anger for him.
Request a change
When he pauses to attend to his feelings, he realizes that the anger arose because she went through his belongings without asking. Zachary can now approach his mother kindly, thank her for doing his laundry, and also request that she honor his boundary around permission to touch his belongings.
Ideally, Corinna will blink, realize her son has grown up, and acknowledge the boundary. No matter what her response, Zachary’s ownership of his anger has alerted him to his own boundary and allowed him to communicate with clarity and compassion.
2. Past triggers
Sometimes, we don’t have the resources or safety to process anger in the moment, so it is stored away in the body. Many days or even years later, a reminder can trigger the stored anger.
Perhaps Zachary recently broke up with his boyfriend, who often did the laundry for both men. This time, when Zachary takes a break to inquire into his anger at seeing his folded laundry, he connects with a blaze of unresolved grief and anger from the relationship.
Self-care around triggers
Once a trigger is identified, it can be healing to avoid it in the short-term. Zachary could let Corinna know that he needs to do his own laundry for a while.
Release the emotions
Eventually, stored emotions do need to be released. It doesn’t need to happen all at once. When time and privacy allow, we can sit with the emotions as they run their course, noticing the accompanying thoughts, sensations, and impulses. Journaling, crying, and gentle movement can help. Reaching out for support can also help.
This could be an opening for Zachary to share some of his feelings about his breakup with Corinna. Owning his triggers allows Zachary to care for himself and his emotions without blaming others for accidentally reminding him of the past.
3. Catching emotions
Although emotions seem private and internal, they can be catching. Through subtle non-verbal communication, we sometimes find ourselves carrying emotions that belong to someone else.
Zachary returns to visit his parents a year later. His emotions around the past relationship have healed, and he brings his laundry to Corinna as they agreed. However, when he receives the clean laundry, he still notices tightness in his belly and jaw.
He pauses to examine his reactions, but inquiring into present boundaries and past triggers leaves the discomfort unchanged. When he asks himself, “What if this anger isn’t mine?” he feels immediate relief as the tightness eases.
Perhaps Corinna is feeling anger that she can’t yet acknowledge, and the laundry transaction non-verbally carried that anger to Zachary. Whether he chooses to mention his response to Corinna or not, Zachary is already freed from the anger by realizing that it is not his.
Anger is energy. When owned responsibly, it is both a crucial signal that something is amiss, and a source of power for change. Honoring and inquiring into anger supports strong, clear boundaries and healthy interactions with others.
Two books that can help with handling anger with care are “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner, and “Better Boundaries – Owning and Treasuring Your Life” by Jan Black and Greg Enns.