When you get angry, does an internal lid clamp down, perhaps before you even notice you are angry? Or does your anger spill out in a way that feels overwhelming, making you wish for a lid? You may have absorbed beliefs early on that your anger was bad, or that anger is always abusive, or that only certain powerful people are allowed to be angry.
Something in you might be worried that your anger will hurt those around you, or that others will dismiss or punish you for being angry, or that anger is “negative” and will hurt you with its presence.
In fact, anger is energy moving in the body, a natural part of being alive. Even when people around us disapprove, we can turn toward and acknowledge our own anger. Depending on the situation, we can choose to express it in a non-abusive way.
When we believe our anger is not acceptable, a lightning-quick cascade covers it with sadness, numbness, self-criticism, or distraction. It might feel suddenly urgent to eat something, go for a run, say a few affirmations, or otherwise soothe the anger back into quiescence. The cascade might end in fuzzy dissociation, jittery anxiety, or heavy depression, leaving us wondering what just happened and why we feel so bad.
Anger is a response to our environment. Anger says, “I am here, I matter, and I don’t like that.” “That” might be immediate and personal, for example someone violating a boundary, or it might be more distant or global. We might respond with anger to a memory of a violation, or to seeing someone else be hurt, or to larger wrongs like the destruction of the environment or the mishandling of a pandemic or the ongoing murders and maltreatment of Black people.
We can frame the cascade as a series of parts, each reacting in turn. You might be aware of two parts:
- Something in me is angry
- And something in me puts a lid on it (or wishes it could)
You might notice additional steps in your cascade:
- And something in me finds a distraction
- And something in me feels ashamed
- And something in me feels hopeless about the whole thing
Caringly turn toward
When we include these parts in our larger awareness and caringly turn toward each one in turn, we can help them connect with our present-time resources. Over time, rather than each part trying desperately to solve the problem in their narrow section of the cascade, we feel big and flexible enough to contain and address our initial anger as a whole.
The cascade starts because something in us believes that it is not safe to assert that we are here, that we matter, and that we do not like something. We can invite the part that holds that belief into our awareness, and sense what happens when it is activated by the beginning of anger. When you make that invitation, what do you feel in your body?
Angry energy is often expressed with a loud voice and expansive movements. Anger takes up space. The effort to constrain anger often pulls the body down and in, keeping you small, quiet, unobtrusive. As you pay attention to the constraining part, you might sense a web of tension through your chest, shoulders, neck, and jaw.
Keep it company
Bring in a gentle breath to meet that tension. Let it know that you are there, keeping it company. You might sense relief from a young part trying to manage situations that are far too much for it. The part might show you a series of memories when it has worked hard to keep you safe. Let it know you hear each one, and acknowledge how hard it has been working.
You might also hear about present-time reasons to stay small and unnoticed. Everyone deserves safe space to feel anger, and you know best what is safe for you in an abusive situation.
Listen to shame
Constrained anger often turns inward as shame, self-criticism, or self-harm. Do you notice a part who tells you how bad you are for being angry, and a part who believes it? Self-harm might include skin-picking, cutting, unnecessary risks, and other punishments. You can invite the punishing part to chat with the larger you who contains all these parts. You might sense for what it is trying to protect you from, and underneath that, what it wants for you. The goal is to listen deeply, until that part feels met and understood.
You can also sense into the part who feels punished, keep it company, and listen deeply for what it wants and does not want for all of you. You might notice that underneath their conflict, both parts are doing their best to find safety and survival. Take time to sense how it feels to be the larger self containing them both.
Receive old shock
As you sit with them, you might notice an underlying fear or shock. When you listen patiently, the fearful part might show you one or more original moments when small you expressed anger with a loud voice and flailing movements, and a violent, cruel, or abandoning response stuffed the anger right back down into your body.
Let this young one know that you hear them. Provide a warm pool of care and compassion to receive the old shock and fear that had nowhere to go back then. Give them plenty of time to take in this new safety. As they relax, you might sense changes in your body where you had not been aware of holding tight until it starts to let go.
When you feel ready, invite the angry part into your awareness. What do you sense in your body? Can you sense more about the specific flavor of anger? The Nonviolent Communication Feelings Inventory page has a lot of words for anger, annoyance, and related emotions. Perhaps one or more of those words, or an image, gesture, or sensation convey how this particular anger feels right now.
You might ask this part to tell you more about what has stirred the anger. Whether it is past or present, large or small, your response is valid and gets to be there for as long as it is there. As you make a warm, kind space around this angry part, keep sensing whether it feels heard. Does anything change in your body as you sit with it?
Fuel for change
As you get to know the various parts of your cascade, you can recognize their presence in your body. You will start to notice them while they do their work, rather than afterwards. With time, you will sense your anger and be able to choose how to respond to it with all your present-time resources.
You are here. You matter. Make space for your anger and thank it for letting you know something is happening that you do not like. Anger can fuel change toward more kindness, more truth, more respect, and more justice.
- This article is informed by Ann Weiser Cornell’s and Barbara McGavin’s Untangling and Treasure Maps of the Soul work.
- Nonviolent Communication Feelings Inventory page has many words about anger.