“When you yell at me, you’re abusive.”
“Then obviously we need to break up.” Carmen knew it would do no good to explain that she yelled because he ignored her when she spoke calmly. Harrison had manipulated her into staying during past breakup attempts, but this time she’s sure. Her rule is, if someone feels abused in a relationship, they need to leave.
Privately, she wonders, “Is raising my voice always abusive? What about self-defense? What’s the right way to be angry?”
External and internal power
Anger is powerful. It can be used as an excuse for violence to gain power over others. Just the threat of anger can keep targets of abuse “in line.”
Anger is also an expression of internal power and self-protection, a clear signal that our territory has been invaded. Anger can arise out of self-love and compassion for others when we react angrily to unfairness and injustice.
Many of us feel ashamed of our anger and proud when we can avoid or suppress it. Our experience of anger can become layered with painful associations, braided with shame, fear, grief, or other intense emotions. Anger might trigger flashbacks to past trauma. When someone is angry with us, we might react with fear, preemptive surrender, or battle.
The emotion of anger is value-neutral, like any other emotion. It may feel unpleasant and inconvenient, but it is the truth of how we feel in the moment. It might also feel exhilarating and energizing. We can clamp down and hold it in place, or we can allow the energy to move through and make room for our next emotion.
Patterns of anger
We all experience anger in different ways. Some people flash into anger and out again like a summer storm, while some seem as immovable as a mountain until an avalanche rumbles into motion. Some people yell, some hit, some lift weights, and some stew in silence at 3am. What do you notice about your patterns of anger?
The emotion of anger is separate from angry actions. Angry actions are not necessarily violent actions. When you feel anger, you can:
- Respond to any invasion that presents an immediate danger. Otherwise, take your time.
- Pause to feel this particular anger in your body. You may feel tightness in your jaw, cotton-wool in your throat, fire in your belly, or some other sensation. Does it change as you pay attention?
- Gently listen inside for the source of the anger. Whether it arises from the present, the past, or someone else’s emotions, your experience of anger is valid. Within a decision-free zone, compassionately listen for your full truth, including any violent impulses.
- Without abandoning yourself or making your anger wrong, can you find empathy for those you are angry with? Their behavior may be unacceptable, and at the same time, like you, they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
- Explore your choices for action, including doing nothing. What outcome would relieve your anger? What if that has already happened? What would someone who loves you do? What would someone you admire do? What do you wish you could do?
- Consider leaning in, holding your ground, or disengaging. Does the thought of one bring relief? You could ask someone to meet your expectations for respectful treatment, or lower your expectations of this specific person or situation to match what happened. When you have low expectations for a good outcome, how can you best care for yourself?
- Consider both asking for help and acting on your own behalf. Does the situation include a Drama Triangle?
Which options are familiar? Which are new? Predict what action will feel best when you look back on it, and notice how that turns out.
No perfect way
There is no one perfect way to handle anger. You do not have to be perfect. Women, people of color, and others lacking power in unbalanced relationships are often punished for showing anger. Painful double-bind messages convey that any anger is “too much” but calm speech can be ignored. Harrison’s criticism of Carmen’s yelling follows this pattern.
Fiercely defending your territory might be considered “unladylike” or “aggressive,” but standing up for your boundaries is different from attacking someone else. Unfortunately some people interpret boundary assertion as an attack and confusingly accuse you of attacking them, which is gaslighting.
Is anger abusive?
When we notice violent impulses, we might worry about behaving abusively or turning into an abuser. While anger is often misused as a tool for abuse, it does not turn people into abusers.
Do you believe you are entitled to power and control over others? That is the underlying trait of abusive behavior. The more you view others with empathy, especially people you consider different from you, the less you are at risk for behaving abusively.
If you have acted in anger in ways you regret, consider whether an apology is in order. As you practice attending to your anger as a separate step from taking action, you will be less likely to act in ways you regret later.
“Here it is”
Ideally, we would lovingly welcome anger like any other emotion. We can start by acknowledging its existence. “Here it is.” Like Carmen, we may wonder how to best handle our anger. As we listen inside, explore options, and take self-protective action with empathy for others, we can build a solid relationship with our anger that works for us, as well as relate more easily to other people’s anger.
In “Another post about rape” on her Fugitivus blog, Harriet Jay writes powerfully, angrily, about societal messages around women, boundaries, anger, and victim-blaming. (archive.org link)