July 2013: Anger Revisited
I am returning to the subject of anger (see October 2010) because I have learned so much in the past few months about this beneficial yet complicated emotion. Many of us remain confused how to manage this ‘dangerous’ emotion and the mixed messages we have received about it over the years. One book I highly recommend is Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger (1985). The book I am referencing in this article is called The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren (2010) which takes a completely different look at emotions and may not be everyone’s cup of tea; but her take on anger is worth reflection.
All our emotions are extremely valuable and informative. In the case of anger, it informs us when boundaries have been crossed, neglected, and/or encountered. As a sentry of boundaries, anger lets us know when we must ask two very important questions:
1) What needs protection?
2) What needs restoration?
This can apply when we’ve crossed a boundary, let down a boundary, met a boundary, or enforced a boundary. It also applies to injustices we witness against groups of people—racial or gender injustices, violence, economic disparities, or the injustice of not everyone having access to clean drinking water and nutritional food resources.
So what do we do when our anger is roused? First we must welcome it as a source of information before we consider expressing or repressing it, letting it pass through us, or making use of its energy. Then we must ask ourselves what message our anger is bringing. So often we shoot the messenger before we even receive the message when it comes to anger! Or take it out on the perceived source of anger. But if we commit to using our anger for good, then we must welcome it as a resource rather than relegate it to a reaction and risk misdirecting our energies in unhelpful, even harmful, ways.
Back to our 2 questions. Very often our anger indicates there are boundaries that need to be protected. We’ve either crossed a line, or someone has crossed one of ours. We need to refocus our energy on resetting the boundaries and/or re-enforcing them. Boundaries are a form of protection, so it might help to consider what became vulnerable or exposed. Was it our sense of self? Energy levels? Family time? Down time? A friendship? A committed partnership? A child? The list is endless.
Once we’ve established what was exposed and made vulnerable, we need to consider what needs to be restored such as our sense of self or someone else’s. Did we cave in to a request that we really didn’t have time and energy for? Did we allow other commitments to take time and energy away from a relationship or family? Did we return to a role we used to play (such as rescuer, protector, scapegoat, etc)? Did we expect too much of someone else and encountered their boundary? Did we take advantage of someone or allow someone to take advantage of us? Did we not intervene when we had opportunity, or did we intervene when it was unnecessary?
Once we’ve listened to what our anger has to say, then it becomes clearer how to direct that amazing energy source in positive ways. Do we need to say no instead of yes? Do we need to apologize and make amends? Do we need to offer assistance instead of turning away? Do we need to honour our own self instead of playing a role or being manipulated? Do we need to speak up or hold our tongue?
The scenarios and options are limitless. And by clarifying anger in this way, we no longer have to be afraid of it—especially our own. Of course, there remains the risk of someone’s irresponsible use of anger putting us in harm’s way. Our boundaries need to be re-enforced to keep ourselves safe—whether in the form of a safety plan, an escape route, improved negotiation skills, or back-up safety team. And if our anger and boundaries serve their purposes, hopefully we can improve risk management.
May your anger serve its beneficial purposes keeping yourself and others safe and enable you to live more fully.