If you really knew me, you would know that my go to survival response of fight, flight and freeze is FIGHT. When I’m under threat, this fight response shows up as anger, impatience, frustration and bodily impulses of aggression. When I’m angry, my body has the impulse to be critical and use my words as weapons; yell, growl and get loud; and posturally lean forward while my muscles tense up and my hands ball up into fists.
Anger can be EXHAUSTING! Especially when it’s the template for survival that your nervous system had to develop in order to feel safe enough in the world.
As I write this, I’m realizing how vulnerable this is and yet I feel compelled to share because I want:
- To normalize anger as an emotion that provides important information for our growth and healing,
- To de-stigmatize anger as being wrong, bad, un-spiritual or unevolved,
- Women especially, to hear and know that anger is important and that it’s ok to feel it and express it.
I’ve spent a lot of my adult years exploring the depths of my anger: what activates it, how to process it in healthier ways, the wisdom of it and much more. I consider myself an expert in working with anger and reactivity, so I’m going to share with you some of the ways I deal with it and what I’ve learned along the way. My hope in providing this is to save you some of the shame and fatigue that goes along with feeling angry and reactive.
Five lessons learned from anger
Lesson #1: Mastering my anger feels way better than being a slave to it.
No one wants to be a slave to anything – it’s disempowering, discouraging and greatly diminishes a healthy and positive sense of self. I always want my answer to be: I have mastery over my anger so that it doesn’t own me. When I have mastery over my anger, I’m better able to respond vs. react, stay in alignment to my values, and set clear and healthy boundaries.
100% of the time, when I’m a slave to my anger and I react impulsively, this leads to feelings of shame, guilt and/or embarrassment. Learning to master my anger has allowed me to use it as a tool to set healthy boundaries, increase self-awareness and decrease my suffering.
Lesson #2: Anger was a protective response to feeling vulnerable. Often, anger and reactivity hid feelings of fear, hurt and shame.
I used to work with a therapist who was deeply skilled in a therapeutic approach called Internal Family Systems (IFS). When we would explore my anger, she identified this experience as a “part” of myself designed to protect me.
“Protect me from what?” I asked.
Turns out, that going to anger and reactivity as my first response protected me from feeling vulnerable. Given that I grew up with parents who had little to no capacity for meaningful emotional attunement, expressing my vulnerability was dangerous. So, I simply stopped doing it or feeling it.
I had to learn to look underneath my anger and explore what else might be there. This led to the next lesson.
Lesson #3: In my relationships, the larger the angry response, the more that my core wound of not feeling important was getting activated.
Getting angry made me feel powerful and in control. Not feeling important in my relationships bred the opposite experience. I eventually figured out that my anger signaled that I was hurting, living in the past and believing a false narrative of myself. Once discovered, I could finally learn to give myself what was so lacking in my young life- compassion, empathy and heart-centered presence.
Think of it this way, anger may be a diversionary tactic of your psyche. It keeps you away from feelings that you struggle to confront and be with in a kind way. It’s almost like a shield. Except the shield keeps you from deeply healing core wounds that live in your system as activation or high arousal states.
Lesson #4: Feeling angry, and anger’s correlates such as feeling resentful, critical, frustrated, annoyed, impatient all the time is physically EXHAUSTING.
The survival response of fight and anger is meant to be a short-term response to a threat. I grew up in a home where feeling safe wasn’t available to me. So, my nervous system pattern learned to always be in a revved-up state. Biologically, this revved-up state would use up all the cortisol in my body. Cortisol, aka the stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal system. When the adrenal system gets taxed then depleted, one symptom is feeling a lot of fatigue.
Over time, I learned to self-regulate, ask for help, receive care and love, and share my vulnerability instead of avoiding it. And in return, my daily energy went up as well as my resilience.
Lesson #5: My anger has taught me to more skillfully apologize and repair rifts in relationships.
It’s an unavoidable fact that we are going to get angry and then react in ways that may hurt others’ feelings. I’ve had to really learn to put myself in others’ shoes to gain an embodied sense of the impact my anger has had on the people in my life. This is called empathy.
Apologizing is a great start. Repairing rifts in a relationship is about again and again doing what’s needed to heal the rift that happened until the other person has a sense of greater trust and safety with you. Repairing can sometimes take a while and leading from your heart is the key.
Here’s a post I wrote about repairing if you want more info: Keeping Hearts Connected – Somatic Therapy Partners.
Ways to work with anger and reactivity in the moment
If any of the above lessons resonate with you or someone you know, below are some practical ways to start moving out of the habit of anger and reactivity.
1. Identify what’s hurting in you that may be sparking anger and then give yourself compassion, affirmation and presence.
In your head or out loud, this can sound like:
- I recognize that my anger is a signal that something is not ok with me.
- I get to feel angry without hurting myself or others.
- My anger is a natural feeling, not something bad or wrong.
- I can feel angry and it doesn’t get to control me or my actions.
2. Imagine being the recipient of your own reactivity and anger.
Really go here with your full body and feel the constriction, lack of full breaths, tension and weariness that comes along with having to defend yourself from another’s anger. Feels pretty crappy and scary, right? If you wouldn’t want that for yourself, let this be a motivator for wanting to treat others with dignity, care and respect.
3. Ask your Higher Self what to do.
Self-alignment is defined as the sense of agreement between a person’s real self-image and their ideal self. It is distinct from but reflective of self-esteem. When we are in strong self-alignment, we tend to feel proud of ourselves, accomplished and more grounded. Checking in with my Higher Self about how best to proceed is one way to support being in strong self-alignment.
4. Get physical.
Anger has what’s called an accompanying “motor program” to fight, protect and/or defend. This means that your muscles want to go into action, so let them. Here are some safe ways:
- Push against a wall until your body doesn’t want to push anymore or gets fatigued.
- Clench your fists and feel the tension in your fists until they naturally want to unclench.
- Work out and make sure you are feeling into your body as you expend all that juicy life force energy.
- Try plank pose or chair pose until you can’t do it anymore.
After you try some of these physical activities, make sure to check in with how your anger might be shifting and if it isn’t, keep trying other things.
5. Use your voice to make sounds to release energy.
You can growl, scream, omm, sigh out loud, sing. Just make some noise!
6. Box breathe.
Control your inhale up to a count of 6, pause at the tip for 2, control your exhale down for a count of 6, pause at the bottom for 2. Do this until you feel your activation start to decrease and you feel more settled.
7. Practice self-holding for containment of strong emotions.
There are lots of ways to do this! My favorite is to wrap my arms around my rib cage and apply the just right amount of pressure inwards. In other words – hug yourself. As you do this, feel your body breathing into your hands and arms as well as feel your ribcage being supported. Do this for as long as you need until you start to down-regulate.
Thank you for being here! Thank you for everything you’re doing to heal! Read more about how we can help you heal from anxiety and trauma. Reach out today if you’re ready to start healing! See you next month!