In this blog I’m going to talk about healthy and unhealthy anger, how anger can go wrong in the trauma recovery journey, and how to harness the power of anger for deeper healing.
Have you ever felt incredibly angry about something that happened to you, or towards a person who harmed you (or still do)?
Or perhaps you have felt NO anger, but instead a kind of emotional numbness, which may even seem puzzling – as in, how could I not feel angry about these horrible things that happened to me?
Or perhaps this is a point of pride for you – that you do not have any anger!
(I used to be this person. I prided myself on being so forgiving towards my father for leaving … until later on in life I paid the price and there it was, suddenly, the anger I’d buried, and below it the incredible hurt and grief!)
Do you relate to any of these anger scenarios? Yeah, I thought so, because we are all human, and anger is a part of our experience!
With suffering, especially, there is often anger. I see it most with victims of narcissistic abuse. But I see it all the time, everywhere, and yes, I have felt it so intensely myself.
The problem is that we are not really equipped to deal with our anger, or even our lack of anger. We don’t know when it’s good and when it’s toxic, or basically how to handle it at all!
Not feeling anger may mean you haven’t got in touch with this powerful key to healing – yes, it’s a powerful way to unlock something deeper! Of course, there is also a negative side to anger.
I’m going to talk about ALL of it!
Anger has a purpose. Here is how it can be healthy.
- Anger is a boundary setting mechanism that helps you create and defend your very identity.
Imagine it as a way to draw a great big invisible boundary around your personhood which communicates: “This is me, and I will defend my right to be me, to have my own space, my own identity, and you are not allowed to harm that in any way.”
Think about toddlers. When they realize that they are NOT their parents, suddenly they want to use the word NO, and be in opposition, even throw a tantrum! And they say, MINE, and will not share.
This is called ‘individuation’ and anger is a means to get to this stage. It’s a healthy stage of development, a necessary stage of development, but individuation doesn’t end with threenagers.
‘Individuation’ is, in fact, a stage we must return to again and again as our idenities shift and we grow. Anger is a feeling that helps us individuate because it naturally creates those boundaries.
We do of course have a choice about how we express it (more on that later).
- Anger is an empowering energy that helps you shift out of Victim Consciousness.
It’s an energy that helps you accept that you MUST take back what was taken from you, or defend what is at risk. (No, says the toddler, it’s MINE!).
We teach young people consent around their bodies for this reason, and when consent is violated, when our boundaries are crossed, anger can help us return to our inviolable centre as the one in charge, not the victim.
- Anger can shift some pretty massive energy to make room for healing, for peace, for growth.
From an energetic perspective, as traumas accumulate, they can create a feeling of stuckness in our bodies, in our thoughts, in our minds. We can feel like life is not moving forward; like we are victims of external events, or worse, like we have no ability to make the changes we desire.
Anger changes all that.
It can trigger a massive purge of stuck energy, bringing to the surface a lot of held-in emotion, memory, as well as damaging beliefs. Anger can feel like you’ve been plugged into an electric power point and the electricity is running rampant through your body.
In the moment, it may feel like an outburst as it releases, but later there can be calm, or a sudden discovery of what else there is beneath – like grief, like despair, like a sudden unwillingness to compromise for a single second more.
Of course, there is a flip side. Anger can also be unhealthy and even dangerous.
Anger is energy, and anger is healthy or harmless when we use and transmute the energy of it wisely. Like all energy, like life, growth is about movement, about flow, rather than holding on and stuckness. Yet, too often we don’t know what to do with this powerful, elemental force of anger, and we act it out in ways that may not be constructive.
Let’s talk about when anger goes wrong.
- Violence and manipulation, whether emotional or physical.
You are probably not someone who has drawn on your anger to become violent, but let’s not imagine that we’d never do it. Even losing our tempers and shouting at a loved one is a socially acceptable way we tend to process anger, though of course it’s not healthy because we are harming others. Shouting can often be a family pattern that we learn – we learn to release our anger with verbal attack and raised voices.
- Repressing anger, denying it, keeping it in our bodies.
There is another danger here if we decide to hold onto our anger by repressing it or denying it. This allows it to continue to grow inside us, harming our health through inflammation and disease linked to chronic anger. It can even create a situation in which it just builds and builds, and when it is finally released (often with a trigger, and without our ability to control it at all), it causes great harm, to oneself or others, emotionally or physically.
- Constantly blaming others for our situation.
A dark side of anger when it is not expressed in a healthy way is that it can create a situation of us not taking personal responsibility for our feelings and our choices, and instead, pointing the finger at others.
Remember how I wrote that anger (#1) helps us create and maintain our personal identity? When we channel anger into blame, we are not working actively to create our own boundaries.
Instead of saying, “I’m here, and you need to respect me, and I will not put up with xyz,” we are saying, “I’m not going to create my own strong boundary, I’m just going to hold you responsible for encroaching on my boundary.”
In this sense, anger can contribute to Victim Consciousness, which is is unfortunate as this same energy has so much power to help us take back our power, and become survivors and thrivors on our healing journeys!
- Anger becomes your default response.
Finally, we can get into a chronic habit of being constantly angry (I’m sure you know someone like this in your life?)
Not healthily discharging anger when it arises can become a bad habit just like anything else. You can get stuck in an anger loop of constant reactivity, and yes, it starts to train your brain to react this way.
There is a trigger, you feel angry, and your entire nervous system remembers your normal response – your amygdala is prone to overreaction, your body literally says, “Oh, I know what we do in this circumstance, we feel angry!”
The experience can become an entire negative cycle in which you feel triggered, are angry, then act out, then you feel remorse, perhaps calm down, perhaps swear you won’t do it again, and then the next time you are triggered you go to anger and … welcome to the roller coaster!
Here’s the wonderful bit: I have seen in my life, and in my clients, that when you finally give a voice to the anger, it can lead you into the next step for your healing, whether it’s grief or peace, deeper reflection or constructive action steps.
Healthy anger requires this:
- Self-honesty and taking responsibility.
Start with becoming aware of the feeling and the way it affects you (where you feel it in your body, what your thoughts are), rather than focusing on the perpetrator or situation that gave birth to the feeling.
Don’t lie to yourself. Be real. If you feel so angry you feel like strangling someone, well don’t do it, but admit to yourself that you are THAT angry. You do not do yourself any favours at all by pretending you don’t feel something you feel!
Here’s an example:
This anger I’m feeling is mine, it’s not anyone else’s responsibility to do anyting about it, and I cannot blame someone else for this feeling, even if someone else did something to create this feeling. I am allowed to feel rage. I am allowed to feel anger, and I DO, and I’m going to honour and acknowledge all its contours, it’s size, it’s nature, it’s strength. I am SO F-ING ANGRY!
- Healthy expression.
Now, time to get it OUT of your body. Write it out. Sing it out. Shout it out (not AT someone). Act it out – run, be physical! Dance it out. Let your words flow, and let your body move.
- Healthy aggression.
Know what I have seen so much in my work? Men who have anger and are afraid to express it because of angry men in their early lives who hurt people they loved.
I’ve known anger-averse men who won’t even do sports, for fear of unleashing the ‘beast’ within – as they view it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that they never raise their voices in their families, but it’s definitely NOT a good thing that they walk around holding it all in!
Agression is a healthy biochemical expression that we are all wired for, and sport is a great way to channel it.
For some people, taking up a fighting sport like boxing or martial arts is a particularly wonderful option because it releases anger from the body without you needing to feel angry – the agression itself can help release it. For exactly this reason, I personally did Brazilian jiu-jitsu for 18 months and I’m a petite female who wouldn’t hurt a fly (only a cockroach).
I did it precisely because I wanted an outlet for anger, but in a healthy way, and I wanted to push my boundaries (and it worked).
Find a form of healthy physical agression that can enable you to release – and this can even be dance, by the way, or swimming, or a competitive sport like volleyball, soccer or basketball. Even surfing can help, because paddling for a wave requires healthy agression – you have to really go for it sometimes in order to get it, and get it before someone else does!
If you are stuck in blame or not expressing anger at all, are becoming aggressive verbally (or physically), or are stuck in a chronic anger loop, then it’s time to review healthy expression and health aggression.
After you’ve explored my release suggestions a bit, notice what else is there.
What is beneath the anger?
What lies beneath reveals your next step for healing.
Your 6 Step Path to Holistic Healing
My 6 step roadmap to healing from trauma holistically is like a scaffolding, with all the essential components for finally releasing the past (including anger), but with plenty of scope for personalising your journey. Plus it has a full appendix of common trauma symptoms!