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by Thea Iberall

I was 35 years old the first time I got angry. To me, it was an irrational emotion and there was no room in my family for me to be angry. So I never did. When I saw a psychiatrist in college, he tried to help me get mad and suggested that I yell into a tape recorder. I sat alone in my own living room staring at that recorder. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even yell in a room where no one would hear me, all alone. I couldn’t express anger.

It took me being in a really safe place. Safe, with a therapist I trusted, for me to express my anger. My therapist had done something that got me really mad. And I yelled at her. We both knew it was irrational, she couldn’t have acted in any other way. But I was mad. And I let her know it. I yelled. Because I felt safe. So what if it was irrational.

After that, I would get mad other times. One year, I was dating someone and we were both working so we didn’t see each other much during the week. We would spend the weekends together, and at the end of the weekend, we would usually wind up in a fight. My therapist explained that anger is a secondary emotion. It masks true feelings. In this case, our anger was protecting us from the pain of separation.

As a secondary emotion, anger protects us from pain and fear. It’s much easier for me to be mad at the funeral director who lied than to feel my pain of my mother's death. And it’s much easier to be mad at my sister around inheritance issues than acknowledge my fear of financial insecurity. It’s hard to sit in my pain and my fear so sometimes my anger is safer.

But anger turned inward leads to depression. Which is what I think happened to me when I had a nervous breakdown in college. I couldn’t express my anger about the situation I was in, and it led to depression and self-abuse.

When I did start expressing my anger at age 35, it felt a bit overwhelming, like it was bigger than me. I began journaling as a way to vent. I’d write out the definition of anger at the top of the page and write out all the ways I was feeling angry. Sometimes it took many journal entries, but it did change how I felt. Sometimes, I’d write a letter to the person who got me angry. I’d write it but not mail it. It was a way to get the feelings out of me.

"Anger is an energy, a fuel. Think about the power of anger. It's an engine that needs direction, like the engine in one’s car. It’s running; which way will the wheels take me? We have a choice. We can use our anger in outbursts to lash out at others. Or we can also turn our anger inward and abuse ourselves. Or we can use the anger in a proactive way in order to make a positive change. If nothing else, this action itself helps ease the helplessness." - Shirley Riga, Tools for the Exceptional Parent of a Chronically-Ill Child

It's important to honor our anger. In my earlier years, I have felt taken advantage of as a woman. I had no way to cope with the feelings. If it happens now, I get angry. I like the idea of using my anger for positive change. Shirley calls it putting on my angry pants. I use those pants to take care of things I couldn’t do otherwise. With awareness, though, so it's not directed at someone, something or some being.

But sometimes I get joy from being angry. It still amazes me that I can get angry and not break things or hit things or fall apart. Those angry pants can be powerful and even fun. This morning I had a dream. I was very angry. I was sitting in my anger with awareness and I wanted to dissipate it. I began imagining someone singing and then there were sounds. People lined up. Someone was holding a watering can with sprays of water flowing out of it, all over the grass and all over me. And Greta Thunberg was blowing on the strands of her hair making silly sounds like an elephant. I began to laugh and the anger went away.

ANGER is the deepest form of compassion,

for another, for the world, for the self,

for a life, for the body, for a family and

for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all,

possibly about to be hurt.

Stripped of physical imprisonment and

violent reaction, anger is the purest

form of care, the internal living flame

of anger always illuminates

what we belong to, what we wish to protect

and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.

Participants’ Reflections

  • Thank you for "anger is the deepest form of compassion".

  • Thank you for your reading. It resonated with me. I am guardian to a schizophrenic bipolar family member. She is always angry at me. This reading helped me deal with the anger. Now, I see the anger is all about her losses. I appreciate being able to construct that in my brain so that it’s not so hard to deal with. Having it known as a secondary emotion makes it a lot easier.

  • Thank you for this topic. From a young age, I bought into not expressing anger. Once, when I was about 12 years old, I was angry at a teacher and I told my mother I hated that teacher. My mother brought me up short and said “a child of mine will not hate.” That day, I learned the lesson to not express it. I couldn’t understand the difference between anger and hate. I got angry a few weeks ago and was appalled at myself for not having more self-control. Yet, the anger brought about good things, it was a life-giving thing on all accounts. I deeply value David Whyte’s words.

  • Thank you. This topic was very meaningful for me. I grew up with a lot of uncontrolled violent anger in my home. Obviously, it was difficult and it’s been a journey for me. It was lovely to hear humor and laughter around anger. Thank you so much for that. I really liked the part where if your anger isn’t expressed for what you’re angry about, it’s likely to come out somewhere else. I call it ‘sideways anger’. What I took into my meditation was confrontation is hard for me. But sometimes a sprinkle, like a pepper shaker, just a sprinkle of anger when it’s appropriate is a positive thing. It doesn’t have to be a ten. It can be at a two or three, just enough to be okay and be a positive thing.

  • Such a surprise to hear you talk about anger today. It’s been my close companion for the last 3-4 days to the point I am almost hyperventilating about it. It’s why I came to meditation this morning, because I was too angry, I needed to calm down. I was aware enough to know that my anger is based on fear and caring. I grew up in a very angry violent household. So when I feel it, it’s frightening. Sometimes it’s also justifiable. I’ve had someone speaking to me in a non-respectful way and it is making me angry, I sat down with him and said it’s not okay the way you’re talking to me. I told him I understand his anger and told him not to take it out on me. I also have anger at a friend who has different views from mine and speaks up about her views. I am hurt and sad that we have things in common but not enough to get past this. I told her we can’t communicate now, maybe later we can pick up our friendship. It’s been like an explosion and I couldn’t breathe. I realize that anger scares me, that’s in my cells.

  • I had a father who yelled as well. I was brought up in a Southern environment where one didn’t show emotions. I am having trouble right now from the accumulation of the last year, with social and political issues, where my inclination is to lash out and scream at people. I’m worried because I’m afraid if I lash out physically or verbally, it also escalates things. I am confused how to handle things. In my work in technical help, a client said something about social issues and I went from zero to sixty and lashed out verbally. It was an instinctive response. I was not proud of it. I’m confused.

  • Thank you for the metaphor about fuel. It works for me. I work with people with borderline personality disorders. We use the metaphor that anger is a flashing red or yellow light but it’s not a roadmap. I like the fuel metaphor better; it tells you a warning, something’s up, but it doesn’t tell you how to behave afterwards. Another thing they say is with anger, there’s a threat to your health or happiness, and what is the exact threat is your job to figure out. And then your emotional urge is to defend against that threat. Most of the time when we feel anger, we feel the threat and have the instinct to defend. But it helps me to think, do I really need to defend against a friend or against someone disseminating information. The fuel metaphor is perfect. I think any emotion is a fuel, even sadness. Do you always want to act in a sad way with that fuel, or dissipate it in another way?

  • It takes courage to write about this. I honor that process. I think it’s important to remember triggers. Anger is triggering. It triggers me back to childhood experiences, to fears in me that I haven’t addressed yet. It reminds me of the power of boundaries. I had to learn what a boundary was because I didn’t have models to demonstrate good boundaries. As I’ve grown and changed, I realize I have to redefine boundaries as things happen. It’s important to define boundaries and important to have compassion about our triggers. I don’t beat myself up for a trigger. I recognize it for what it is, and ask the question, what is this bringing up for me?

  • Thank you. Thank you for the honesty. The things that are brought up in here, we can all talk about. Many of these subjects aren’t talked about, or may take years to talk about with a therapist. I think the first time I yelled, I was in my late 40s. Like others here, I grew up so fearful and so squelched. There was lots of screaming and yelling in my family unit. I was the most sensitive, tamped down one. I like the angry pants. I do have a lot of anger, which turns into sadness, for animals, the environment, and people. A memory flashed into my mind. I was in my 40s and I saw hunters on a golf range with rifles and geese decoys. There was a flock of geese about to fly over. I honked my horn and the geese flew away. The hunters said they had permission and they weren’t happy. I learned it was lawful but it sounded terrible, how easy a stray bullet could kill someone. It was an example using my anger for something good and saved some geese from pain and death.

  • I remember I learned to say things like, “You are okay exactly how you are, but I prefer you not say things like that around me.” It’s a way to distance from people who cause me anger. Not to judge them.

  • How ironic. I was thinking I was going to say something about anger this morning. I’ve been disrespected by someone in my family, and I’m angry and hurt. I feel justified in my anger because I don’t deserve to be treated this way. At the same time, I can’t hold on to this anger. It hurts me and it doesn’t feel good. I got up early this morning and went to the beach and watched the sunrise. My intention was to drive there with the anger and leave it there. How ironic that this is today’s topic.

  • I think anger is a truth. It’s up to us to figure out what to do with it or about it. It’s telling us something that is true. If we grew up in an environment where anger wasn’t expressed, then we have no models for how to work with it which is passed on to the next generation and they don’t know either. But it’s a true thing that is telling us about ourselves and what we need to do. I have been so angry about politics over the past several years and I drove to a writing group every week. It was a long drive. I used that time on the road to scream, not the whole time, but I was so frustrated and angry, I couldn’t change what was going on but I had to express it. I must have looked like a mad person.

  • Thank you so much for showing up today for yourselves, to give yourselves 15 minutes of focused silence all in honor of you. I hope you have a gentle, fueled day, however you fuel it.

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