Harness Your Inner Fire: The Art of Befriending Anger
Harness Your Inner Fire: The Art of Befriending Anger

Harness Your Inner Fire: The Art of Befriending Anger

I love my anger, but for most people, that statement is terrifying. When used as a weapon, anger can be dangerous and result in utter destruction. But the truth is, anger is also a deeply misunderstood and vilified emotion – and not for nothing. But when treated fairly and with respect, our anger is a powerful messenger in our restorative work. In fact, it is often anger that teaches us how to heal.

Robert Thurman is an icon of American Buddhism and co-author of the book, “Love Your Enemies,” with longtime friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. This is a paraphrase of something I heard him say on the topic of anger and self-compassion: “We’re very switchable in our moods and minds. The key is — the hopeful thing for some people who like their anger (and some do) — that the energy of strong, powerful heat can be ridden in a different way to heal ourselves, developing inner strength and determination. In Buddhist psychology, anger is connected to intelligence — to analytic and critical intelligence. This is something worth being ambitious toward in our anger.”

Do you know how long it has taken me to say, “I love my anger?” I was raised in a household of clandestine chaos. The fights were quiet or hidden; the tension wrapped in cellophane with ice cream dates for distraction. The defining moment that arises in my therapy sessions, time and again, is a traumatic memory from eight years old when the pot finally boiled over and left us all burned. Anger was never honored; it was dismissed as dangerous.

Allowing our anger to surface is a scary prospect. We’ve not been shown healthy ways to approach anger and where it lives within us. We may recognize the effects of anger, but we don’t necessarily know or notice how to use it as a tool for insight. Additionally, anger addiction is real. A short fuse, repeated cycles of regret and remorse, or bouts of violent social, emotional, or physical behaviors are all big indicators that we are not in a healthy relationship with anger. When you read that catchy social media phrase, “I woke up today and chose violence,” this is what they’re referring to. It’s the indulgence in allowing anger to speak first (and often, the loudest).

And this is the problem I find with our culture’s relationship to anger. Either is quirky and childlike, a cutesy quote for the ‘gram and a coffee mug, or it is the manifestation of everything bad we’ve seen in the world. When we witness someone express great anger we tend to take it as a sign that an angry person cannot be trusted or safe. Often this is a nervous system response, and that’s another topic completely, but still…the nuance of anger is overlooked.

But if we want to heal and empower our inner fire as a tool, we need to learn how to approach our anger with intention, and one of my favorite ways to do this is through somatic work. Our holistic selves include our heart, mind, body, and spirit. Anger can resonate in all of these areas, but from what I have witnessed, the body is the first part of the self to be ignored when we are hurting. We lean into comfort foods and away from nourishment. We become more sedentary instead of moving. We sleep as often as we can because often, we’re not sleeping well. There are always exceptions, but for the most part, our energy levels are much lower when we grieve, so we do as much as we can to preserve what energy we carry and limit the demands on our time and space.

With the body in a state of what sounds like disconnection, it makes sense that we overlook the impact of anger on the body. Because of this physical dysregulation, one could easily argue that our mind, heart, and spirit carry the weight of our grief work and attempts to heal. We try to connect with others and a sense of higher power to get answers. We let our minds reflect and ruminate on ideas and thoughts about what could be helpful or what could make us feel better. And we try to feel our feelings, even though our feelings are often confusing and hard to navigate. And while none of these strategies are wrong, I believe they lack the depth available for our grief work when our bodies are part of the process.

Intuitively, we know we’re in pain even if the pain feels trapped in our minds, hearts, or spirits. Our body, in that lower energy level, invites us to slow down and physically limit our activities. This is an act of embodied kindness, and it can actually demonstrate our body is leading the charge in our grief work. Our autonomic nervous system recognizes grief as a type of threat, and works to keep us from exposure to additional stressors.

And we don’t need to do anything for this to happen – we know the autonomic nervous system is responding without our conscious agreement, which is why somatic work is so crucial for the weight of grief and the power of anger to be metabolized and moved through our bodies. Because especially when we are grieving, we aren’t aware of the way our nervous system reacts. We lose sight of any connectedness we may have had before, because we’re hurting and preoccupied with the big emotions, the overwhelm of to-do lists, and the support or lack thereof around us.

And what, sweet griever, do all those big emotions, overwhelming tasks, and lack of support lead us to feeling?

Anger. This is why somatic work is so profound in grief work because it invites the body back into the conversation and allows us to start feeling anger without exploding.

Anger is not an expression to be feared, but an experience to be…experienced. When your anger is dismissed or minimized, it doesn’t get better. It gets louder. Anger was never meant for suppression, but for guidance into healing.

Consider the last time you felt angry about your grief. One of the first places I realized the Five (now Six) stages of grief were unrelatable was when I noticed that my anger wasn’t a stage. It was an ever present, growing louder sensation in the background of every grief story I told. But because it was an uncomfortable emotion for me and everyone around me, I didn’t have a chance to ask my anger any questions.

Grief work is intended to bring relief and restoration to our whole selves. We’re not doing this so we can return to the way things were – they will never be the way things were. Instead, we are exploring a new way of existing in our own lives now that we have a different understanding and situation in the world around us. We belong, but we belong a little differently than before.

Even realizing things can’t go back to how they were can make us angry, but because we have evidence of how expressions of anger can quickly go wrong, we tend to fear it and push it aside. We bottle it up, waiting for a relationship where safety exists and we can release our anger without judgment or correction.

But for many of us, that relationship is what we’re grieving. That place no longer exists for us to fall apart, and that safety we need in order to heal and self-regulate has evaporated. So how are we supposed to express and process anger in a positive way when there is no where for us to do so?

Relationships to others are deeply important and foundational in our healing work, but so is the relationship we have with ourselves. Our internal world is full of wisdom and insight that only we can access. Somatic work is meant to guide us back into our own space of curiosity so that when we recognize our internal relationship to self might be the only safe area to explore, we can ask questions of our anger before we explode.

Anger is a secondary emotion. It surfaces quickly in response to the more tender, vulnerable emotions that also deserve airtime and connection. It’s there, but it’s not the only thing there. So when we try to feeling our feelings, we are often overcome by anger and simply thinking about our feelings, rather than experiencing them and getting curious.

I want to pause for a moment, because this is a big conversation. Let’s do a little somatic check in right now. Bring your awareness into the present moment, and just notice if you can sense any anger living in your body. Sometimes it can feel obvious, like cheeks heating or fists clenching. Sometimes, anger is less obvious, like a low grade headache or a fidgety sensation of wanting to move away from the cause of the anger.

Feel free to pause this episode if you need a little more time to recognize what you might be carrying. And when you’re ready, I want to invite you to welcome the anger and say hello to it. Extend a mental hand toward your anger, and let it know that you’re okay with it being here with you right now.

Our body is always sending messages of what is happening internally and what is needed to create a state of rest and openness. When we soften toward our anger and notice how our body is sending messages, we can start the process of harnessing that insight and fire within for our benefit and healing.

Most of the time, we minimize our anger because we’re fearful of being seen as loud, fiery, or disagreeable people. Indeed, we don’t want to make our lives any harder than they already are, so we keep ourselves quiet and small and try not to upset the apple cart. But as we learn to recognize the way anger manifests in our bodies, we can befriend the energy behind it and channel it forward in a more appropriate and supportive way.

If you noticed your anger showing up in your body, ask yourself: What does my anger need right now?

Usually, our anger needs healthy expression. We are used to seeing shouting matches and breakups, even violence as the primary expression of anger and that’s scary. Those methods are not the way we move anger through our bodies with intention toward healing. Those expressions typically lead to more loss.

But when we can remember that anger is just an energetic build up in our body with nowhere to go, we can sense the places in our selves that the energy is showing up. If you felt tingling in your hands, or tension in your neck and head – wherever you sensed the anger inside is an indicator that you have a physical response you can offer that will soothe the expression of anger.

When I think about anger, I always think of The Office. We all deserve to express our anger and frustration, but one character in particular has an unhealthy relationship to anger and it does not serve them well. When Andy Bernard is finally angry enough he can’t hide it any longer, he yells at his peers and puts a fist through the office wall. His storyline ships him off to anger management classes, and the rest of the team are left wondering if he’ll return.

We all deserve to express our anger, but when that expression has been suppressed for long enough and never shown or permitted a proper way to move forward, then of course punching a wall seems like the reasonable thing to do.

Punching is actually an act of bodily wisdom, if you can believe it. It’s a clear safety maneuver, activated in our nervous system by a perceived threat. It’s a sensation of anger trying to get out of the body. But unless we offer our anger some welcome and patience as it surfaces, we will resort to punching walls instead of safely punching pillows.

The thing about somatic work, as I mentioned before, is you need safety to do it. When we have a body that has experienced trauma and does not feel inherently safe for us to explore or be with, we need to process our anger in relationship with another person. This is where I’m big on therapeutic relationships or coaching connections where you can attune and connect with someone not related to your anger and loss. Our family and friends are always great sources of attunement if they’re available, but when they are not, you deserve someone where you can build connection and receive from them in a way that feels healing and safe.

When you give your anger energy somewhere to go outside of your body, you will start to notice a few things shift in your life. If there were physical symptoms connected with your anger, they may lessen in their intensity – or disappear altogether. That thing where you get so mad you can’t speak? Your thoughts will start to clear and instead of planning ahead for some snappy comeback, you’ll learn to pause mid-conversation and express your anger without causing harm to the other parties.

When I chose to befriend my anger, the shift I noticed was subtle at first. There are days when anger still flares within, like a fire soaked in gasoline. But in partnership with my awareness practices, I can offer my nervous system the regulation it is not receiving from the source of my anger. Instead of lashing out or snapping, my anger becomes a little check-engine light letting me know I need to pause and examine what needs attention under the hood.

This internal fire is a gift. It is a powerful sensor that you are in the middle of something that is not aligned with your values, your worth, your importance, and your ideals. Anger raises the alarm, letting you know that injustice is costing you peace right now. As we grieve and pursue a new understanding of a peaceful existence, anger can be the guide for what needs support first and foremost. This is your chance to build connection and even compassion toward that anger, thank it for years of protection, and lean toward what might alleviate the anger to start feeling some of the softer emotions underneath.

Thank you for listening to episode 138 of Restorative Grief. In my book by the same name, I offered a week’s worth of strategies on healthy expressions of anger and to this day, I use the same methods when grief seems too loud for me as well. If you’re finding yourself locked up by anger and unable to budge, perhaps the book or even the workbook of the month will give you a helpful starting place. Both are linked in the show notes. And if nothing else, go back and write out the questions from this episode. A transcript is available at MandyCapehart.com as well. Your anger deserves to be explored.

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I hope you feel a lightness surfacing in your story. Despite how heavy the weight feels now, there is hope for healing in your story, too. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast and follow me on social media so you can stay on top of all the episodes and resources. Consider becoming a patron of the show if you want to go deeper in your work, and of course, feel free to reach out about coaching opportunities as well.

And as always before we go, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.

Links + resources for this episode: