– Anna Heuer Hansen
I used to think of myself as someone who didn’t really get angry. Sure, I could get frustrated and annoyed at times, but that’s not the same as really getting angry, right? In both my professional and private life I am praised for being calm, clear and diplomatic. I might, at least partly, owe that temper to my Scandinavian heritage. While culture is just a piece of the puzzle, I surely have envied my Mediterranean friends their quick, fiery volcano outbursts on many occasions. But do I really not get angry, or have I just not learned a healthy way of expressing it?
Expressing anger is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that it can be a complicated emotion. As children, it causes anxiety and confusion to simultaneously feel the desire for contact and the attacking energy of anger towards the caregiver we love. One of anger’s primary functions is to restore our boundaries, but that impulse feels threatening to our attachment to our parents. So most often we learn to suppress the genuine experience of anger, and then develop unhelpful coping mechanisms somewhere on the swallow-explode spectrum.
And on that spectrum, I am clearly on the ‘repression’ end. I used to swallow my frustrations, clench my teeth, tell myself it’s better not to cause a scene, and then risk coldly slipping some passive-aggressive remark because I didn’t express my feelings honestly. But just as repression isn’t helpful or healthy, exploding isn’t either. Each is dangerous in their own way. Unregulated acting-out and repression are actually two sides of the same coin and both examples of unhealthy ways of dealing with anger.
So yes, of course, I did get angry. And I still do. More and more, actually. Maybe because I am in better contact with and aware of myself now, or maybe because there is so much around to trigger it. Political polarization, sexism, racism, wealth gap, climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Oh, and all the people who deny these things exist and are happening. I feel the boil already.
What to do with this energy?
Well, first we allow ourselves to feel it in the first place. Acknowledge it is there. And, without suppressing it, develop enough capacity to hold the feeling without it taking control of us. Then we can choose how to express it. Experience the emotion, choose the action. The choice and agency become ours.
Next up: release any built-up energy in a healthy way. Hit some pillows, find a friend and go scream at the trains passing by, stomp your feet and things like that. Works wonders!
And last, but not least, use it as constructive fuel. Give it a purpose. As non-violent communication suggests: anger is the expression of an unmet need. Listening for that need can help inform our choices about how to channel the energy.
In his book “The gift of anger” Arun Gandhi writes about lessons learned from his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi. The first lesson concerns anger, and Mahatma Gandhi advices using anger to mobilize ourselves to go to a better place. To change things. An energy that helps us take on challenges. He compares anger to electricity, here in my translation from Dutch:
“If we channel electricity in a smart way, we can use it to make our lives better, but if we do stupid things with it, we can die. For the good of humanity, we must learn to handle our anger wisely, just as we do with electricity.”
I like this way of looking at anger. Anger is a tool, and its potential for danger lies in how we use it. I don’t want to dismiss the tool, I want to learn how to handle it. Violence does not respect other people’s boundaries, repression does not respect your own. Healthy anger respects both.