Reclaiming Anger

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Anger. Anger. ANGER.

I invite you to notice what happens for you as you see that word on your screen. Is there a warm embrace of it? Is there a contracting, a pulling away? All good either way – just notice.

Most of us learned in our early lives that certain emotions were welcomed, and others were not. This was often (but not always) gendered, with boys being taught anger was cool, but sadness or fear not so much, while girls were taught the opposite.

We female-identified folk may have been told, for instance, that there was something wrong with us for feeling angry, we needed to calm down and be “nice,” we should “get over it,” or we should simply “behave.”

Meanwhile, we struggled. We had big feelings for a reason, but no guidance on how to make sense of them or soothe those feelings.

The impact, of course, is that here we are going about our adult lives, somebody does something/says something we don’t like (at all), and even to this day, we might not even notice that we’re angry, but suddenly we feel deeply uncomfortable in our very own skin.

But this energy has got to go *somewhere* – and so it expresses in funky ways, at times surprising us with an explosive tirade, at times lashing in at ourselves, gnawing away at our bodies and our hearts, even as we don’t have the words to name what’s going on.

Simultaneously, in our not speaking directly to the thing that ires us, our partners feel less connected to us. Our workplaces miss opportunities for an upgrade. Our impulses to create social change die on the vine. And thus our relationships, our communities, and our world are deprived of a truth, a wisdom, and a passion that would contribute, if only we didn’t think there was something wrong with us for feeling pissed.

In this frame, it’s essential to ask: what does a healthy relationship with anger look like, and how do we re-wire ourselves to feel anger well?

Notice and Name Your Shame

“I’m not supposed to feel this way.” “Something’s wrong with me for feeling angry.” “I’m not allowed to show my anger.”

Shame is a killer. In what it does to our own bodies, in what it has us say and/or do to others, and in the way it stifles our call to justice and to name and adress social inequities. Shame is an epidemic, and naming it matters.

The first step toward relating well with anger is to notice and name what gets in the way. It might manifest as a sense of tightness or constraint in your body. Or perhaps it’s the slough of thoughts that, “It’s not okay to feel how I feel.”

Sometimes you’ll fall into the shame spiral – first is the flicker of anger, then you remember that anger is not allowed, so you push down the anger, soon you feel like existence itself is intolerable and like you want to explode, only to think “my feelings are too intense and I’m too much” and you fall into even more shame.

Sound familiar?

It’s important to be really clear: The trouble is in the suppression of our upset, not the upset itself. It’s our pushing anger down that so often creates the big reaction, not the anger itself.

Being able to notice and name this phenomenon as shame is the first step to creating a healthy relationship with anger. You might simply say to yourself, “Oh, this is shame. Hi shame.”

Remind Yourself: Healthy People Get Angry Sometimes

Once you’ve identified the overlying, life-restricting layer of shame, remind yourself about what’s underneath: it’s okay to be angry. Healthy people get angry. Anger tells us there’s something important that needs attending to. There’s nothing wrong with you just because you’re angry.

Remember, too: even if you’re feeling angry, your essence is love. You are good. Shame sends our felt sense of innocence into hiding. But when you remind yourself of your goodness, often your goodness hears its name and sticks its head out, emerging from behind the decades-old shame wall just to be like, “Hey! Remember me?”

You get to call your essential goodness back into the room.

Ask: “What if this actually mattered?”

There may be a very old story in you that sounds something like, “It’s not okay to want what I want. I should be more focused on others. I should prioritize the team. I’m being SELFISH.”

We forget: we’re members of the team. We support the team (or the relationship) when we include ourselves as a team member. If we don’t thrive, the team doesn’t thrive. When our cup is filled, we help fill the team’s cup.

Thus, the third step is to ask yourself, “What am I wanting?”

And its all too important sidekick: “What if this actually mattered?”

Validate, validate, validate. If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely got a lot of catching up to do. For all the times you thought your needs were unwelcomed or unworthy and you should just stay quiet (and quietly die inside), this is your big chance to do the opposite:

“My need for kindness hella matters!”
“My need for safety is beautiful!”
“Inclusion is invaluable to me!”
“All human beings have a need for belonging, and that includes me!”

Bring out the inner party hats, and find your own way to celebrate. You can’t get enough reminders that your needs matter.

Respecting Anger’s Shell

When we reclaim the beauty of our needs, our life energy flows. We are *inherently*, without efforting, kinder, gentler, more receptive and accessible humans, lovers, mothers, partners, and change-makers. We don’t have to skip over our needs to try to be that. We *are* that when our own life energy is welcome.

Like a caterpillar in its chrysalis. When its wings are formed and its ready to emerge, the shell of the chrysalis falls away. We can’t force the chrysalis off. In fact, it’s needed as a protector of the transformation process.

Anger is the shell that says, “Back off. There’s something important in here.” Once the caterpillar knows it is loved, once it can unfold and bloom and blossom into a beautiful butterfly, it can fly away, and the shell is no longer needed to protect it.

This is our nature. When we connect with the love that we are, our protective shells (and related blame and judgment-thinking) often fall away. But the key is not to rip off the shell before we’re ready to emerge. It’s to focus our energy on loving what’s inside us, and what’s trying to emerge and spread its wings, but just needs a little help.

Reclaiming Your Power

In so many ways, every day is an opportunity to be born again. To notice and put to rest the old habits – one here today, perhaps another tomorrow or next week – and to try on new, restorative, nurturing ways of being.

When you are dressed in your fabulous butterfly garb, adorned with the beauty of your needs, consider: how do I feel moved to speak? How do I feel inspired to act? Perhaps you are ready now to pick up the phone and move mountains. Perhaps you want to lie still. To rest. To move not an inch and to surrender to the glory of the life energy that you are and always were.

We came into this world as babies who could signal our thirst and our hunger, our sadness and our fear. Secure babies’ caregivers noticed these signals, and responded warmly to them.

As adults, we get to provide ourselves the same warmth and attunement. Our anger is a sign: need here! Pause and notice!

Wanting inclusion. Wanting connection. Wanting safety. Wanting justice.

Healthy, so healthy.

It’s in our responding that we grow our roots, our belonging, and our full potential for impact upon this world.

Marina Smerling is a life and relationship coach who longs for us to say “yes” to our wildly beautiful and fallible human selves, just as we are.  Her work draws upon over a decade of training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the Hakomi Method’s mindfulness and somatic-based approach to transformation, and time with her spiritual teacher, Jeannie Zandi.  When not coaching, Marina can be found organizing fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, nerding out over kombucha, dancing to anything with a beat, and otherwise navigating the art of living in a broken world with a wide open heart. Reach her at