The idea that anger is a ‘negative’ and undesirable emotion to feel, or express is one which exists in many different arenas. This seems to be especially true in ‘new age’ spiritual and/or therapeutic communities where the suppression and ‘management’ of angry sentiment is covertly and sometimes overtly encouraged. As a spiritually and holistically oriented psychotherapist I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more with what I perceive to be a largely fear-based concept. Indeed, I am of the opinion that anger, when validated and channeled constructively can be an extremely healthy and positive thing, with the power to catalyze forward movement and individual and social change. Consider the following examples:
Barry has slowly been growing more and more disconcerted by the fact that each week his passionate sentiments about global war and genocide, when brought up at the Buddhist prayer circle he participates in, are referred to as ‘negative’ and ‘inappropriate’ subjects for contemplation within that particular community. Eventually he consciously decides to voice his feelings at the next congregational meeting. During the group share he verbalizes his anger at being silenced upon numerous past attempts to share his perceptions and perspectives about various forms of social injustice with the community. After the meeting a couple of other group members, inspired by his openness come to him and privately validate his concerns. At a later date he decides to write a letter of complaint to the religious leaders of the organization, in which he articulates his anger and discusses why he thinks that the dichotomy between peaceful living and social justice organizing is a false one. He also makes recommendations as to how the organization can change some of their practices to be more inclusive and less exclusive when it comes to emotional expression. At length he decides to take up running as a way of further discharging his frustrations;
Janet is brutally assaulted in a date rape situation. She receives a mental health diagnosis of PTSD. A few months later she joins a psychodrama therapy group in which she is encouraged to express and channel her feelings of rage through role play, role reversal, enactment and sharing. One of the group facilitators refers her to a non-profit organization which offers self defense training classes for women. It is over an hour’s drive away but Janet goes anyway. Three months into the class Janet becomes inspired enough to open up her own school in her local community where no offerings of that nature currently exist;
Hector is a 12 year old boy who has been struggling noticeably (emotionally and behaviorally) within his school setting. In the past six months he has been sent to the principal’s office, numerous times, for defiant, oppositional and instigatory behavior directed towards authority figures and some of his peers. During one such occasion he is directed to stay after school to serve detention time, which is to be hosted by his art teacher. At the time of the detention, the art teacher (a former counselor) says to Hector: “I have noticed you becoming very frustrated, very quickly these days. It seems like you are very angry. Have you noticed that about yourself? Do you know what you are so angry about?” Hector quickly proceeds to tell her that he hates his mother and wishes she were dead. Not long thereafter Hector is referred to an expressive arts therapist who encourages him to ‘talk’ about his angry feelings by using/creating visual art as a vehicle for communication. Later on, when Hector’s mother is invited to join him for a session it comes to light that Hector’s mother has been using corporal punishment as a way of disciplining him, which frequently goes above and beyond a mere spanking. Hector’s mother is subsequently referred to a therapist who helps her address the deep seated anger and resentment she has been holding towards her father for years, and misplacing onto her son, Hector.
The preceding examples are ‘good-case scenario’ illustrations of three individuals who have chosen and/or been invited to acknowledge, express and channel their angry emotions with a view to psychological restoration and healing.
A very real danger exists when people are forbidden (implicitly or explicitly) to express their angry feelings: when individuals attempt to suppress, repress or disguise angry emotions, for a long enough period of time, there can be truly negative consequences which can play themselves out in a variety of ways:
On an individual level, a person who is unable to express their anger eventually turns it inward, towards the self (as there is nowhere else for it to go), where it manifests as depression. Further manifestations of this type of depression may include various forms of self injury, such as head banging, cutting, addictions and other attacks against the self. Additionally, internalized anger and suicide are correlated. When anger energy remains unexpressed for a long enough time it turns into a type of stagnant resentment, and negativistic way of moving in the world which may ultimately manifest into various forms of (serious) physical dis-ease;
On an interpersonal level, people who are fearful of expressing their anger directly may become hostile towards others (usually friends and/or lovers) in indirect ways. This is often referred to as passive aggressive behavior, where the repressed, angry (often perceived by acquaintances as quiet) person may invoke extremely angry responses in friends and lovers due to their own, largely unconscious efforts to communicate their anger and resentment in covert ways. The ‘flip’ side of this is misplaced or displaced anger, in which the same fearful person might overreact to people (usually strangers perceived to be unable to hold them accountable) showing large displays of anger and aggression over relatively small, insignificant things. Some examples of this may include road rage, becoming extremely angry with customer service representatives/telemarketers over the phone and/or lashing out at small children or pets;
On wider community and societal levels, calamitous instances in which apparently “insane” individuals run amok are frequently, at least partly attributed to the cumulative, stifled, ultimately explosive rage of the individual perpetuating the crime (s).
Unless confirmed otherwise, it is generally a good idea to assume that people who are feeling angry have genuine, valid reasons to feel the way they do (not the other way around), even if the original source of the anger is deeply buried.
Prohibiting people from expressing angry sentiment is a type of oppression which can morph into depression and/or aggression with very serious consequences.
Encouraging others to discuss their feelings freely is a good habit to adopt! The closer a person is to the original source of anger the less convoluted, and potentially distressing the expressed feelings are likely to be, to the speaker and anyone in earshot; it makes sense for adults to be attuned to these types of emotions in young people with a view to promoting their (prudent) expression. If we notice ourselves feeling very uncomfortable around reasonable expressions of anger it can perhaps be helpful to acknowledge and explore our own issues with anger and conflict, rather than labeling or shaming the openly angry person.