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The Truth About Anger

You’re not angry; you feel powerless. Here's what you can do about it.

Key points

  • Anger is a common automatic reaction to an unpleasant event or circumstance.
  • Powerlessness might be hiding beneath a self-protective shield of anger.
  • Anger can be resolved through a process of awareness, grounding, and compassion.

When was the last time you were angry? Ten minutes ago, two days ago? As you recall that ferocious moment of rage, I invite you to ask yourself the following question:

Who (or what) was at fault for your anger?

This may seem like an unusual question, as we are taught to not blame our emotions on others. While it’s true our emotions are our own responsibility, anger, however, seems to be an exception to this rule.

There must be a culprit for anger, right?

Simply put, anger is a common reaction to an undesirable event or outcome. When we are in the midst of intoxicating anger, we may feel convinced there is a clear culprit responsible for it. Whether it was a disaster at the hands of nature or a harmful act by someone we know intimately, we are likely to assign blame to a force outside of ourselves.

But, what if I told you that your anger was a protective shield disguising underlying feelings of powerlessness, too raw to confront?

The body of anger

As a therapist, I often sit with people as they recount the moments or people that “made” them angry. As details unravel, I witness a building intensity that overcomes the person sitting across from me—the very same person who, just moments ago, was telling me about their efforts to practice self-care and relax more often.

When anger rears its head, we lose a part of ourselves. Rigid energy flows throughout the body, our blinders go up, and our fingers whip around as we seek to assign blame for a devastating experience that was out of our control. Many people describe a rise in body temperature, racing heartbeat, muscle tension, and even a sensation of feeling physically stronger.

You’re not angry; you feel powerless

I’d like to share a story with you that reveals the link between anger and powerlessness.

It was early summer in New England, the time of year when we start to emerge from our winter cocoon, energized by the upcoming warm, sunny days. If you live in a cold climate, you understand the organic energy that begins to emerge as the days get longer and we can finally put away our heavy jackets. We are inspired, ready to launch into a new season, feeling empowered after having survived another winter.

On this particular morning, I was meeting with a client who had experienced a great deal of interpersonal growth throughout the past year and was ready to change the storyline about her recent breakup. From the same body that for so long harbored deep feelings of sadness and rejection, came a ferocious and energized quality of anger. She no longer presented as defeated and insecure. She was now mad!

As I listened to my client rewrite the narrative of her breakup, the connection between anger and powerlessness became glaringly obvious. Her initial reaction to the breakup was sadness, shrinking, and helplessness. As weeks and months went by, her perspective changed. She was no longer sad; she was angry. And that anger had power. It was fierce and mighty, and no one could hurt her again.

The "power" of anger

And that’s when it came to me: She wasn’t just angry. All along she had been feeling powerless and getting mad seemed like the fastest track away from these feelings of weakness.

Previously entangled in a relationship with a partner who criticized her, supervised her every move, and emotionally manipulated her, she morphed her underlying feelings of powerlessness into anger. I witness this presentation of anger fueled by a sense of being powerful and impenetrable.


Anger: The fire extinguisher to powerlessness?

As we unravel the fierce shield of anger, beneath it all is a human being who has been hurt, deeply, and has felt powerless against a force outside of themselves.

The exploration of powerlessness does not reveal weakness. Rather, such vulnerable exploration draws a map of a very human reaction to a scary, unpleasant experience. When we release ourselves from the “need” to be angry in an effort to not be hurt again, we in turn create a space for healing.

When anger reverberates throughout our body, it is our own nervous system that takes the greatest toll. The stress response that is activated in the presence of anger has the capacity to activate our automatic pilot and provoke unconscious actions that only deepen the wound. Think: Running wild with your favorite unhealthy coping skill, going unnoticed until the consequences are too great to ignore.

Making way for healing

Releasing anger is freeing. And if we take it a step further, when there is another human being on the other side of our anger, we may even wish them well. Vulnerable self-exploration of our own experience makes way for us to increase our empathy towards others. It is a hurt person who hurts others.

Emotions are like a series of events on a movie screen; one happens after the next. As a viewer, you have no control over the plot unfolding. The same is not true for our own emotional experience. We cannot control our automatic reaction to an event (possibly anger), but we can control what we do next.

Freeing yourself from anger

If anger is your automatic response to an unpleasant event, don’t stop there.

  1. Notice the anger arising. There will be loud, glaring physical cues. Familiarize yourself with these sensations. This awareness guides you off of automatic pilot.
  2. Take a pause. Because of the intensity anger evokes, the first step is to ground. Consider what works best for you (i.e., breath work, going for a walk, writing, calling a friend, etc.).
  3. Ask, how do I feel in addition to my anger? If my anger were the tip of the iceberg, what feelings are lingering beneath the surface?
  4. If you’re up for it, practice loving-kindness. Remember that the person on the other side of this may also be a human being experiencing suffering. Imagine sending well wishes their way. Then, invite yourself to receive those same affirmations.

Our emotions are complex wild animals waiting to be tamed. Let me remind you: You are not a victim of your emotional experience. You are powerful; you are capable. And it is within your control, through active choice, to take hold of your emotional experience.

More from Kaitlin Nunamann LICSW, RYT
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