Go back to your childhood. Can you still remember those moments you
were boiling with anger, yet were afraid to express it? Those moments
you wanted to jump and scream, yet you shut up and sat down instead?
Those moments your heart was about to explode, yet you painted a fake
smile over your face and pretended that everything is okay? Or have you
squeezed them so deep into the dark alleys of your psyche that you can’t
bring them to your conscious awareness anymore?
That anger you suppressed was your very spirit urging you to rebel against anyone or anything that was hurting you, be it your parent, sibling, friend, church or school. But you did not follow its impulse. Like I did. Like everyone did at times as a child, and most still do regularly as adults.
Anger is perhaps the most misunderstood emotion. It’s usually called
“negative” in so-called spiritual circles, and is often equated with
rage and hate. But in reality, anger — just like any of our basic
emotions — isn’t negative in itself. Rather, it’s there for a very
important reason: to help us live a better life. More specifically, it’s
there to help us remove what’s obstructing our way to joy and freedom.
And it does so by drawing our attention to what our needs are, what’s
preventing us from meeting them, and what corrective actions we can take
in order to meet them.
A great analogy for anger is that of a warning light
on a car’s dashboard: it’s there to show us that something is wrong or
could go wrong unless we promptly attend to it. If, however, we choose
not to pay attention to it, or stick tape all over it to stop seeing it,
that doesn’t mean it’s gone or that we’ve avoided the problem it points
to. It only means that we’ll likely not end up in our desired
destination, and perhaps experience serious trouble on our journey.
Imagine that someone forced you to do something against your will. If
you’re like every other person, you’ll naturally feel anger, for who is
oppressed by someone else and doesn’t feel angry about it? Now, in
response to that situation, you might want to express your anger in an
effort to stop being oppressed. That could simply mean giving voice to your feelings, requesting the other person to stop trying to impose their
will on you, and, lastly, distancing yourself from them (assuming that
this is possible) if they don’t respect your request.
Admittedly, the above example is simplistic, but it does the job of
illustrating the purpose of anger: pointing out our unmet needs, and
urging us to find ways to meet them. It also illustrates what a healthy
way of expressing our anger looks like: no judging or fighting — just
being open about our feelings and needs. Sadly, most people don’t deal
with anger like that, and understandably so, considering their unhealed
emotional wounds and unconscious social conditioning.
As children, most of us learned to suppress our emotions, especially
our anger. The reason was two-fold: firstly, to protect ourselves and
our loved ones from possible abuse — whether physical, sexual or
emotional — caused by people we didn’t know a better way to deal with,
and, secondly, to feel accepted by the individuals and social groups
that meant the most to us. That’s because we found out early on that
expressing our anger was often met with pain — whether in the form of
violence, judgment, ridicule, neglect or abandonment. To avoid
experiencing further suffering, we learned to wear a personality mask
that hides our anger and pretend that things are alright, when they
clearly aren’t. In addition, we learned to numb ourselves to our anger
in order to avoid coming in touch with the unhealed emotional wounds
associated with it. And whether we realize it or not, many of us still
live this way, even if it’s not serving us anymore. Rather, it does the
exact opposite: keeping us stuck in an unresolved emotional state and
the constant stress generated by it.
Contrary to what we might think, suppressing our anger never makes it
go away. It still lies deep within us, hidden yet present, ready to
erupt at any moment we lose our self-control — moments such as when
“we’ve had enough” or are under the influence of alcohol. That eruption
is what has been termed rage, which is nothing but the result of long-term suppressed anger. As we saw earlier, anger can actually be gentle and kind,
but when it turns into rage, it becomes violent. Then the repressed,
dark side of ourselves manifests into our consciousness and the world,
bursting like a volcano and burning everyone it meets along its way.
This is why anger has gotten such a bad rap: because it’s being confused
with rage — an unhealthy, perverted expression of anger.
Another common problem with anger is that, when filtered through
judgment, it can quickly be diverted to hate. For example, when we view
someone who has wronged us — whether personally or collectively — as bad
or evil, we might start hating them and desire to hurt them back. While
anger urges us to understand and change the conditions that hurt us,
hate turns our healthy desire for change into toxic energy and throws it
at some external “enemy” — a former best friend, a politician, a
journalist, the wealthy elite, the “illuminati” and so on. But, as it’s
often the case, that enemy is in reality nothing but a symptom of a
deeper cause, which hate doesn’t allow us to see. Instead, it locks us
in its limited perspective
and has us wage a war, which, even if we win, doesn’t bring us healing —
on the contrary, it usually intensifies our suffering, and in turn, our
anger and judgment, thus entrapping us in a vicious circle of hate. To
avoid misunderstanding, I’m not suggesting here that we should ever
tolerate abusive behavior — we shouldn’t — but unless we
understand the conditions — psychological, social, political, economic,
etc. — that give rise to it, our efforts to deal with it are going to be
fruitless and most likely counterproductive.
Anger is a wise friend — not an enemy — whose purpose is to help us
discover greater joy and freedom. But we need to be extra careful with
how we use it, so we don’t make the mistake of channeling it into hate.
And when we experience hate, within our psyche or in the outside world,
we need to remind ourselves that unresolved anger is hiding beneath it,
and unmet needs beneath the anger. Then, instead of suppressing anger or
lashing it out, we’ll want to pay close attention to its wisdom and let
it guide us out of our suffering.