Anger is a societal issue as much as a personal one. We have come to associate anger with violence, although studies show that anger leads to violence only 10% of the time. Anger expressed in a healthy, timely manner can actually prevent violence.
Still, anger is one of the more difficult emotions, often flinging us out of control. Anger and frustration, with their elemental wood association in Chinese philosophy, are emotions that push us. They offer growth, determination and motivation, but if that strength has no direction, it can go awry, ungrounded like directionless wind.
The wood element is associated with wind. Like a great storm, anger comes quickly and when channeled appropriately, also quickly passes. Wood represents vision. Not just because the Liver and Gallbladder organ channels in Chinese medicine go to the eyes, but also metaphorically. Wood energy is a motivating factor, differentiating us from our family of origin by giving us each our own vision and purpose in life.
When that vision is stunted, when we can’t put it into action, when we are lacking in or unjustly denied access to the resources to do so, it is a compromise to the sense of self. This plays out in childhood and young adulthood, the life phase associated with the wood element, as we push against our parental figures. It also happens in an unjust society, where some are given more privilege, access to resources and societal priority than others. This is why we need to defend each other.
“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.”
- Adrienne Rich
This stunting also happens on a physical level. When qi is not allowed to flow freely, it stagnates and causes exhaustion, heat or unpredictable, intermittent symptoms. This can play out in the physical and emotional body. For more information on the physical and psycho-emotional symptoms that tend to flare in spring, see my article Spring Winds of Change.
“Anger” is the translation of the emotion associated with the wood element in Chinese philosophy, but I like to add the concept of a fierce sense of justice.
Justice, comprised of strength, vision and flexibility, perfectly embodies the energetic of the wood element. Thusly, when any of these characteristics are compromised, the result is often anger. When one is not allowed to thrive in society. When one watches one’s community suffer at the hands of economic and social oppression. Or when one feels misunderstood and judged by the people to whom they are closest.
“When I am angry I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anger can bring up important, unspoken issues, reveal one’s own faults for improved self-awareness, lead to important conversations within all kinds of relationships and allow a kind of vulnerability, intimacy and communication.
Constructive anger is described as anger that is justifiable and framed in such a way where a mutual problem can be rectified. Anger actually leads to a deeper connection between people.
Anger, as an alternative to fear or despair response, is more empowered, with more sense of control and motivation. According to an American Psychological Association article: “Participants primed for anger gave more optimistic--and, as it turns out, realistic--risk assessments…than those primed for fear.”
Fear and sadness tend to elicit a shutdown response, while anger is motivating. From the same article: “[Anger] can spur an entire culture to change for the better, as witnessed by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and the earlier Women's Suffrage movement.” (1)
Further research suggests that anger leads to better performance, better negotiation skills and more creativity. Anger can lead to important conversations and revealed truth. And suppressing anger has actually been found to create health problems:
“Dr. Ernest Harburg and his team at the University of Michigan School of Public Health spent several decades tracking the same adults in a longitudinal study of anger. They found that men and women who hid the anger they felt in response to an unjust attack subsequently found themselves more likely to get bronchitis and heart attacks, and were more likely to die earlier than peers who let their anger be known when other people were annoying.” (2)
Anger has a healthy place in our society when it motivates us to express our needs, ask for help, unify and motivate groups of people to make greater social change and get to know our inner selves. It is a powerful tool, necessary alongside kindness, compassion, love and diplomacy. Anger is mobilizing. It’s what got one of every 100 Americans and upwards of 3 million people worldwide into the streets in January for the Womxn’s March. Anger got tens of thousands of protesters to shut down airports in support of immigrant rights and millions to learn how to influence local and federal government. Anger has taught us the names of all the Black lives that have been taken through racial profiling and racist brutality.
Anger will be our ally in the months and years to come as we attempt to mold our country into a more just society for all its inhabitants. When anger arises, we feel called upon to protect our own welfare, and the well-being and survival of those we care about. It causes us to stand up for the rights of those who have been marginalized, known and unknown. Anger reflects our humanity.
Perhaps we have all heard this before and know that anger has an upside, but find that using anger positively and in a balanced way while in the intensity of the moment is more of a challenge.
How to Change the Way You Get Angry
When expressing anger in a personal situation, one thing you can try is explaining in advance that you are experiencing intense emotions and that your perspective and communication may not be as clear as if you were not emotionally charged. This has the advantage of allowing the person to whom you are speaking to choose not to be defensive, but to hear you out.
If you can approach an argument with the idea that your goal is finding a solution, even when you are shaky and somewhat out of control, you may be able to communicate this desire and inspire a more thoughtful, open-minded reaction.
“When someone hears that you are uncomfortable and that the conversation is difficult for you, it increases the likelihood that they will approach what you have to say with empathy. After using this opening, you can then delve deeper into what bothers you, what you think and feel in the aftermath of whatever happened (why anger emerged instead of other feelings).” (2)
If we can notice when we get angry and why, then we can learn what to do to improve our reactions to the things we do and don’t have control over. Anger can motivate self-awareness and positive change.
“An honorable human relationship- that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’- is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
Here is a break down to help explain how to use anger constructively:
- Recognize the difference between events that you can change and those that are beyond your ability to control.
- Use a tone that is not demeaning or inflammatory.
- When you’re angry, take a moment to slow the situation down. Your impulse is to speed things up because the sympathetic nervous system gets involved and tells you there is a threat to your safety, slowing down and taking a deep breath can calm that reaction then you can…
- Choose to make good decisions rather than fast ones. This is about reminding yourself that you have options to choose from, even in an emotionally charged situation.
- If it’s helpful, use visualization to keep yourself focused on a positive outcome. What does the situation look like if your energy is not escalating it? What does it look like if you feel safe?
- When you are able to take a minute to slow yourself down, calm the nervous system and return to regular breathing, you may be able to observe the other person’s reaction more intuitively. What tone of voice and body language are they using? Are they responding by lashing out or are they looking for a solution?
“Psychologist John Riskind has found that the experience of anger is not as problematic as the belief that the sequence of events triggering that anger is accelerating, that the danger is escalating, and the available window for taking action is quickly disappearing. This sense of impending danger pushes people to do something that might stop the immediate threat but in the longer term will make the situation worse.” (2)
This is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) talking. The threat response of fight or flight. Anger can trigger body memories of other times that did not feel safe, in which the SNS was called upon to react. Fortunately, through awareness and practice, we can notice the shift into a sympathetic response and try to let it pass without being reactive. This can be hard work and may be assisted by therapy, bodywork and other forms of recovery from PTSD.
The more we practice new responses to our own anger and angering situations, the more our brains adapt to find those responses natural. That is the beauty of neuroplasticity, the science of brain adaptation; the more neurological synapses fire in response to a specific situation, the more likely they are to fire that way in the future.
Whether on a personal or societal level, viewing anger as an ally and learning how to use it to make important, positive change can bring us closer to our goals and our vision for a better life.