Yesterday’s horrific shooting of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, TX, by a man who was motivated by a “domestic situation,” has highlighted—among many other things, including the urgent need to address gun control and domestic violence—just how much anger there is in our country.
26 people died, senselessly, because a 26-year-old gunman opted to take his apparent anger at his mother-in-law out on the innocent parishioners at her church. Regardless of the motivations of other mass murderers like the truck attacker in New York City just last week or the shooter in Las Vegas in October, who killed 59 people, rage in its rawest form is more often than not at play during these events (that is, when mental illness is not a major cause).
But it’s not just anger on the part of violent attackers that we need to face. Yes, that anger takes an extreme and destructive form, one that could have potentially been prevented if that individual—and our culture at large—had a healthier outlet or was encouraged to vent that anger safely. But no matter how or why violence occurs, what survivors are left with in its wake is heartbreak, grief, confusion, and—completing the vicious cycle—more anger that multiplies with every victim.
Anger is a big theme right now in the U.S. Dozens of sexual assault victims have recently come forward and spoken their truth about traumatic experiences with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and other white men in positions of power. Last year’s election, and the myriad racial and social injustices it has brought to light, is helping a lot of people finally experience and express their anger—a feeling that experts agree isn’t only justified, but also totally healthy. The question is, once we tap into it, what do we do with it?
Unfortunately, of the many activities and behaviors women are discouraged from expressing, anger is high on the list (see also: explicit confidence). It’s cast as unattractive and unappealing no matter how appropriate of a public forum it’s in. Have you ever lost your temper or showed an above-average level of irritation around people you don’t know well? They tend to look at you like they just caught you with your pants down—or ignore you altogether. I can’t decide which is worse.
“Anger tends to demand a change in the status quo,” says life coach and anger expert Laura Beth Moss. “This leads to difficulty in relationships and culture. Putting the ‘ugly stigma’ on anger is a fast and easy way for those who don’t like it to try to make it go away. Very few women want to be rejected or considered ugly. Some would rather repress their anger than be considered ugly.” Anger might not be fun or pretty, but it’s a necessary part of an authentic, healthy life. From childhood, my mom, a life coach, taught me to express my feelings—she, too, was in touch with anger, sadness, and joy, sometimes all in the same hour—and by my teens, I was adept at identifying and vocalizing my every emotion (hormones, am I right?).
Anger now has a comfortable place in my life, and I acknowledge it whenever it makes an appearance, but I’ve figured out how not to dwell in it or perseverate to a point where it’s eating away at me, rather than propelling me forward. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Moss says anger has plenty of benefits, when channeled properly. “Anger brings intense clarity and energy to our lives,” she says. “Anger with awareness can provide an immediate sense of purpose, which can be healthy, constructive, and conscious. Mindful anger is the ultimate empowerment.” Below are Moss’s top strategies for transforming crippling rage into bold, energizing anger (a.k.a. the good kind).
Lean into It
The more you try to deny or chase your anger away, the more it will curdle inside you, turning sour. Emotions, like attention-hungry children, must be acknowledged before they’ll leave you alone. “Anger has wisdom if we are willing to listen,” says Moss. “It’s trying to send a message that may feel obvious on the surface, but when listened to more closely can bring deeply powerful realizations about who you are, what you need to be okay, what you want in life, and what you’re willing to accept. Instead of reacting and speaking quickly, be willing to feel the intensity of anger, and go quiet. Lean into the anger. Breathe. Is it telling you that you need to change something? Is it telling you that today’s pain feels like an injury from the past that needs more healing? Is it telling you that you need to establish better boundaries and learn some new ways to take care of yourself? Hear its wisdom and its clarity.” Do this and you’re already halfway to not letting anger rule your life anymore.
Express It—and Use It
Once you’ve come to terms with your anger at a friend or partner who let you down, this is a good time to verbalize your feelings. Explain to the person after you’ve cooled off and using non-accusatory “I” language about why you’re feeling mad. “Keeping anger in causes sickness, depression and isolation,” says Moss. “But it’s also important not to act out your anger in self-destructive ways like drinking too much, lashing out at friends, missing work, or lapsing into poor diet. Circumstantial anger does eventually pass.” And if right now your rage isn’t at a particular person or situation, but rather a deeper cultural climate, it’s just as important to be sure you’re letting it out in a healthy way.
“Bring your mind to what your life needs just today, right now, in the next hour,” says Moss. “Take on a new activity or learn a craft you’ve always been curious about. I joined a gym and treated myself to a few sessions with a circuit trainer during this election season. You could also learn to cook, join a knitting circle, book club, try karate, get a coach or therapist, meditate, do yoga, or volunteer to help others. Cultural issues are larger, more systemic, and take time to shift and repair so we need to pace ourselves.” She suggests taking a break from media news and events and getting involved locally for your personal growth. “For an individual, anger can be one of the greatest, most immediate forces of transformation available to humans, so use it as an opportunity to clarify who you are and what you want to accomplish in life.” How’s that for making lemonade out of lemons?
Let (Some of) It Go
If, like me, as time passes, you find your anger has a duller edge than it used to, embrace that, too. As much as I’m grieving the loss of this election, I’m also grieving the loss of my immediate, heart-stabbing fury, because even that feels like a kind of defeat, since the last thing I want is to accept a Trump presidency as the new normal. But know that anger is part of your emotional immune system. Your body and brain know when to use it as a protective measure against threats, and it will surge again next time you need it—especially after you’ve learned to embrace it. And if, next time you’re in the throes of rage, you’re not sure what to do, remember Moss’s simple mantra: “Stop, go silent, and listen to the wisdom of the anger. Then, be kind to yourself.”
Originally published November 2016. Updated November 2017.