Anger used to confound me.
Most of our attitudes about anger begin when we are children through the way we were taught and through the ways we were reprimanded or punished. To that end, anger scared me, whether it was my own or someone else’s. I also interpreted my own anger negatively.
Until recently, I thought that anger was wrong and bad to feel. That meant that whenever my anger got triggered, I would instantly try to shut it down. That also meant that it would lurk inside my body somewhere—sometimes turning inward as resentment/shame or manifesting as a physical symptom like back pain. Or if it would escape in a strong way, I’d be riddled with guilt over hurting someone.
When it would rise up inside me, my inner critic would feed my head phrases that spliced me like a paper shredder: “You’re not good enough.” “You have not evolved at all if you can still get angry.” “How can you feel that way about that person?” “You must be a bad person after all.” My reactions turned into pure judgement and condemnation of myself.
It’s no wonder too. When I was a child, I experienced the unhealthy misuse of anger. One of my crimes? Refusing to smile for a family photograph. I remember crying in my room for hours after the picture was taken, because of the devastating anger that got thrown my way. I felt blamed and shamed for ruining a picture. To this day, I look at that family photo and cringe at the repercussions of exerting my will.
Then an educator and consultant, Sibylle Ingeborg Preuschat, taught me a new way to look at anger—and I can’t see it the same way ever since.
She explained that our emotions give us vital information about the way we are perceiving the world. They can teach us when things are out of alignment, when we need to let go of something, or when something needs to change, among other signals.
Anger itself has a purpose and a function, she explains, and that is to create boundaries around us. When someone or something crosses our boundaries, we get mad.
Our personal boundaries define our identity in a physical world, ” Sibylle explained in an email. “When our boundaries work properly, they operate like a filter, allowing us to receive what’s beneficial to us, and keeping out what isn’t.”
Sibylle likes to use the metaphor of a guard dog to express how our anger works.
A well trained guard dog patrols the fence and yard around a home. If someone tries to climb the fence, the dog will go on high alert and start barking—that’s similar to our anger being activated. If someone knocks at the gate and you, the owner of the home, let that person in, the dog will accept that person’s presence,” she said. “A guard dog that is doing its job right won’t jump over the fence to bite someone on the other side, even if they’re making threatening noises, and it won’t run into the house to attack its owner either. When our anger ‘jumps our personal fence’ or implodes on us, it becomes destructive. Properly handled anger, though, is indispensable to a happy life. It allows us to build strong, healthy relationships with others.”
She also wrote this to me (reprinted with permission):
Our anger, like our spine, for example, is always with us, it’s basically a “body part,” and giving it its proper place and function is like having good “emotional posture.” When the anger stays where it belongs, in the space between your skin and the inside of the membrane, it will alert you to potential trouble and give you fuel and inspiration for dealing with the trouble, without harming you or anyone else. If we are feeling very angry, that space inside [our personal boundaries] can be filled with intensity… and so long as we keep the anger in that space, it will eventually help us find a creative, effective, and safe resolution.”
The example that immediately comes to my mind is when I start getting angry at my children. I’ve always known that when that happens, I need to take time for myself apart from the family. Now I can acknowledge that my boundaries were not being met and that I did, indeed, require space.
The understanding of anger as purposeful gives me permission to feel it, honor it, and know where it’s coming from. It is not anger in the form that we have learned to view it, but rather an evolved view of anger that allows me to breathe steam out of me and use it to create personal protective space. Working with my anger in a healthy way means that nobody gets hurt—including me.
If you’d like to know more about this topic, Sibylle recommends the book The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren, that delves into the constructive purpose of our emotions.
Sibylle notes that years ago she concluded that there are no “negative” or “positive” emotions, and that all emotions arise to give us information and guidance. She was so excited to discover Karla McLaren’s book, which validated her own intuition and explains this viewpoint in great depth. Karla’s book brims with useful tools and techniques for making the most of our emotions. Now that I’m reading it too, I feel extremely validated in feeling the gamut of my emotional self.
There are many tools to keep anger in its right place, so that it’s not pent up inside the body ready to explode, like a dog that hasn’t been outside for days. The key is to become highly attuned to your emotional states, learn to identify them, and then use them constructively.