With everything that happened in Hollywood over the course of the #MeToo revelations, a particular clip stood out for me. Uma Thurman, asked to respond to what was happening at the time, had this to say:
“I don’t have a tidy soundbite for you, because I’ve learned — I am not a child — and I have learned that when I have spoken in anger, I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry, and when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say.”
The intensity with which Thurman spoke was everything — that voice, her eyes, cut you to the core. This was a kind of simmering anger, a suppressed but entirely present anger, with which I could fundamentally identify.
I have always been an angry person. Before I get sad or anything else, I get angry. I have felt keenly the injustice of words spoken or acts committed around me. Anger has always come first. And yet, it’s something that I’ve learned to curb, to hide and diminish as much as possible.
What this has often meant is suppressing the feeling — pushing it down as far as possible — and waiting to feel something else, regardless of what the context of that anger was. And, let’s face it, that doesn’t always work. Eventually the anger returns and it might well have racked up a few notches of intensity, especially when the thing-that-made-you-angry happens again, and you remember never having dealt with it the first time.
Being angry and being a woman is a particularly difficult combo. Plenty have written about the difficulties of expression between genders. The fact that as a woman, your anger is less readily seen as justified, and less likely to be acknowledged seriously. But anger is getting a resurgence. We’re finally “allowed” to be angry, at a lot of things — the state of the world, politics, etc. In a bigger sense, anger is on the rise.
We have to learn to express justified anger in a useful way, and channel unjustified anger in a healthy way
In many cases it is right to feel angry. It is justified. But in other, smaller, more personal senses, it can be damaging. Anger is contextual, and when we’re taught to apply a blanket suppression over all forms of anger, that’s when we’re in danger of pushing the emotion into negative consequences, both for us internally and for the community around us.
We have to learn to express justified anger in a useful way, and channel unjustified anger in a healthy way. We have to learn to tell the difference, and express in a way that doesn’t contribute to violence, suppression of others, or any other kind of harm. Thurman knew well that speaking in anger wouldn’t allow her to be better heard or understood, and while that should be challenged, the reality is that anger doesn’t always require the same response — it doesn’t always have to be suppressed, nor does it always have to be expressed.
So where do we start?
1. Breathe through it, for now
We have to get a little calmer before we can really figure out the meaning and source of our anger. So the first step is, predictably enough, to breathe. Allow the adrenalin to subside a little. Allow the breathe to pass in and pass out, with the out-breath lasting longer than the in-breath. Take a step away from the situation, or engage in some useful distraction, just until the rush of adrenalin subsides. Drink a glass of water. And when you have some initial composure…
2. Start to unpick your thoughts and feelings
In the rush of anger, thoughts can become tangled and overwhelm, and become confused with feelings. The fact that thoughts and feelings are contextual is the important starting point here. The human mind can serve up to 70,000 thoughts per day — our minds continue to churn these out, whether or not we realise it. With all of these thoughts and feelings passing by, it’s vital to remember that they are not all true, nor do they qualify us as a person. They affect us, but they don’t define us. They change from moment to moment, and remembering this is the first step to distancing ourselves from the onslaught, or from self-judgment.
With this in mind, practicing mindfulness is a generally helpful way to begin separating yourself from that overwhelm. This is absolutely a practice — a muscle that has to be developed. For me, meditation has been the ‘way in’ to understanding mindfulness in an active, practical sense. You can read more about that here:
Here’s What Will Happen if you Meditate for 50 Days
Or ‘An Experiment in Meditation: 50 Days and Counting…’
In essence, however, start by just observing what is in your mind — writing it down helps me. There are no right or wrongs, just word dump it all onto the page. Then ask yourself: is it a thought, or is it a feeling, or both? Once you’ve established this, you can get a better sense of what you are dealing with.
It is an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practice to thank the mind for throwing up whatever it does — when we feel angry, it is likely because we are reacting to something that is important to us. Thank your mind for demonstrating this to you, because even if it’s a weird way to do so, it’s your subconscious trying to draw attention to something you value.
Another particularly useful exercise from ACT is to practice separating yourself from your thoughts by rephrasing them: “I am having the thought that…” By adding this little bit of distance, you have the opportunity to ‘defuse’ from your thoughts. You might confuse a few feelings in with thoughts, but that’s fine at this stage.
3. Observe your body and address your immediate needs
Feel what anger does to your body. I think this is the best indicator of whether or not your feelings are working for you or against you — give your body the chance to process. Observe what occurs in you.
You can only come up with ways to diffuse the tension in you when you know how your body in particular processes tension — what you specifically need. For me, exercise is a fantastic way to release anger that has no useful place in my life. It could be a half hour run, or perhaps some yoga, depending on whether I just need to sweat it out or I need help to feel calmer and more in tune with myself again. I am also a pretty big fan of the bath.
Other things you might consider:
- Going for a walk in nature
- Cooking a nice meal
- Loud music and dancing
- Getting lost in your favourite programme or film
- Picking up a good book
4. Engage in some active reflection
Once you have a sense of what it is you’re feeling and thinking, there are a few further questions to ask ourselves:
- What has literally just happened to cause an emotional reaction in me? Can I describe the context in detail? Who was there, what was I doing, what were they doing, what were we saying, how was it said, what else happened just before, and just after? Describe it all, even down to the weather outside, if you must. Get as accurate and detailed a picture of the context as possible.
- Was it something someone said? Or something they did? Or something totally external and random? What was the actual trigger point of my anger? What was I thinking in that moment? Focus in on the thoughts.
- Is it really anger that I felt most strongly? Or something else? Or a combination of things? Why? Pinpoint all the associated feelings.
- Is the anger something within me? Or is it on behalf of someone/something else?
- What am I associating with this anger? A previous issue, a wider concern, a previous experience…? Here we want to find what the anger links up with — what else is being drawn out by the situation that triggered you.
Curiosity is your best weapon here — a desire to best understand the nitty-gritty of yourself. Hopefully this active reflection can get you started on this, because once we’ve figured out where the anger is placed (internal to us or externally to us), there’s more work to be done…
5. Find a mode of healthy expression
After you give yourself a chance to try methods of distraction/de-escalation, ask yourself: What worked? What didn’t work? What else can you try? If it’s an ongoing problem that continually makes you angry, what can you do about it? Is there someone who you need to have a direct and honest conversation with? Or can you change the environment/scenario somehow? It’s a matter of questioning what is happening, how your efforts to respond are working out for you, and moving through solutions. If you’re at a loss for how change can happen (or how it can happen fast enough), it’s onto channeling.
Anger has been used to fuel creative projects across centuries, and if you’re a fan of any creative mode of expression, this might well be a healthy way to use your anger. Turn rage into beauty, and all that. I’ve found that writing has helped me out of a lot of low moods, as has painting, or crochet, or cooking…
Getting riled up can help galvanise you into productivity, into creativity, and more. It’s not always 100% effective, it doesn’t always totally satisfy, but it shows me that anger isn’t always entirely negative. It’s not always scary. It’s not always linked to violence or aggression — I can turn it, too, into something beautiful, or interesting, or useful. This helps the next time the anger simmers to the surface: I get better and better at assessing it or channeling it, as appropriate.
In a bigger sense…
If it’s a ‘big world problem’ that gets your blood boiling, I think there’s more work to do beyond how you as an individual process anger.
Research the facts
Learn a thing or two about the issue. Educate yourself. Anger without any thought behind it is reserved for the worst Twitter threads, and while getting shirty on a random internet forum may help for a while, if you’re driven in a larger way to change things, you’re going to have to understand what’s really going on. For the love of all things holy, get off Facebook. It’s not your source of truth. Find different perspectives — how can you approach and think about the issue scientifically, emotionally, politically, philosophically, etc?
Engage in constructive discussion
Talking to people who know about the issue will help to formulate your own opinions on it. It might also help you to figure out if there’s anyone else who shares your anger, and offer up new ideas on how to respond to that anger. Obviously approach with caution: people who take things to extremes or who forget about harm/don’t care about harm, can be influential in a very negative way. At the end of the day, we’re trying to find helpful and constructive ways to channel our anger, not contribute to the fall of mankind. So keep it real and don’t forget that the anger you felt initially was likely fuelled by a sense of injustice.
Get active for your cause
Find ways to get active. It might be starting or signing a petition, it might be writing to a representative of your local government, it might be volunteering for a charity looking to make a difference. Doing something, even if it isn’t a “huge” thing is still a step forward. Channel your anger into action.
Give it time
Sometimes anger dissipates by itself over time. Sometimes it takes a while to process, or turns into something else. Have patience. You’re a human too, so things pretty rarely move linearly from A to B — from anger into creativity or positivity, or anything else. Like Uma so beautifully put in the clip, speak when you’re ready to speak. Address it directly when you feel prepared. Don’t let it fester. Nobody wants to be your punching bag, and you also don’t want to let it eat you up inside. Give yourself the time to figure it out.
And in the meantime, keep the things that make you laugh and smile on hand. I turn to nature, to my partner, to my family — to the memories, places and things that are sure to remind me that things aren’t always completely and totally f***** up in this messed up world. Beauty and pleasure exist, too.