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Anger is a Sword

"Dawn" by Ivan Bilibin
"Dawn" by Ivan Bilibin

For a long time, I tried not to be angry. My father was an angry man. His father was an angry man. At some point, I decided, "I will not be an angry man."

But come high school, I was a pretty angry kid. I expressed it quietly, mostly taking it out on myself—channeling it into intense, arduous study. My workaholic tendencies were a way to drown intense inner anger and pain.

I excelled at school because of this. But this success, fueled by repressed anger, came with severe consequences. I constantly snapped at my mother and sister. I was fiercely competitive and intensely self-critical and self-punishing when I failed. Towards strangers or authorities, I was resentful, unloving, and disrespectful. Toward my father, I felt level 10 rage.

In time, I consciously began reeling in my anger. My emotional control improved dramatically. But as the years went by, I noticed I had cut something off. I lost my drive, focus, intensity, and disciplined work-ethic.

Looking back, I realize I didn't really master my anger, I suppressed it. I not only made that buried anger more intense, I suppressed its positive, life-giving power.

The Thing About Anger

Here's the thing about anger: we need it. We didn't evolve a capacity for anger for no reason.

We all know the downfalls of anger - they are numerous and harmful. But few people really talk about its benefits, or the risks of repressing it.

Anger motivates us to take action.

Anger focuses us. It tells us THIS is important. THIS is something I value.

Anger makes us decisive. Our "Yes" and our "No" become intensely clear, like blazing neon signs. "YES, this IS what I want." "NO, this is NOT tolerable to me."

Anger also allows us to set (and keep) boundaries. Once you've decided your "Yes" and "No," you have to enforce it.

Anger not only sets boundaries, it can also break them down.

Anger "overtops all dams" as William James put it. Wielded well, it allows us to break free of restricting social norms, personal blocks, or social dynamics that have become suffocating.

Anger helps us speak our truth. In fact, outbursts of anger are often outbursts of honesty—feelings we have not expressed come pouring out of us.

Anger is our advocate and protector, and when wielded well, it can also be the protector of others—be they individuals, groups, principles, or values.

Anger gives us strength. When we're angry, we gain physical, mental, and emotional powers that we normally do not have access to.

Anger, wielded well, cuts through bullshit, either your own, or that of others. Anger demands authenticity, honesty, fairness, and tolerates nothing less.

Anger helps us stand up for ourselves, to serve our own needs and interests. Wielded well, anger can become an important supporter of self-love.

The key to all of these positive traits of anger is our ability to wield it well.

When anger is wielded masterfully, we don't even recognize it as anger. We see it as assertiveness, resolve, firmness of character, passion, and other positive traits.

Anger is like a sword.

All of us carry this sword—all of us are capable of anger. The issue is, most of us don't really know how to wield it.

Most often, it wields us.

If you're taught that you should never be angry, that you must keep anger completely out of your life, you not only risk denying your natural need to express anger, but when the sword DOES come out, it's completely raw, charged, and you have almost no experience with how to wield it because you've had virtually no practice.

A warrior needs disciplined training to master a weapon. She does not let the sword slip from her control. She uses its power effectively, but does not let its power intoxicate her.

Likewise, a mature warrior knows when to draw her sword and when to keep it sheathed. When a different tool — diplomacy? kindness? humor? — might be more effective.

When anger is wielded well, it becomes assertiveness, decisiveness, courage, resolve, self-respect, passion, earnestness, an advocate of fairness, an enforcer of boundaries. Anger either gives rise to, or assists with, all of these characteristics.

Working with my clients, I've seen first hand just how important it is to address anger as a part of healing and growth. It's a problem both when there's too much of it, and ironically, when there's not enough.

If we don't know how to access and use our anger skillfully, we will have trouble manifesting these positive attributes in our lives. Likely, these qualities may appear sporadically (in bursts, just like our anger), but they are not sustainable unless we can also productively sustain our anger without repressing it, and without letting it take control of us.

We have very few examples in our society of men or women wielding their anger well.

What's more, when it's really done masterfully, we don't even recognize it as anger. We see it as assertiveness, resolve, firmness of character, passion, and other positive traits.

When we stigmatize and deny anger we cut ourselves off from its power, but we also let it become raw, primal, and truly dangerous for lack of appropriate expression.

Being angry often is NOT the same as getting "practice" wielding your anger.

Rather, it's exactly the opposite: you are practicing (and reinforcing) the habit of being wielded by IT.

The first step to mastering anger is accepting it exists within you. The next is tracing it to its roots. And while anger usually feels like it's rooted in the present (the state of the world, what your boss told you yesterday, etc.) its true roots often lie in childhood.

Whether with the help of a therapist, a men's or women's group, or other skilled guide, identifying those longstanding narratives and unprocessed pain can bring us a long way in mastering our anger and wielding it like a warrior wields her sword.

Repressed Anger

When we stigmatize and deny anger we cut ourselves off from its power, but we also let it become raw, primal, and truly dangerous for lack of appropriate expression.

Repressed anger, like all repressed emotions, comes out sideways. Usually it emerges as either explosions of active aggression, or quieter, but just as toxic, passive aggression.

Anger that's left to sit for long enough festers into resentment. Carrying that toxicity inside your body and heart kills you from within. And when it finally bursts out, you risk killing your relationships—or at the very worst, literally killing someone.

OK, so how do we do this?

Anger is very much like a sword. It is quite literally dangerous, and like a sword, you need to practice with it.

As I said earlier, being angry often is NOT the same as getting "practice" wielding your anger.

Rather, it's exactly the opposite: you are practicing (and reinforcing) the habit of being wielded by IT.

The less experience you have with your anger, the longer and deeper you've suppressed it, the more volatile it typically is, and the less experience you’ve likely had in wielding it well.

One way is to bring to mind conflict situations from your past and re-play them imagining multiple alternative ways to react. Alternatively, imagine situations yet to come and how you will react.

Another way to address it is to literally treat it like a living being inside of you. To make friends with it. To speak to it and ask it what it wants and needs. If you ignore its needs, it will eventually lash-out and fulfill those needs in its own, raw, aggressive way—likely leaving you bewildered ('how could I do this?'), and others hurt ('how could you do this?').

Yet another way is to express anger in a guided session or container specifically designed for this. This usually involves group-work, having multiple people at hand to help hold the space. One example is the Mankind Project's practice of Clearings, designed to help men express and own their anger toward another man in the room.

If your anger is intense and feels uncontrollable in its current form, you may be carrying unresolved resentment from your earliest relationships. Getting clear with parents or siblings or other early-life relationships may be essential to gaining control of your anger today. To address the root causes of this anger you may need to go back in time to interact with and move through old childhood or teenage emotions. This is also best done in guided processes with experienced practitioners.

The Red Energy

Anger is a human emotion. If we were to give it a more general name, we might think of it as an expression of the "red energy" that runs through the animal kingdom. We share it with many creatures who use it for much the same things we do: a dog growls and barks to mark and keep the boundaries of its territory, a lioness brings down a gazelle so she and her cubs will not starve, a snake strikes to defend itself, chimps get outraged when norms of fairness is violated in a group.

Denying this red energy, we deny something natural and real within us. By cutting off the red energy we cut ourselves off from a primal power, a source of strength and will. It connects us to the earth, to life’s potent strength, and the truth that needs to be spoken and acted upon if we hope to live a sturdy, authentic life.


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