“Feelings are our only pathway to our human potential. Feelings are in charge of our development. Emotions have work to do but we can’t learn from them unless we can feel them. We need to feel to adapt. We need to feel to be self regulated. Anger is our self-validating emotion, it tells us that we have been mistreated, it tells us, ‘I’m worth more than this’. Feelings will do the work of growing us up, we cannot grow up any other way”
- Gordon Neufeld -
Anger is an emotion that provides essential information about what is happening right now, in the present. Anger is the spark, it is a mobilising emotion that tells us a boundary has been crossed. Anger gives us the invitation and the energy to do something: to hold our ground, to speak up, to defend or to flee.
It is an emotion that is often looked down upon in our society. It is true that unchecked or suppressed anger can lead to both physical and emotional harm as well as irreversible damage to relationships and it is important that we acknowledge the potential dangers of uncontrolled and repressed forms of anger. However, a healthy connection to our anger can guide us, grow us, and is a powerful ally if properly understood and respected.
Anger in shadow
Having a relationship with our anger and trusting what it is telling us is crucial for our safety and well-being, as it allows us to protect ourselves in-the-moment and carry ourselves forward with integrity and authenticity. If our anger is in shadow, or if we carry unresolved anger from our past, it can cause us to display two different types of behaviour. One can be an explosive, frightening outburst that is difficult to control and creates more harm than good. The other is repression of anger, where we may not harness or express our clean anger, but rather resort to manipulative, passive- aggressive behaviour that can be confusing and uncomfortable for others. It can create a sense of mistrust and unease in our relationships.
When anger is repressed or kept hidden, it can affect how we react to situations and make it difficult for us to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy anger. This may be due to old wounds and past experiences that have caused us to hold onto strong emotions that may not fit the present circumstance. It may well be the case that to express anger as a child would have led to emotional or physical harm and so repressing this part of us may well have been a skilful adaption by another part of us concerned with our well-being, our safety or survival. To employ anger effectively, we need to confront any shadow anger in a safe, shame free and supportive environment that acknowledges our early experiences. This is the key to develop trust in our ability to manage ourselves with integrity and to connect with our anger in a healthy and powerful manner in current situations.
A gateway emotion to our potential
Anger is a gateway emotion allowing access to a well of energy to:
Create and uphold healthy boundaries, allowing us to stand in our power and to stand up for ourselves.
Defend and protect - both ourselves and others. Speak up, and speak one’s truth, and to access the courage to walk towards difficult conversations: to communicate clearly, cleanly and directly.
Embody self-esteem and a healthy sense of Self and identity.
Stand in authenticity, in integrity, taking responsibility for our thoughts feelings and emotions. It allows us the grounding with which we can hold others and ourselves to account.
Mobilise, motivate and move forward: taking effecting action and achieving goals.
Access a felt sense of power and agency.
Take action, and break the paralysing cycle of fear and analysis that can otherwise cause us to sit back and become passive victims of circumstance.
Good relationships need good boundaries
Feeling anger is essential and tells us that something is not okay, that a boundary has been crossed. If we are not in touch with our anger there are no warning signs that we are being infringed and that there is something important to protect.
Being in touch with our boundaries and what is or what is not okay allows a sense of identity to emerge within which we can settle, knowing that our needs and wants matter. It is through our boundaries that we are able to connect safely in relationship, protecting our vulnerability when needed, with the clarity to say ‘yes’ or to say ‘no, this is not okay for me’. Good relationships need good boundaries. It is only with good boundaries that we can open our heart into relationship, to be authentic, truthful and clear.
The primary goal of anger is not to foster connections. It serves to protect and to stand up for what we believe in. Indeed, it may risk disconnection from others if it means protecting or advocating for what matters most. Despite this, there is a contradiction at play: often, when we express our true feelings to others, they gain a better understanding of our perspectives and become more understanding and accepting, relating to us more fully. As a result, authentically connecting with our anger and communicating our experience in a mature and respectful manner can actually strengthen our relationships with those around us.
Embodying a healthy relationship with our anger provides the energy to protect ourselves in real-time, in the moment. This might look like stating a boundary, speaking our truth, protecting or defending ourselves or loved ones, escaping a threatening situation. There is a unique transfer of responsibility that can occur as this aspect of our personality is owned, grown and strengthened. The proactive vigilance that we can take on in early life in order to stay accepted, acceptable and safe can leave us as adults with patterns of avoidance, people pleasing, going quiet, wearing masks, manipulating those around us and so on in order to stay safe. These proactive behaviours give us some sense of safety in relationship, but they are exhausting and may not be truly serving us to get what we want, and keeping us from authentic connection with others and our own felt sense of agency and authenticity. These strategies are driven by a fear of the unknown and through a fear of uncertainty, a lack of self-worth and fear of relationship.
As we access and grow our warrior archetypal energy through a healthy relationship with our anger and learn through repeated experience that we can handle whatever comes our way, that we can speak up for ourselves and hold our boundaries, that we can defend ourselves in the moment when needed because we value ourselves and own that self-worth, something shifts within us around the part of us that is responsible for our safety, and the proactive vigilance begins to settle. This is huge for many people and the energy needed in one’s life to stay safe proactively is released and replaced by a felt-sense of safety that we carry with us, within our bodies. This is a vitally important transition of responsibility in the arc of personal development towards authentic adulthood, and in reclaiming one’s wholeness.
Re-writing unhelpful experiences with anger in a shadow work session
Many of us don’t use our anger because we have had not had a good experience of getting a positive result from using it. When expressing in this way in the past we may have been ignored, belittled, punished or shamed, rather than being listened to and having someone understand and validate what is not okay for us.
Many of us have experienced or seen anger being expressed for negative or destructive ends, or experienced anger as an impotent emotion which doesn’t serve in any way. We may have experienced or been on the receiving end of blind rage and made a clear decision never to do or to be anything like that person we saw so out of control. We may fear that having experienced that sort of rage that it also lives inside us and fear what that might look like or what might happen if it got out. So, it is important to understand the rationale for beginning to connect with and expressing anger; why it is important.
Choosing to find a space where you can reclaim this essential energy in a safe environment, with no real world consequences can allow you to reclaim your inherent strength and power through physical embodiment and to explore and experience the legitimacy of this emotion and the energy behind it.
Through this process you can have experience of expressing anger without anyone coming to harm, and this presents an opportunity to re-write childhood scripts that anger always equals danger. You will then more likely to take the risk of connecting with and feeling your anger and harnessing that energy to stand your ground and express yourself authentically in the outside world should you choose to when it’s needed.
So when we talk about facilitated anger work in a shadow work session, we are not talking about a burst of impulsivity. We are talking about a deliberate and conscious approach to what we are doing, with awareness and intention around why we are doing what we are doing and exactly how we are going to do it. For this we need a non-shaming environment where we can be supported to explore any barriers, inner voices or risks as we are supported to meet this energy within us.
Why work with anger as a component of your healing process
Anger work is an expression of the life force within us which can propel us into the world as powerful and autonomous adults. When other people infringe or break our boundaries by invading us physically, emotionally, or spiritually, the use of our own life force in an enhanced form - anger - can re-establish our power, and drive the energy of the other person out of our system.
We live out the dynamics we carry inside us: If we can change these dynamics we change what we live out in our life. By expressing anger towards certain voices or messages that live in our inner world we can experience having the energy and confidence to stand up to these messages. We then have a strong powerful part of us living in our inner world to protect us. We will live that out in our outer world by finding we are able to stand up to, or move away from, damaging influences.
The Limbic System is moulded by experience. By providing your body and your brain with a new way of responding to the energy that you are seeing in front of you, you are giving this part of your system the opportunity of a new script to follow when you encounter this energy next time in your life. It is only through strengthening this new way of responding that a real change can take place within you.
Experiencing full anger in a safe setting with no real world consequences builds inner trust: If we have put anger into shadow then we will be scared of expressing it and fearful of the consequences. We are probably used to it coming out by accident and causing harm. If we can let our anger out in a safe, shame free space, where there are no real world consequences, then we can get to know this side of ourselves. It is as if we go through some kind of anger gateway. Once we have let the anger out in a messy or even violent looking way we then know we have this power in us. We don’t need to repeat this full body expression of it again in the outer world. We will, however, start to trust our anger and be able to use it in a clean and purposeful way in the outside world.
Anger work can heal trauma through releasing energetic and emotional blocks. Contemporary research and understanding (Peter Levine et al. Stephen Porges et al. Bessel van der Kolk et al) shows that the physiological impact of trauma on the body and nervous system can be released and the nervous system re-regulated through meaningful, deliberate and conscious reparative emotional processing.
“We don’t just do anger work because we need to express and release our justified rage. To be sure, healthy anger release helps to restore the integrity of our being. Anger is a sacred emotion, if it is honoured authentically, without destruction.
But there is more.
We do healthy anger work because we come to recognise that we cannot touch into the deepest parts of our vulnerability without it. Until the inner child knows that we have the capacity to protect her tenderness with ferocity, she will not fully reveal it. He will only open so much, until he knows that he can hold himself safe.
This is one of the reasons why those who grew up unprotected will often keep their hearts closed. They don’t have a template for self-protection. Sometimes we have to forge that template ourselves - in the fires of our own empowerment.
The more sturdily we can touch into and express our rightful anger, the more comfortable we will feel embodying and expressing our vulnerability. The more powerful our roar, the more open our core.”
- Jeff Brown -