“I never get angry. I grow a tumor instead.” -Woody Allen
As a child in the nineties, I idolized women who were angry and restless and lived to write and sing their fury. Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani, Erykah Badu, Alanis Morrissette, Lauryn Hill, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Shirley Manson – even Madonna (before she became an enlightened pedantic guru) were all my heroes, not only because I dug their music, but also because each was unique, each was inhabiting of their individual beauty and sexuality, and each was authentic in their feeling and expressing of emotions. Especially anger.
They were mad and they spoke out: rotten childhoods, forays into drug addiction, men who had done them wrong, an ax they felt they had to grind with society. They didn’t sugar coat their ambivalence and hurt and seething imperfection. Their anger did not make them ugly, unspiritual, violent, or less feminine – in fact, it made them wholly human and relatable. It was also nice that, compared to today’s female singers, they wore pants.
The nineties seemed a brief respite when anger wasn’t so condemned and criticized. Individuality was far more revered. Not every goddamn thing was politicized. Alas, I feel we have gone backwards, and I sometimes have a hunch that that is why rage has exploded so profoundly in our current cultural and political climate. (There’s also that pesky internet. And ten thousand other reasons.) But in the nineties, it was a bit more encouraged to be messy and broken and pissed off. Sloppy. Unpolished. Fully human. Now everyone drinks green juice and downward dogs their way to love and light. Positive thinking, law of attraction, and “happy-ism” have replaced genuine, well-rounded, and fully embodied feeling. People are spiritually bypassing the very real world of humanness, which will always include fury and ferocity. And it should. Our lives depend on it.
Anger brings to mind violence and contention, but anger in and of itself is not the same as uncontrollable rage. It is an emotion, therefore it is an experience of energy and sensation in the body. It may lead to lashing out or shutting down when dealt with in a faulty fashion. Like any strong negative emotion, it can be difficult to experience. Anger, in particular though, is the most socially unacceptable. Having it means you don’t handle yourself very well, that you are somehow flawed. Right?
Anger is not just a poor defense mechanism. Anger is not just something that uncontrollable, selfish, and dark-minded souls experience. It is inherent to all human beings; it is an innate survival mechanism that alerts us when something isn’t right. It is an emotion that demands I matter! And it is when we don’t feel it – when we repress, ignore, and shame it, that it wreaks havoc on our systems and can unnecessarily harm others.
I thought for so long that I was in touch with my anger, when really, ashamed as I was, I was judging it and shoving it aside. It began to erupt in all sorts of volatile and damaging ways. Chronic pain, depression, addiction, difficulty breathing, lashing out at well-meaning people, and feeling generally sick are my repression side effects. Bottled up anger is toxic. Pretending to not be angry is dangerous. Dumping heaps of compassion and light (I get mine at Whole Foods) over unprocessed anger is a fool’s game. Dr. Candace Pert explains that a surefire way to jumpstart one’s immune system is to release (in a way that doesn’t do harm to another) a surge of suppressed anger.
I began to suffer from chronic pain when I was eighteen, mostly low back and leg pain, only on my left side. I still experience this pain today, which I have come to understand is a mind-body phenomenon and not due to any specific medical issue or structural cause. More on that later. At the time, I was so numb and shutdown that I had no idea what was happening in my body, and I was a bit distracted anyway with alcoholism and trauma. I thought the chronic pain was from a hamstring injury that “hadn’t healed right.” I made zero connection to the very real trauma and repressed anger that was living in my body and the overall pain I was (wasn’t) feeling. It wasn’t until seven years later that I would discover the work of Dr. Sarno and the wealth of knowledge and insight that has sprung forth from his discovery: that very real chronic pain symptoms of every color can (and mostly do) stem from the mind and deeply repressed emotions, namely anger and rage.
For many of us in the western world, some of the beliefs we internalize are: happy people don’t get angry. Anger is unfeminine and ugly. (Girls and women, in particular, are praised for not being “angry types.”) Look good and be successful – that is what is important. Grin and bear it. Be grateful. Be kind. Strong emotions mean you are doing something wrong. There is an exorbitant amount of pressure to be cheerful and successful and to look good while doing so, and this in and of itself creates intense unconscious rage in the psyche. The id does not like it. (See Freud.) There is nothing wrong with being successful and socially decent – but often it is these distorted and narrow beliefs that mask an entire subterranean world (Carl Jung’s shadow world) that demands release, and if emotional release doesn’t happen, you better believe it will come forth elsewhere, often in the form of pain or sickness, in mental illness and addiction, or in nervous system shutdown. All boiling pots eventually spill forth their scalding contents.
Not only does our culture set some pretty high standards, but many of us grow up in dysfunctional homes. Children do not thrive in unbridled chaos, nor do they thrive in hyper-vigilant and rigid form, and balance is a challenge to come by in the modern world. When we grow up forced to be a certain “type” of kid, punished for crying or getting angry, shamed for having feelings, ignored and neglected, emotionally or verbally abused, with narcissism, alcoholism, and divorce, or simply with parents who are emotionally immature and therefore unequipped to attune and connect, our systems and our ability to regulate ourselves are obviously affected. If we are already a bit more sensitive to begin with (holler), we are likely more affected.
This is the trauma that packs a walloping punch on children, discrete and covert as it might be, and one of the most common characteristics of these sorts of system-shocking experiences is a deep repression and subsequent suppression of anger. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part to repress a sea of anger (that would have been entirely appropriate to express, given the sometimes hostile and unsafe-feeling environment) but repress I did. Pretend I did. Smile I did. I did not grow up with extreme poverty or a bombardment of physical and sexual violence but there was plenty about which I was super hurt and angry. It stayed buried, like an infection, (and I did indeed feel sick and fever-like for so much of my childhood and adolescence) underneath layers of coping mechanisms.
This is an epidemic. This is, what many psychologists and doctors are finally catching onto and beginning to prove (see Dr. Sarno and Dr. Gabor Mate and enjoy inevitable rabbit hole) a huge factor in the wellspring of chronic illnesses, autoimmune diseases, and neurological disorders that are so common in modern society. This is not a blame game but a calling forth of a cultural frailty that demands notice; that the classical family system so common in our culture is riddled with misunderstanding of what best supports human development. This doesn’t mean we need to start walking around scowling and picking fights and talking shit – but we do deserve as individuals to tap into our veritable feelings and not judge them or swat them away. We perhaps deserve to find a confidante or two with whom we can really let it all hang out. Not as easy as it sounds, especially for those of us who have deeply internalized the anger is bad messaging.
I’ve been on, for lack of a better phrase, the wellness path, for many years now. I have looked into what creates suffering and peace and many different avenues that shed light on such a universal, age-old wonder. The psychological, spiritual, and philosophical realms have been especially fascinating to me. As I have grown and changed, so have some of my beliefs and understandings. Investigating my own experience with addiction, eating disorders, career and relationship, spirituality, and mental and physical illness, I’ve made discoveries that ring true, some that ring false, and a whole heap of confusing contradictions.
Should I practice gratitude at all times? Should I express myself? Restrain myself? Forget my Self? Serve others more? Punch pillows? Sit in meditation? Write it all out? Spend more time alone, introverted as I am? Spend more time with others, since we are social creatures? Exercise more? Forgive more? Therapy more? Have fun more? (yes.) There is no one answer to the however many questions humans have been asking since the beginning. But I do always circle back to one truth, and that is truth. (What is the truth? I dare you to ask Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson!) Well, for me, it’s authenticity. Awareness. Acceptance. And allowance. Of where I am. And what I am feeling. And allowing that. Anger and all.
I do not mean that to sound woo-woo or draped in gauze and healing crystals. I simply mean, here is where the fuck I am. Fine. So if I am feeling angry or depressed or annoyed or afraid, instead of judging it, labeling it, analyzing and understanding it, and then trying to fix and change it, even through “positive” methods, I’m just there with it, and not necessarily cross-legged on a stupid cushion. Instead of letting our cultural happy-ism drive me to thinking I must be doing something wrong to not feel great, I just let myself not feel great. So much comes from allowing ourselves to just not feel great.
Some of what I learned in recovery and in our current holistic and wellness-obsessed culture has had to be challenged and unlearned, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable, (including me.) It has taken me so long to just accept, accept, accept and stop trying to fix, fix, fix (I’m an addict, I need a fix!) through spirituality, therapy, food, or anything else. Here are a bunch of things I have done to stop being angry and “get happy,” none of which are at all wrong or bad, by the way; I just used them to a degree of trying to dehumanize or else superhuman myself.
I tried eating the perfect nutritious healthy diet in order to cure what was still ailing me, both emotionally and physically. Didn’t do a damn thing, except make me skinny, cold, and drained of all libido. My boyfriend at the time was thrilled. I kid, but nutrition, while somewhat important, is not at all the answer, at least not for those with a history of trauma. (See Lissa Rankin’s work – the health nuts of LA will drop their bowls of organic local greens!)
I tried the gratitude lists, positive affirmations, post-its with I love you’s on them, and law of attraction woo woo. Again, all fine to a degree, sort of helpful, but not enough for me. Putting a positive affirmation on an autonomic nervous system fried by unfelt feels is like putting a Mickey Mouse bandaid on a broken back. Nice try. (And for the record, I think the way Esther Hicks talks to her clients is controlling and mildly abusive.)
I tried the Christian, Buddhist, A Course in Miracles, Power of Now, God is Everything route. All great stuff, which I still practice and still revere. I consider myself a believer. I pray and meditate. I have a relationship with a Higher Power. The present moment is cool. But for me, if I use this stuff to not feel bad feelings, espesh anger, I am in trouble. Attempts to go the spiritual bypass route, where we are so darn connected and enlightened and conscious (oh, brother) that we don’t feel and think and have the experience of being in a complex body on the complex earth is foolish (and obnoxious.) Mind-body illness, deep trauma, addiction, and propensity toward depression are partly a spiritual problem, if you think of spiritual sickness as that universal inevitable suffering and dissatisfaction with life, but they are not just spiritual problems (though spirituality can make the path a lot more meaningful.)
I did therapy, and for a few years it was extremely helpful. It gave me a baseline understanding of what was happening within me and how family systems (dys)function. I learned about narcissism and “parts work.” One therapist was very unconditionally loving when I was first getting sober, and another was super Jungian and helped me integrate a fractured psyche. No joke. I have gone back for tune-ups here and there, and usually I think after, that was a waste of money. No offense to the therapist – it’s not you, it’s me! But the talking doesn’t do much for me anymore. I need to feel. (See Somatic Experiencing.) I notice that when I feel “bad,” (9 times out of 10 because I am suppressing feelings) I get those urgent thoughts: should I start therapy again and commit for at least six months? Then I’ll be cured? Because maybe I haven’t excavated enough? Because maybe I’m deeply screwed up? And should be on medication? Oh, dear! Hey, maybe that will be a path again at some point. But I am finding that if I actually feel instead of thinking and analyzing, the suffering passes.
I also did (and still do) a whole lot of twelve-stepping. I will be the first to defend twelve step programs. I have seen them save and rebuild thousands of lives in my ten plus years in the rooms. They absolutely can work in helping someone stop drinking or drugging or gambling or compulsively eating or whatever-ing and find their way back to society. But I will also be the first to offer a critique, and here it is!
Twelve step programs teach forgiveness, making amends, saying prayers when angry, all of which can be positive and helpful tools, depending on the circumstance. But they write off anger as if it is the “dubious luxury of normal men” (meaning non-alcoholic, FYI) and that we must leapfrog over it and into forgiveness and compassion, stat. Um, no. Just because I have alcoholism does not mean I am forbidden to have anger because it might spiral into resentment and might lead me to drink. The decision to not feel anger and instead force ourselves to understanding by praying or writing or talking our way out of feelings is exactly what leads to anger turning toxic in the first place. It is one area where I think AA gets it wrong – don’t tell me how to forcibly control my emotions – my parents and teachers already did that!
Look, I get what the founders were trying to explain – they were attempting to say, you can’t change this person/place/situation and lashing out is certainly not a good choice, so you might as well forgive. But what they fail to mention is the very real experience of feeling the anger and processing it in a healthy manner without shame. Resentment and other soul-sickness sets in when we have been forced or have forced ourselves to not feel. Resentment comes when we don’t allow the anger because it is “bad” or because “we’re better than that, we’re more spiritual than that, we’re not angry people;” then it really settles in and grow roots.
So many of us addicts come from backgrounds where we were deeply shamed for having strong emotions, and god knows we drank and drugged every damn feeling into the ground anyway, so to come into recovery and be further taught that anger is still inherently bad is not helpful. I am all for behaving like a decent person who doesn’t run around like an emotional terrorist. This comes from learning how to accept, allow, and process all emotions in a functional way. Most emotional tyrants haven’t really felt their anger in a damn long time.
I find this sort of messaging especially damaging to recovering alcoholics who suffer from chronic pain and other mind-body illnesses. Next to alcoholism, living with pain is a most hellish, insufferable, and emotionally draining experience. If getting more in touch with my anger is going to provide me solution but possibly rock a little of the social boat in terms of what I may or may not share in a meeting, I choose the former.
In terms of what I value philosophically and spiritually, I don’t deny that I flip flop. Some days I am madly in love with the ideas of lovingkindness, compassion, and non-aggression; others, I relish in the soul-jolting fervor of intensity and reaction, of incisive discernment. Perhaps that is my philosophy – plenty of room for both. There is too much that I enjoy that is also a bit “toxic” to fully commit to the non-aggressive path (namely Twitter and poking fun at the incessant, utterly moronic nature of social justice warriors.)
So what do we do? How do we cope with our lives having suffered the loss of anger, when we should have been allowed to feel it without attaching stories of shame and badness to it? There is no one way. I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that being in complete acceptance of whatever I am feeling and NOT forcing it to change into something flowery and pretty and socially acceptable feels really good and far more healing than gratitude-listing my way to peace.
Of course I don’t want to hurt people, but I don’t want to be Pollyanna either. I don’t want to live in a utopian world of rainbows and unicorns and everyone just being polite to each other all the damn time. There is a place for passion and intensity and argument, for reaction to mistreatment, for honoring our very human (animal) natures – the messy, sloppy, reality-based world where we can feel and tell what is true. Jung’s sprawling, shimmering River of Doom ain’t going anywhere – as Tool sang (another kick ass angry nineties rock band) you better “learn to swim.”