Toxic Anger vs. Healing Anger
“It’s certainly toxic to express our anger without thought, acting out with cruelty, meanness, or pettiness. But it’s also toxic to swallow that anger down.”
Anger is a hot emotion. It’s intense, and it makes us want to take action, to lash out, to react with violence. It can feel dangerous to feel our anger, so many of us don’t. We avoid it at all costs, swallowing our emotions, holding back, and pasting a peaceful face over the bubbling rage on the inside.
Reacting with anger is, of course, dangerous, but so is swallowing it down. Many of us think of anger as toxic, a poisonous emotion that makes us sick. Understandably, being around people who express a lot of anger with violence can feel toxic too—it stresses us out. We don’t want to be around that, nor do we want to be that.
Every emotion, however, has power. Every emotion has a meaning, and when we avoid feeling what we feel, it tends to dampen all emotions. It’s certainly toxic to express our anger without thought, acting out with cruelty, meanness, or pettiness. But it’s also toxic to swallow that anger down. Sometimes depression is a manifestation of swallowed anger.
So What Should We Do With Our Anger?
First we need to feel it. The practice of mindfulness is in large part about creating spaces where we can feel with an attitude of compassion. We start to understand that there is a distance between what we feel on the inside and what we choose to do with those feelings. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we feel, or pretend that what we feel isn’t happening, we’re much more likely to mindlessly act out. That, then, becomes toxic.
It can help to shift our perspective around the experience of anger. Rather than saying, “I am angry,” which implies that we are fully embodying the spirit of anger, we can say “I’m feeling some anger right now.” That helps us acknowledge anger as one of a multitude of things we could be feeling, and that it almost certainly won’t last. It helps us honor our anger without becoming it.
“When anger arises, it is trying to tell us something important. We must take it as an indication to pause, slow down, and reflect on what’s going on for us.”
We must also learn to honor the power of our anger. Anger is almost always trying to protect us or someone else. It comes up in situations of injustice, when we see something that we know is not okay. When we feel it on our own behalf, we may discover that a need is not being met or that a boundary has been crossed. Anger helps tell us where the line is between ourselves and everyone else. It tells us about justice, our self-esteem, and our own vulnerability.
Sometimes anger protects us from our fear. It gives us the courage to stand up for ourselves and push someone away who is not treating us right. Sometimes it protects from our grief. It pushes away anyone offering us the softness that might allow the well of sadness to arise. Anger is a natural part of the mourning process.
When anger arises, it is trying to tell us something important. We must take it as an indication to pause, slow down, and reflect on what’s going on for us.
That could look like taking time to meditate, going for a walk alone, talking to a friend, journaling, or any other (non-violent!) way to process feelings. On the other side of that, we may find that we need to communicate our needs or boundaries to someone else, and we can choose to do that with kindness and compassion. When we do communicate in this way, we can actually bring our people closer to us; help them get to know us better. When we allow ourselves to feel our anger and take it as an opportunity to slow down and feel rather than act out, our anger isn’t toxic at all: it’s healing.
- by Julie Peters