With a new year, new, very different, President and Vice President, vaccines rolling out, and spring on its way, I thought we’d be done with anger. Don’t you wish? Rather than hope for the unlikely, I’m looking at how to make positive use of my anger, asking,
“How can I turn my anger into fuel for my creative work?”
Any of my feelings, including difficult emotions like grief, fear, and anger, can be gateways to creativity. Anger’s especially tough for me. I grew up in a generation of “nice girls” where I learned to sit on my anger, or, more accurately, let my anger sit on me.
Those days are over. But expressing my anger doesn’t mean I want to act in ways that cause messes. I want to apply my anger, whether current or longtime suppressed, toward something constructive.
Turning rage into results
Nina Simone was angry after Medgar Evers and Emmett Till were killed. Enraged to learn that the 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed in Birmingham, Alabama and four children had died, she quickly composed “Mississippi Goddam,” a pulsing song whose fury pulls no punches.
Atira Tan, visiting Cambodia during a trip around the world. watched the local nightlife where mothers came out to sell their young daughters for sex. Tan was appalled and enraged. She canceled her travel plans and helped found Art to Healing to help victims of sex trafficking heal their trauma.
Not all of our creative work has to lead to action. Sometimes doing something small, just for ourselves, is enough.
Anger doesn’t automatically turn into art or action. It first needs to be alchemized.
Ancient alchemists wanted to transmute base materials into something beautiful. They used cauldrons and rituals to prepare themselves for acts of alchemy, which could be dangerous. My cauldron is the medium, project or activity I choose to work on. I must prepare myself as well.
When my anger is fierce, I may need help directing it into creative use. Left to roam around my innards unchecked, anger can do a lot of damage. And anger tied up too tightly can simmer and leech the life out of me.
I can learn to use our anger, expressing it without lashing out and hurting others.
Our job is to use the anger and not let it use us.
I ask, “How can anger help me create?” While anger management or self-analysis can be useful, I use the following steps to move my anger from reactivity to creativity:
When I’m in reaction, I’m more likely to explode or act in hurtful ways. It doesn’t matter how right I am. I use the mantra: “Shut mouth and breathe.” It gives my amygdala time to chill. I don’t deny my anger, shove it down or prettify it. I just apply a little self-control. I tell it, “I hear you and I’ll attend to you after we’ve both settled a bit.” Reactivity is different from creativity.
The worst thing I can do when I’m enraged is to sit and seethe, although that’s often tempting. Talking probably won’t help. My approach now is move, walk, stretch, run, dance, or pick a flower. Stay out of my head or at least balance my anguish with physical activity to get my heart pumping. Shaking is excellent.
I don’t like anger and often want to just get over it. But not wanting to be angry doesn’t help. Sometimes a situation deserves anger. (The situations Simone and Tan faced certainly did.)
After I’m breathing again, I ask questions to understand the context. Am I triggered by what somebody just said to me or by pain from the past? Or both? I want to be kind to myself for how deep some hurts can go.
Accepting that I’m angry, though, doesn’t mean I have to accept centuries of violence to women or the trafficking of a child.
As I ready myself to create, I delve into my imagination. “What color is the anger? What does it smell like? What shape does it have? What song might it be?” I become curious about this high-octane fuel I’ll be using.
As I become curious, I start the process of creating.
An alchemist can transform anger into action or art. Carefully. After all, anger, like a fire, burns. I don’t want to be caught in the flames.
I may need to pray.
Prayer for me uses simple words like, “Help me move this anger.” “Help me harness this force,” or “Help me use and then release this energy.” I sound my S.O.S. to any guardian angels who might be in the neighborhood, “Help me sing, dance, or create my way through these difficult feelings.”
I can use my intention, telling myself. “I’m want to feel my anger, and then move it constructively.”
I may want to say an affirmation or chant a simple mantra, such as “I create beauty.” Having something to say repeatedly can move me out of places where my mind is stuck.
I can laugh. Laughter helps me work with anger and pull beauty out of it.
Aim your fuel into a form
Next it’s time to put my emotional energy into creative use. I don’t have to make art, but I want to work on something I’m passionate about. What art medium. music or project can be a channel for the energy I’m feeling?
I can work either directly or indirectly with my emotions.
Direct work: I can channel my anger directly into a project. After the presidential election in 2016, I used my rage to write a blog post. It saved me.
Tan started an organization. Simone wrote her song
Indirect work: When I work in this way, I put my feelings into my work without a destination in mind. If I’m writing, I free-write. If I’m painting, I pour paint on a page and see what happens. In the garden, I might dig until I have a sense of what wants to be planted. Feelings flow out of me into a safe space where I can enjoy them, allowing them to morph.
As I create, I become bigger than any particular feeling. My emotions can change. Just because I have anger doesn’t mean that’s all I have. Other feelings are free to show up in my work.
In this last step, I rinse out my feelings with a cool flush of gratitude. My anger may not be gone, (in Simone’s case it certainly wasn’t). Or, maybe my anger has shifted into joy or exhilaration. Whatever I feel, when I create I feel more whole.
I move beyond being a reactor to becoming a generator. I feel connected again to the world outside of me as well as to myself.
I can breathe again.