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Use that anger so that it doesn’t use you

Anger is a natural part of life. It comes and goes, like the wind, unless like a broken fan in the summer, it gets stuck on “on.”

I’ve been feeling a lot of it recently, mixed with grief. If you’ve been missing the fun, try my husband’s trick and read the Washington Post and New York Times before breakfast. Chances are, you’ll hit bingo on your despair-ometer before 9 am.

Seriously, most of us don’t need a mote more anger or grief, which is why I’m continuing on my theme of using that anger by turning it into creative fuel. Last week, I wrote about how to use the fire of anger without getting burned. This week, I’ll talk about how we can use it to create.

The key to it all is to be able to have our anger without it having us. We can harness the flame so that we don’t get burned.

Anger is a core emotion, like sadness, joy, fear, and frustration. Trouble is, when we were growing up, our anger didn’t always receive the proper training. It decided it could act like a bully and get away with it.

Bullies require boundaries

Think of your Uncle Bob, who’s a sweet cupcake of a man you love until he comes over for dinner and criticizes your friends or mouths off about Asians. Then, you lay down the law: “Uncle Bob, we don’t talk like that in this house.” Hopefully, he reforms.

Anger needs our help to act appropriately as it shares its message. It can be a tough-ass, truth-teller that points out the wrongs we need to address, whether in the world or in ourselves. It wakes us up when we’ve become complacent. Anger can strengthen our moral indignation and inspire us to act. The invasion of Ukraine deserves our anger.

But, like Uncle Bob, anger also needs good boundaries so that it doesn’t take over our emotional control center. When we feel overloaded by anger, we need to create a temporary buffer, perhaps using deep breathing and exercises designed to help us stay present in our bodies. (e.g., wiggle your toes and feel your feet.)

We don’t want to suppress or exile our anger. Anger gone rogue can lead to all sorts of health, relational and psychological problems. Better to tell our anger that we will listen if it’s willing to respect a few boundaries.

“Anger, I want to hear from you, but first I need a cup of tea. Why don’t you fold the laundry (give it a task) and we’ll talk in a few minutes?” That gives you a moment to get your bearings.

Get moving

In response to anger, my nervous system gives me a forced choice between fight, flight, or freeze. I often freeze and disappear into an emotional shell where I seeth. Before I can think, I need to thaw, and moving helps as a first step: whether it’s to walk, run, (not likely these days given my back), or head into the kitchen. Assuming it’s behaving, my anger can come along.

I’m not banning my anger but I’m telling it to cut sending the old, repeating story to my mind. Moving or doing anything physical helps release the part of my brain that’s stuck in a do-loop on auto-play.

Do something creative

Creative activities also help. I can invite my anger to join me in doing a project. When I’m feeling emotionally overloaded, I can turn to simple, play-like activities to give my mind a focus without taxing it intellectually.

  1. Draw dots, doodles, curves and lines. I take out a pencil and a piece of paper. Anything will do. I let myself feel whatever is there, letting my hand do the talking and filling up the space with as many marks as I can. My emotions come and go (anger may shift to sadness may shift to goofiness), and I’ll start another sheet if I run out of space. Doodling almost always shifts my mood and occasionally what I produce is even interesting.
  2. Use charcoal. I love charcoal. It’s dark and sooty, like Putin without the evil. I take out a thick piece of white paper (like multi-media) and cover it completely with charcoal. I use whatever energy I’m experiencing and enjoy the blackness that emerges. Then, I may take out an eraser and begin erasing a few lines. Seeing anything white emerge from the darkness always looks miraculous to me. (A good metaphor for my mood.)  
  3. Rip tissue paper. I haven’t done this, but the idea of ripping up colored tissue paper, then gluing the pieces onto more solid paper has just the right amount of mindlessness and activity to be interesting.

Once I’ve relaxed and am ready to think, I can consider the next step, whether it’s to make art, a donation, (done that), a project, or social action.

Tackling a bigger project

These are creative warm-ups that allow me to settle my anger so I can use it for larger things.

Years ago an angry incident at the university where I taught propelled me to start my doctoral program. What a great, constructive move that turned out to be.

Amanda Gorman used her angry feelings about the January 6th insurrection to write her poem for President Biden’s inauguration.

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it...

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Like the artist she is, Gorman wove together indignation, love, and a desire for change, and created a piece of beauty that moved the country.

Anger is part of our emotional family. Let’s not push it away. We need its energy and, at times, its indignation and moral force. But neither can we let it hijack our brains. Just send it some love, move, give it a project to do, and invite it to help you create something constructive and healing.

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