Imagine you live in a castle. One day, when you let down your drawbridge, you’re overrun by a horde of hungry hooligans. The rascals rummage through your halls, plunder your pantry, and consume all your food and booze, leaving a trail of mayhem. As you enter the scene, you feel your temper rising.
However, you hold your tongue, because you’ve been schooled in the evils of expressing anger and recognize your intruders were starving.
Seeing your lack of reaction, some of the hooligans begin looting your belongings, rifling through drawers and toppling tables; others lounge around your parlor room, mucking up your furniture with their filthy hands and feet. You would have helped them if they had asked, but this is crossing a line.
So you clear your throat, “Err . . . um, excuse me, hooligans, would you please leave?” They ignore you; a few laugh. You square your shoulders, pump up your chest, take a deep breath, and bellow, “Get out of here, or I’ll call in the knight’s watch.” Stunned to attention, and fearing a night in the dungeon, they make haste.
Despite its bad rap, your anger knows your worth.
Redefining Anger As a Protector
According to Internal Family Systems (IFS) — a therapeutic modality which holds that humans are comprised of many well-intentioned, but occasionally misdirected psychological parts — anger is considered a protector, a part of us charged with guarding the castle.
Anger keeps watch at the border of human interactions, preparing to defend the self against invasion. It knows that what you possess is intrinsically valuable, and that those who abuse, disrespect, or take your treasure for granted — and that treasure can be your time, your generosity, your love, etc. — either do not belong in your world or must be shown boundaries. And if it’s necessary, anger can help enforce those boundaries.
In fact, anger is considered one of the basic primary colors of human emotions — which run the gamut across mad, bad, sad, glad, and afraid. Frustration, annoyance, and irritation are gentler derivatives of anger, but protectors just as well.
Because anger is attuned to your worth, it prepares for battle when it senses feelings of worthlessness, powerlessness, and insignificance. In fact, it is usually these very same emotions following a childhood episode of rejection, neglect, or abuse that enlist anger as a protector as a means of surviving dysfunctional families. In other words, throwing a tantrum or yelling becomes a way for children not only to protest the mistreatment by adults on whom they are entirely dependent, but also to defend against the anxiety of being in such a vulnerable situation.
While anger may help the child survive the dysfunction, as the child matures into adulthood, the angry protector still reacts and over-reacts when it feels vulnerable, even when no serious threat exists.
Consider the following case example. Michael was a 49-year-old teacher whose anger was interfering with his romantic relationships. During our work together, he acknowledged that a part of him liked being a bad ass, because it kept people from taking advantage of him. It made sense. After losing his father in a tragic accident at a young age, his house became chaotic, and his mother both neglected and verbally abused him. Because Michael was dependent on her, he needed anger to protect him from being overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. No one treated him like he mattered, and his anger raged in protest. It knew he was worth more.
Michael had plenty to be angry about, but his way of expressing it was alienating those with whom he sought connection. It was also creating inner turmoil, as another part worked overtime to reign in his rage and shamed him for feeling that way.
Our shared therapeutic goal was to help him get curious about his anger, so he could understand and appreciate it better. Like people, our protectors relax when they feel “gotten,” and their intentions are appreciated, and befriending Michael’s protectors was necessary in order to eventually help him heal his inner little boy who had been so neglected and mistreated.
I often invite my clients to imagine that anger and other challenging emotions are little children that live in our body, tugging at our sleeves, saying, “Pay attention to me, there's something important I need to share with you.” Like children, sometimes they just need to be acknowledged with compassion, and other times, we need to listen more attentively to hear the deeper feelings underneath and discern if action is necessary, and how we might respond in a way that doesn’t violate other people’s boundaries, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Being assertive, for example, is an appropriate response to anger, as exemplified by the recent wave of public “me too” disclosures by rape and sexual harassment victims following multiple allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
No doubt, unchecked rage destroys relationships and lives. But repressed anger can also be emotionally taxing and potentially explosive when it can no longer contain itself. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “What we resist, persists.”
That’s why when we’re curious about our anger and understand what’s triggering it, we can choose if and how to express our feelings in constructive ways. If it signals you’re feeling undervalued at work, because your brown-nosing colleague got the promotion you wanted, you can help diffuse it by recognizing your own worth and seeking another job. When a family member ridicules your passion for square dancing, you can acknowledge to yourself how much you enjoy this activity, and decide whether or not it’s worth sharing your hurt feelings.
And when a horde of hooligans tries to ransack your castle, you can raise your voice and tell them to scram.
10 Steps to Listen to and Diffuse Anger
1. Get into a comfortable seated position and take several deep breaths.
2. Scan your body and sense the part of you that is feeling angry. Find the place where it hangs out in your body, perhaps as heat, or agitation, or clenching. Try to get a full, felt sense of the something inside you that is mad. Notice if it has a shape, color, texture, temperature, image, or word.
3. Once you find that place in your body, gently place your hand there and say hello to the anger, acknowledging that you see it is there.
4. Sense how the anger is responding to your acknowledgement. Notice whether it softens in response to your recognition.
5. Ask any voices that have judgments about the anger to step back, so that you can try to understand the anger better.
6. Return your attention to your anger, and let it know you’re curious about it. Sense how it responds.
7. Ask your anger what it values that it is trying to protect.
8. Listen patiently for the answer. Don’t force it. Sometimes our protective parts are initially shy.
9. Thank it for sharing. Let it know you appreciate it for trying to protect you, but remind it that you are no longer a powerless child and can now make choices about how to take care of yourself and the situation. Perhaps reassure it by showing it scenes from your adult life when you have felt empowered.
10. Return your attention to the room. Write down 3 constructive ways you can honor what the anger values that don’t involve harming the person or situation with whom you are angry. (Note: consider consulting a therapist if this exercise evokes memories or emotions that feel overwhelming and unmanageable.)