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Anger

When Anger Becomes Empowerment

Restorative anger is healing, for self and others

Key points

  • Anger can be experienced as dysregulated, modulated, or restorative.
  • Restorative anger is about feeling the hurt and pain to self and other without "doing" anything about it.
  • Restorative anger is fundamentally empowering and self-affirming in the service of justice and self-worth.

Anger is a primary human emotion. It has an adaptive significance that evolved over millennia as a way of defending ourselves when someone or something is getting in our way, interrupting something we are doing, or holding us back from completing a goal. Anger also occurs when our bodies, our expressions, or our words are attacked, threatened, or wounded. Anger is a possible response to pain, betrayal, abandonment, or the loss of something that we considered ours.

Dysregulated Anger

Anger becomes dysregulated when we cannot find the means to safely feel and metabolize it. Dysregulated anger (fight) takes the form of acting out, rebellion, hostility, violence, malice, threatening, glaring, looming, intimidating, hurting, killing, abusing, or assaulting. It can also take the form of depression, as anger is shut down and turned inward, a sense of paralysis, or passive-aggressive behavior (freeze).

Some forms of dysregulated anger result from childhood or later stress and trauma. If we were hurt or attacked in a situation that was dangerous, in which we were alone and unable to defend ourselves – as in child assault and sexual abuse – dysregulated anger may be transformed into acting out, becoming a bully, abusing others—or into paralysis, suppression, denial, becoming a victim, or giving up.

Dysregulated pain, and the attempts to avoid feeling it, make it more likely that we will try to escape the feeling by angry lashing out at others. We may be always on edge, ready to pounce on anyone or anything. We may say negative or hurtful things, or want to wound someone physically or emotionally. We may use anger to cheat or lie or feel justified to take and use anything. We can sometimes boil over in a fit of rage and can’t control it. We easily can reach a breaking point physically and emotionally. Dysregulated angry thoughts can also be directed toward the self in the form of shame, inadequacy, self-harm, guilt, or self-blame.

We are completely out of touch with the possibility of facing these painful feelings that may trigger the anger and that we need to feel in order to break out of this dysregulated state. Engaging with these feelings provides the possibility of bringing ourselves to a place where we can truly own and acknowledge how we have been hurt by what may have been done to us.

Modulated Anger

In modulated anger, there can be the same kinds of angry feelings as in dysregulated anger: impatience, frustration, self- and other-blame, revenge, irritability, resentment, burning or simmering. Modulation of these feelings is accomplished by active self-control over our actions such as pushing ourselves to get past these feelings, not wanting to talk about them, focusing on “good” things, trying to forget, and perhaps other cognitive-behavioral strategies of inner speech. Alternatively, we can decide to discuss these feelings with another person in a way that may lead to compromise and negotiation, an agreement to move on, or possibly forgiveness; these areverbal and communicative strategies for self-modulation.

A collaborative study done at Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, and the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder, examined how employees at a large corporation handled everyday stressors on the job. Those employees who exhibited “sportsmanship,” defined as a willingness to tolerate the annoyances at work — such as distractions, discomforts, or demands — without complaining were better able to modulate their initial feelings of disappointment and anger. They were more able to calm themselves and feel better about themselves compared to employees who had a shorter fuse, and were more likely to show irritation and to complain.

On the other hand, being a good sport gets old fast if the work environment does not improve. Many organizational environments are not open to employee feedback, especially when the organization maintains a culture of sexual or verbal harassment or intimidation, or other forms of negative or dismissive leadership styles. Whistleblowers in these environments are genuinely at risk of losing their jobs, which sustains the toxic culture of the workplace and forces employees to continually modulate until they “lose it” in a dysregulated outburst and/or get fired or quit.

Workplace and other environments that encourage emotional sharing and listening to employees’ complaints and concerns result in greater employee sense of belonging, feeling heard, and a reduction of overtly expressed angry responses. This means that the way in which we modulate difficult emotions – any emotions, in fact – is often not up to the individual but a direct consequence of the social-relational environment.

In modulated anger, we can say, “I’m angry,” or we can think or talk about how someone or something made us feel angry and why we might feel angry. We might think about what to do or say, who might be at fault, and why. We can talk ourselves into feeling angrier or less angry. And we can share these thoughts with others.

Restorative Anger

There is a way that a potentially toxic emotion such as anger can not only be modulated, but may also be restorative. As with all forms of restoration, this requires us to let go of control, stop thinking and explaining, and just sit in the felt experience without acting on it. Feeling the anger as stillness is not a particularly easy path.

For wounds that are the most intense, learning to tolerate and talk about these feelings in Modulated Embodied Self-Awareness (ESA) is an important transitional step, one that may take years and lots of help from other people, most likely trained therapists and ESA practitioners. Entering restorative anger states, we also have to tolerate feeling how the anger has taken a toll on our body and relationships, and perhaps how — when dysregulated — we may have hurt ourselves and blameless others. Anger is perhaps the most potentially toxic emotion in the sense that it invades the body like a virus and resists our attempts to come to terms with it.

Anger is restorative only if we can fully feel the immensity of it without acting it out or holding onto the hatred or revenge. Anger, however intense, is just a feeling, and like all feelings, once we allow it to be felt, it will pass. All forms of restorative emotion have a natural onset, a rise in intensity, and a natural decline that is accompanied by a felt sense of “recovery,” “coming down,” and completeness as the body moves into parasympathetic relaxation.

This is part of the healing power of Restoration: As we learn to trust in letting go of control and allowing our real feelings to emerge, our nervous system will lead the way in the process of supporting all other body systems to metabolize the emotion and come to rest.

Restorative anger can come to feel empowering, transforming into feelings of inner strength, personal power, and passion. These feelings do not need an outward retaliation: they are filled with a sense of our own integrity, of a clearer sense of the possibility of standing up for ourselves in the future. Restorative anger can morph into a parasympathetic relief as the body “gets it" — a yes, that is how we felt, that’s what we suffered, and we don’t need to hold onto it anymore, that unrequited rage.

Restorative experiences of anger may take many repetitions of this sequence and a long period of time for the body to fully metabolize the toxicity and for the ultimate emergence of our own strength to stand in the center of the storm.

References

Evangelia Demerouti and Russell Cropanzano, “The Buffering Role of Sportsmanship on the Effects of Daily Negative Events,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 26, no. 2, (2017): 263-274. https://doi.org/10.1080/1359432X.2016.1257610.

Frederic Nils and Bernard Rime, “Beyond the Myth of Venting: Social Sharing Modes Determine the Benefits of Emotional Disclosure,” European Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 6 (2012): 672-681. Doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1895. http://hdl.handle.net/2078/118009.

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