The Challenge of Letting Go: Anger as a Forgotten Ally
Having lived our lives as perfectly imperfect human beings, we likely carry past hurts- it is an inevitability that comes with our existence as relational beings. Unless you are a rare exception of a person that can see right into and through every nook and corner of your unconscious conditioning programmed through past experiences, then you probably know what it feels like to be caught in anger long after circumstances relevant to that anger have passed.
Many of us have heard about how little good it does for us to go around carrying old hurts and resentments in the form of anger. The Buddha teaches, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” This timeless wisdom is a useful directive for bringing awareness to the way that being bound with anger only creates suffering for ourselves while doing little to constructively change our circumstances. An awareness of over-identification with a narrative and its corresponding emotions such as anger can, at times, be enough to set us free. We can see it and let it go, existing more fully with what is here and now. However, at other times, there can be a clear awareness of oneself holding onto anger paired with an all too clear wish to be able to let it go without knowing quite how to do that. In such cases, it might feel like anger is the one actually holding onto us. Many with this experience are left feeling perplexed and stuck, which can be a perfectly painful cascade into guilt and self-blame- something that sounds like, “I should be able to let this go by now, what’s wrong with me?” Whether or not we like being angry is hardly a relevant question because we all already know that none of us go around wishing to be angry, condemning ourselves and others. Universally, it’s a painful emotion- and universally, we long for peace and contentment within ourselves.
This is where it can be helpful to see, perhaps counterintuitively, anger as an ally- an imperfect but loyal friend looking out for our integrity, values, those we love, and that which we care deeply about in the world. Despite the ways that anger (or any emotion, for that matter) in the absence of self-inquiry can direct us into trouble or reinforce old and outdated dynamics in relationship, we ought to respect our emotions as doing their best to take care of us. I often ask clients, “If we gave (insert emotion) the benefit of the doubt as having your best interest at heart, what might it be signalling or saying?” Often, a simple and powerful message pertaining to our shared human needs for love, belonging, and acceptance- to be seen, heard, and understood- is evoked.
As a therapist with interests in both Western and Eastern psychology, I have to say that I feel a sense of sympathy for anger and its widespread reputation as an evil villain. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the ways that it operates as a very necessary- albeit, primitive- part of ourselves. When understood more carefully, anger gives us very necessary guidance on our personal limits and can be a signal for necessary action. In one of the most seminal books on the topic, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner reminds us,
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self- our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions- is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say “no” to the ways in which we are defined by others and “yes” to the dictates of our inner self.”
With the arising of anger, yes, we need mindfulness to guide us into wise action, response, or release, rather than reaction that perpetuates conflict and suffering. But mindfulness of anger in mind and body is not the same as identifying anger as an inner enemy to be rid of or as an accurate translation of separateness that sentences anyone to labels of “good” or “bad”. If carrying the energy of anger translates to any meaning at all about who we are, it’s a reflection of our humanness. Mindfulness releases the judgement toward our anger and our prescribed meanings of it that are empty of truth. In that space of mind, with practice, we learn to hear the unanswered signals of our anger with a neutrality and an integration of its wisdom, no longer resisting it and fuelling its persistence. Like any emotion, it will call upon our attention again and again until its real and most truthful message has been heard and met with an appropriate answering. As Rumi reminds us to do with our emotions indiscriminately, “welcome and entertain them all!” and “treat each guest honourably”.