I want to share a powerful experience I had over the last two weeks because as we know, our voices are power.
I was getting my nails done with the lovely Allie Armitage for her birthday last Friday and we started talking about anger.
Anger. Anger. ANGER.
What is it exactly?
Here’s an online definition:
I don’t know about you, but anger is an emotion that I do not let myself express. As we were talking, I realized there are maybe 2 or 3 times I can remember truly expressing anger in my entire adult life. And those times were terrifying for everyone involved. I scared myself. I scared everyone around me.
The association that came up from that is that anger is violent. Anger is scary. Anger is wrong.
So, I don’t express anger.
On first pass, one might think this is a virtue. I certainly did (and still somewhat do). In my conservative Christian upbringing, I was taught to turn the other cheek. As a young woman in the US I was implored to be “nice” and to not rock the boat.
And I’ve gotten really good at that. You see, I’ve spent my entire life disarming people, de-escalating situations, being the emotional stronghold in an emotionally volatile environment. I’ve become the eternal diplomat, talking people down, looking at situations from all sides, problem-solving to avoid increased violence, outrage, pain, discomfort. Hell, I’ve even swallowed my anger to avoid awkwardness.
I’ve learned to bite my tongue, not defend myself, not say what I really want to say, rephrase, rework from an understanding and compassionate lens. I’ve also spent an enormous amount of energy trying to diffuse the anger others close to me felt about the situations I was in, that I wasn’t allowing myself to express anger over. WOW.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Well, I am a double master (does that exist?) at swallowing my anger. And I’ve sacrificed myself to this cause (more on this further down).
For most of my life I’ve chugged along quite proud of this, never questioning this strategy as the appropriate one. “I am so virtuous!” “I am a master at resolving disputes!” “I am adaptable!”
And I still believe that overall it’s not a bad skill to have. It is useful to be able to cap an outburst, to cool down, to be diplomatic, to see through the red. It has proven vital to my safety, in fact, many times over.
And then the other day as my nails were drying under that purple light at the nail salon and I was thinking about and talking about anger, the pride of being ever level-headed began to dissolve and another feeling started to emerge around this: curiosity, disillusionment?
You see, what I’ve learned in my life about emotions is that if they are repressed, if they aren’t allowed to move healthily along, they stick around. So, if I had not expressed my anger, where did that anger go?
Later that night I woke up at 3am in sweats. Contemplating the anger I had repressed had brought it bubbling out of me. I laid in my bed, sweating in the dark, replaying scenarios from my life where anger was an appropriate emotion, but I didn’t let myself express it.
Lists of names, ran through my head like a stock market ticker. All the way back to the first time a kid in my class hit me so hard I got welts on my rear when I was in 5th grade. All the way back to the time someone I trusted pinned me down and crawled on top of me as I was kicking and screaming in the back of their truck as a teenager.
Back to the stalker who harassed me for months my freshman year of college whose identity was never revealed. To the rapist who was never found or convicted. To the people who I'd trusted who broke their commitments to me and their word. To the man who punched me in the face on the streets of Paris. To the colleague who raped me when I was unconscious and who I continued to work alongside as if nothing had happened. To the boss who demoralized me, who I could never please, who yelled, made fun of me and told me I was too naive and sweet to be successful in this world.
And there were other, more subtle instances that came up fresh and vivid. It was all there.
As all of this came whirling up, rushing in, I shook, trembled, cried, sweat. I attempted some panicky breaths through the tight knot in my chest, my throat.
Where did all that anger go, I had wondered? Well, I think I found it!
All the anger I’d swallowed to protect others or myself, those YEARS of repressed anger had taken up permanent residence in my body and it was now making itself known.
Because I had been taught it was a virtue. Because I believed in a dichotomy - explosive anger or none (and exploding was not an option), I never let it move through me. It didn’t disperse. It was living inside of me.
And I knew right then, I did not want it there anymore.
What I realized that morning as I lay in my sweat, reliving some of the more horrific experiences in my life was that I was so afraid of my anger, I had never developed healthy ways to express it.
The more I thought about this, the more I got curious about the emotion itself. You see, anger isn’t inherently negative. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It just IS. It’s an emotion that needs to be felt and expressed in a healthy manner like all the range of emotions a human being can feel. It’s an emotion, like all others, that has to be allowed to move through us.
As a coach and someone who does work in personal growth and emotional intelligence. I’ve learned a lot about repressed emotions which can be applied here. When we carry our anger around, it gets lodged in our bodies and creates knots, tension, pain, disease - it finds a way to express itself even if we don’t realize it.
So much has been written and there is still so much to understand about how we store emotions in our bodies and the problems it can create for us. I am not an expert on this, but many are, so I’ll leave the explanations and details to them.
For me, I believe my repressed anger likely contributed to my TMJ, chronic stress, anxiety, sleep problems, and I’m sure other issues.
So, I decided to do something about it. You know what they say, “If you change nothing, nothing will change.”
If you change nothing, nothing will change.”
This weekend, after participating in #marchforourlives (another source of fuel for my anger fire), a few friends and I took to the wilderness. We embarked on a journey to release and transform our old, stored up anger. To move it through and out of our bodies through ritual.
We packed a bag of nourishing snacks, a picnic blanket, and four notebooks and pens and we were off.
On the hike up, I explained why I had wanted to do this. I recounted the story of waking up with sweats, or remembering those who had “wronged” me. We discussed how we all felt anger was an emotion we had been repressing or expressing unhealthily.
The sharing was healing. It was important. Many of us had specifically named people, often men in our lives. Several of us noticed a change in handwriting - bigger, more jagged, more emotive as we wrote. Some of us started to see a shift in emotion by the end of our writing. As we shifted from the people who we were angry at, and towards the anger at the oppressive systems we are living in, some of us began to feel compassion for those who were also unwittingly living those systems out.
We talked about how anger can be a fuel, a motivator. That it can activate us to take action. Drive us. That not all anger needed to move and there was some of it we might not be ready to release. That anger can serve us. That it is powerful.
We talked about transforming anger. We asked ourselves what we wanted our anger to convert into (if anything at all). Mine was compassion and understanding. Others said action, motivation, love.
Then, we stood up in the middle of the forest and we held hands facing out and we screamed as loud as we could. Guttural, deep sounds from the depths of our beings.
We yelled and hollered and screamed and we did it until we didn’t feel like we needed to scream anymore. I don’t know how many times I screamed or how much time went by. I remember feeling silly at first and then quickly feeling empowered. I remember noticing the beauty in the angry screams of my sisters. I remember not recognizing my own full angry voice at first and then settling into it after 5 or so times and loving the sound of a raspy deep holler and the echoes off the trees.
When the yelling felt complete, we shook our bodies, releasing the emotion, letting it move through and out, disperse and dissolve. We vibrated and shook our arms and legs, our trunks, and then, we danced. To Taylor Swift.
We shook it off, baby!
We danced wildly, freely, like little children just learning how to use their limbs, we allowed our bodies to move us instead of the other way around. And as the song came to an end, a natural completion of this movement, we asked each other how we felt?
I felt lighter. Others felt free, excited, activated, alive. We faced inward and let one final scream out, together. It was glorious.
As we reconvened in our circle around the notebooks where we had written, we felt the anger of our pages outside of us, rather than inside. We couldn’t wait to tear them up, so we ripped those pages and threw them all in a big pile together and took turns walking handfuls of them to the trashcan - leaving them in that place.
As we packed up and began to hike away from our place of ritual, we all said we felt lighter, more free. The ground beneath us felt softer, spongier, more supportive. We thanked the wilderness for holding us and supporting us in our practice.
We said a blessing for the person who would take out our anger trash - that they would not feel our anger. That it would convert, dissolve.
And I personally said a prayer for the journey I’m on of developing a new relationship with anger. To be supported in starting to allow healthy expressions of anger. To make a judgement call in the moment - do I express this or do I not? When I don’t express it, I promised myself to revisit it and find a way to healthily let it move, when I am safe to do so.
So, my relationship with my own anger is undergoing transformation. I am in process with that. It has been a few days since I expressed the old anger living inside of me, and I am still feeling truly like I let something go.
Interestingly enough, I recently saw two of the people who showed up on my list, and where I had felt tense and tingly in my body the last time we met, this time I felt peace, groundedness and recognition of our shared humanity. I felt rooted in myself and I felt our relationship had taken a step towards healing.
I am not an expert in anger. I know very little about it, it seems and yet, I want to share my experience with this as the more I've talked about it, the more people have revealed their own struggles with healthily expressing anger and it feels like an important skill to learn.
You see, I believe in healing. I believe there are myriad ways to heal and ritual is one of them - a powerful one. I believe in creating the experiences we want to have and inviting others along. I believe in allowing ourselves to feel and share the uglier parts of ourselves. I believe in loving, nurturing accepting and holding ourselves in our fullness. And I believe that taking care of ourselves and our own state of being is an important part of our movement to heal this world.
As I further commit to this way of life, the layers continue to peel and I continue to go deeper, and learn more about how to be in my fullness, warts, anger and all.
So I pray that I will continue to find ways to allow my anger to healthily be expressed and then move through me so that it isn’t harming me from within (and so that it isn’t exploding out on others). And I pray that we will all find ways to access and express our full range of emotions in a way that is healthy and healing for us and this world.
I pray that our anger can be channeled into action, movement, motion. And that we can be held in loving support when our anger leaves us feeling paralyzed, tearful, wild.
And when I need to shake it off and let it move, I commit to doing just that, and I invite you to dance wildly and freely alongside me as we daily walk in a world that gives us reason after reason for deep feelings of anger.
**If you'd like to be invited to experiences like this or to learn more about or gatherings of conscious communities in the DC area, stay in the loop here!