I’ve noticed a consistent presence in the therapy process in the recent months: Anger. Sometimes it’s a simmering presence, like a pot left on low heat, while someone discusses a complicated work relationship. Sometimes it’s boiling over, full of catharsis and release, while in the throes of EMDR processing. Sometimes folks are hesitant to acknowledge the pot is full of water, or that the heat is as high as it is, or that they are allowed to have the pot in the first place.
Anger is one of the most taboo and simultaneously one of the most helpful emotions to experience. Our American culture has demonized it for anyone who is not a cis white male. Women are “hysterical” or “bitchy” or otherwise invalidated if they are angry, which is even worse for BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ intersectionalities. Black men are seen as dangerous while Asian men and other LGBTQIA+ intersectionalities may be mocked for feeling angry. Cis white men fall into the the deadly bind of only being allowed to feel anger, but not given the tools to process it to it’s deeper core.
The world provides a lot of injustices for us to feel angry about, and yet, due to the stigma surrounding anger for nearly every population, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard (and even said) “I don’t want to feel angry/I shouldn’t feel angry/I’m scared to be angry” and many other iterations of this invalidation we have internalized. To my therapist ears, all of these phrases are the knocks of anger wanting to come into the room with us. We invite anger in by providing a safe space, listening and validating, and helping identify an action to take or a secondary emotion that needs our attention.
Step 1: Create a safe environment for anger
In addition to having a solid therapeutic rapport that provides safety to the therapist/client relationship, I often ask what they themselves might need to feel safe enough to invite anger into the room with us.
Common examples of establishing safety are:
- Establishing an internal calm or neutral space they can envision and connect to that may be the setting of the conversation with anger
- Identifying a positive part of themselves or external ally they can connect with before engaging with anger
- Imagining the person they want to express their anger to be in a more open or welcoming body position so they can feel comfortable throughout the imagined conversation
Step 2: Listen and validate anger
Once safety has been established, we now have a space to hear what anger has to say.
Inviting my clients to create a characterization for their anger – something they can envision and interact with as something outside of themselves. This often helps combat the shame folks can have around it, and invite a greater chance that they can hear and validate why it is angry. This may also help them see what other emotions anger may be feeling – sometimes it is really hurt, disappointed, or grieving at its core.
In and out of the therapy room:
- Write a letter to anger – writing, unedited, in address anger as an entity in relation with us can be helpful for sharing and listening for vulnerabilities and can create greater insight to why it may be is showing up, as well as an opportunity to validate why anger is angry
- With the help of a therapist, role play a conversation where you are allowed to voice your anger to someone in particular.
- Practice naming your anger when you feel it and getting curious about it. Exchange “I don’t want to feel this” with “I’m angry/mad! What’s happened that makes sense to feel angry at?”
Step 3: Identify an action to take or deeper emotion
Listening and validating anger in a safe space allows us to gain a deeper understanding of what invites the emotion into our experiences. We can see it as a normal reaction to something upsetting and learn that we are not wrong for experiencing it. As we listen to it, we also begin to hear what it needs from us. Anger usually needs a change to help it soothe or after being listened to, it can show you what emotion was happening behind it that may need to be heard and validated.
Common actions that may appear:
- Setting boundaries
- Switching jobs or living situations
- Being involved in community activism
- Being able to resolve interpersonal conflicts
Common emotions that may appear:
Exploring anger within therapy can be useful to the continued understanding of your inner emotional world, and provide the safe space to continue to be curious about the deeper emotions that come up and cultivate the courage to take any needed action. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, we invite you to connect with us!