Tag Archives: anger

Working with anger

(With thanks to Dolly, who has given me some excellent blog prompts lately, do keep them coming!)

Anger is not an emotion that women, and female presenting people such as myself are often allowed to express without censure. Men are allowed to be angry, and tragically it’s often the only emotion men are allowed to show. It is however part of who we all are, and something we need to make space for.

All too often, anger is used as a justification for physical violence and verbal attacks. Where this comes up in a domestic abuse or workplace bullying context, what evidence we have suggests that the angry aggressors know what they’re doing. They aren’t out of control. Many aggressors will deliberately work themselves into a state of rage that they think justifies what follows. I can’t recall details of the study but I remember more than a decade ago reading work about male prisoners, who admitted that they often fabricated the appearance of rage to justify and get away with attacking their partners. Clearly this is inexcusable.

Rage does have good uses, though. The feeling of rage shows us when our boundaries have been violated, and can help us hold those boundaries firmly in face of threats. Anger is a good and natural response to cruelty and injustice. The trick is channelling those feelings into something productive. That might mean protest and campaigning, and using rage to fuel other kinds of practical actions that push for change.

I used to channel anger into cutting wood, many years ago. As a teen it used to mostly go into drumming, and into thrashing out Beethoven’s angry chords on the piano. Rage can translate into art in all sorts of ways, and that in turn can both help re-assert violated boundaries, and to protect them. Rage transformed into creativity can bring solutions to injustice. Too much fighting against something is exhausting and demoralising, but well handled rage can turn into the emotional strength not merely to react, but to fight for something. When we’re focusing on what we value, it is easier to sustain the work we need to do, be that around protest, resisting oppression or making radical change.

I do write in anger, sometimes. I’ve written a fair few blog posts because there were things that filled me with a fury I had no other way of processing. Most of the time I try to turn that anger into something that can help make change, rather than just flailing about impotently. But, I’m human, I don’t always manage things as well as I’d like to. So be it. 

There is power in anger. Used well, it can get a lot done. I’m not ashamed of my anger, and a lot of the time I’m actively proud of where it takes me and what I’ve done with it. Anger turned inwards is always a messy, problematic thing, but when I’ve taken my rage and worked it into something productive, I’ve managed to do some powerful things. What starts as fury doesn’t always show up that way, so it may not always be obvious to people watching, whether I or anyone else has started out doing something because they were cross. Joining OBOD all those years ago was driven in part by anger, in part by distress. Rage led me to something really good there – as it often will when given the space.

No emotion is ever wrong. It’s what we choose to do with it that matters most.


Justice on the Druid path

It is important to think about what we do in the name of justice and not to assume that the desire for justice of itself guarentees anything about our actions or the impact they have.

There’s nothing like righteous indignation for making a person feel powerful and important as they lash out. That can be alluring and addictive. It’s important to be sure at the very least that you’re lashing out at the right person – someone who has the scope to fix a problem. All too often the person who gets lashed out at is the one who happens to be nearest and easiest to hit. Shouting at a low paid employee over decisions other people have made regarding the company they work for, is not a just action.

The internet gives us a steady supply of opportunities to lash out at other people in the name of justice. Online it’s easy to hit people who are vulnerable. It’s also easy to pick on people who are actually doing good work and care about getting things right but do not meet your standards in every imaginable way. By this means we can end up knocking down the people who were genuinely trying to fix and improve things while ignoring the people who are causing the actual problems.

If you’re in a fight and enjoying it, there’s a lot to be said for pausing to look at that. Are you really helping anything or anyone, or are you just enjoying your own feelings of power? Might you be playing at being a white knight? Are you making yourself feel good and important at someone else’s expense? Who are you talking over? Is there anything important you might have overlooked? What’s the real power balance between you and the person you’re fighting? 

People are seldom persuaded by aggression. There are times when a show of force gets things done and there are times when that may well be the right choice, but it shouldn’t be our first port of call. People are depressingly averse to reasoned arguments and evidence when that goes against beliefs they have invested in. Getting angry with them doesn’t turn them into better people, usually. 

If you can’t fix a problem, or challenge someone who can then often the best choice is example, not engagement. Put your truth into the world. Show your values through your actions. Do something restorative, because that’s often the best form justice can take anyway. If you can’t fix a problem, draw attention to it, try to offset it in some way. Anger is not a direct path to justice. We have to take our anger and turn it into something useful that helps people, otherwise we’re just being self indulgent.


Sitting with anger

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find better ways to make room for anger. It’s been an educational journey. I’ve learned to make deliberate space and to actively give myself permission for whatever feelings I’m having. There have been some significant times in my life when I simply wasn’t allowed inconvenient feelings, and I’m having to re-train.

Anger is a protective emotion. It’s a healthy response to violated boundaries and injustice. Without it, what happens for me is that any problem arising gets internalised. Instead of holding my boundaries, I’ll feel like I’m not entitled to them. Instead of challenging injustice, I’ll understand that the problem is all my fault. A person who is not allowed to be angry will have a very hard time functioning well.

One of the things coming up for me is a change in relation to my history. There are many things in my past that were grossly unfair, only I didn’t have the experience and knowledge to identify them at the time. To take a simple example – I grew up being routinely shamed for not being able to run, throw, catch, do gymnastics and being treated by teachers like I was lazy and it was my fault. I’m intensely hypermobile, these are all things my body just doesn’t do well. These are things that cause me pain, and that I was always at risk of taking damage from.

Of course when I was growing up, no one was much aware of this sort of thing. But, my world would have been so different if anyone had treated me kindly and even considered there might be stuff going on with my body. I couldn’t hold a pen properly, or a violin, my fingers were all wrong on pianos, but no one put it together, me included. 

There is something restorative about allowing myself to be angry now. There is something in my anger that soothes the child inside me, and gives me back some dignity. I was not lazy, I had body issues. I was not making a fuss – I was easily hurt. It wasn’t fair, and being able to say that as an adult comes as a relief. 

I’m going round similar things as I look back at my experience of being bullied as a child. I’m allowing myself to be cross now about things that were forced onto me, that didn’t suit me or made me unhappy.  I can’t change the past, but I can change my stories about the past. I went through a lot of things that really weren’t fair, and I can allow myself to be angry about that now. There’s no one to shut me down and tell me I cannot have my own feelings about such experiences. 

We may not be able to change a situation, but the person who is allowed to feel angry can hold onto the edges of themselves in better ways. Life is always going to knock us about. If we are allowed to resent the hard bits, to get cross about boundary violations and unfairness, we get to maintain a sense of personal integrity. Anger may not solve a problem or allow us to act differently – there may be no real options. But, the person who can get angry doesn’t internalise their experiences in the same way. If you know you were worth more and deserved better, you take less damage from problematic experiences.

And apparently, it’s never too late to start making that space.


Re-reading The Owl Service

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, was a really important book for me as a child, and my entry point into Welsh mythology. More than that, it was resonant, and I felt a kinship with the woman made of flowers and turned into an owl. That kinship would define much of my teenage Paganism. It summed up for me the way I found my own nature contradictory. I still do. I’m still working on understanding what it means to be owl and flowers.

This is a book I’ve read repeatedly over my life, but I re-visited it this time as part of my re-enchantment quest. I was surprised by what I found. I had never appreciated before how much female rage there is in this book.

There’s Alison, a young woman central to the plot, who also own the house central to the plot but is never allowed her own voice and opinions. She’s talked over, spoken fork, bossed around, her anger is always there beneath the surface, but there’s never room for it to come out as more than snapping. Her mother never appears in a scene with other characters, but her anger is a constant presence – the fear of not upsetting her. Because her anger is only allowed out as distress most of the time. There’s Nancy – domestic servant, profoundly wronged and the only woman who is able to express her rage, or at least some of it, but nowhere near as much as she wants to. And behind all of them is the mythic figure of Blodeuwedd, wronged, and wronged again, and then wronged some more.

In all the years I have spent thinking about Blodeuwedd and her story, I’ve never really thought about her anger before – just as I’ve not thought enough about mine. How much anger this story should bring up. She is made of flowers and given to a man – which is ghastly enough, and then when she wants control of her body and sexuality, the only way she can do that is by getting the man who owns her killed. And while he comes back to life and her lover is slain, she is punished with transformation into an owl. At no point, in the usual version, does she get to say who she is. And in Garner’s novel, she doesn’t speak at all – which is a powerful way of expressing this.

I’ve always felt there must have been another story that pre-dates this one. A story about Blodewedd, who is owls and flowers and that the story we have is the story of men and feudal thinking taming that myth and getting the dangerous woman under their control. It’s a story I’ve wondered about, and wanted to know and tell. Perhaps it will come to me.


Working with Fear

Fear is a difficult emotion to experience, and is harder to work with. All too often, what we do with fear is to take it out on someone else in the form of anger. When you do this, you get a brief sense of having power and being in control. This can be uplifting in the short term because fear is usually underpinned by a loss of power, or the expectation of powerlessness. However, venting it as anger on whoever is to hand is a quick route to more stress and less emotional support. It also doesn’t solve the original problem.

Unprocessed fear can also turn inwards, and become an anger we take out on ourselves. Self-blame, shame, obsessing over what we can’t change, obsessing over the risks and spiralling into every more despairing thought patterns doesn’t really solve anything either.

Our bodies do a very short term fear response when we need to get out of situations. Fear should kick in our flight/fight responses to get us out of trouble. When we’re dealing with something other than immediate, physical danger, it needs a bit more thought. However unattractive a prospect it may seem to be, the best thing to do with fear is sit down quietly with it and examine it.

Fear is most often underpinned by love and pre-emptive grief. That love may be directed towards ourselves – we are afraid of suffering or dying. We are afraid of what we may lose that we value. We fear for that which we love – be that people, landscapes, wildlife, cultural features… Conscious that we are threatened with loss, we can enter into pre-emptive grief processes. We can go through grief stages over things and people that are not yet lost to us but probably will be. Sometimes this can turn out to be a useful coping mechanism, sometimes it brings the reason for fear into sharper focus.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to get to grips with what you are afraid of losing. What you’ll find there is what matters to you. Your love. And if at first glance what you find seems selfish and all about you, then it is simply your love for your own life and experience that you are afraid of losing.

Fear isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a ‘negative’ emotion to try and avoid. It can teach us about what matters most. It can show us the truth of what we value. It’s easy to lose your real values under layers of social conditioning, but fear can cut through that bullshit at a terrifying pace to tell you what is most important, least bearable and in that insight, is the scope to find your heart.

In the end, we all die, we all lose everything. We’re all on that trajectory together and there’s not much point being afraid of our unavoidable destination. But along the way, we can take care of what we love, make the most of it, cherish it while we can.


Delayed grief

There was never time. There was always someone or something else that was more important. Bills to pay. People to appease. Bullied for mourning the death of a friend because the person I was living with at the time felt that as a personal attack. Told there wasn’t time for me to cry when I lost my home and had to pack my stuff. The things I was not allowed to mourn. The things I did not realise at the time that I deserved to grieve over – harm done to me that I had been persuaded was my fault and no more than I deserve.

Grief isn’t just for bereavement. What I do know from studies into bereavement though, is that grief you don’t deal with at the time will haunt you, and reappear in unexpected shapes and be harder to deal with.

So here I am, and there’s a lot of it. I have carried this a long way. In my mind, in my body. There are so many implications, and so much I need to work through so odds are I’ll be talking about this on and off for a while. Hopefully there’s someone else out there who will find it useful.

What I’m noticing at the moment is the massive shift in thinking that allows me, for the first time, to see myself as entitled to grieve. I’ve stopped framing my distress as a failing on my part. It’s so often been framed that way for me. The idea being that what was happening was fine, and what was unreasonable was my response to it. Things that hurt me, were hard for me, frightened me, and stole away my confidence were not things I deserved. I was never that bad a person (is anyone?). “That’s not fair” was a statement I was not allowed to make for too long. Well, it wasn’t fair, and I can say it now, and in doing so change how I think about my former self.

It wasn’t ok that I was afraid for so much of the time. It wasn’t ok that my feelings were mocked and treated as irrelevant. It wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to have preferences or to express myself, or to have any and all emotional expression treated as emotional blackmail. It wasn’t ok to be put in situations that made it difficult for me to sleep, and it wasn’t ok that my sleep problems didn’t matter. It wasn’t ok to have things that should have been at least a bit about me arranged entirely for other people’s benefit.

I have lived with rage directed inwards and self-hatred because of how I’ve been de-personed and made responsible for what was done to me. I’ve lived with shame and fear, and stories about how the very nature of my body justified what was happening to me. I’ve lived with unspeakable, un-acknowledgeable grief that has been crushing me for pretty much my whole life. I’ve lived feeling unable to talk about it because I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable and there are people who, if they read this, could feel uncomfortable. But unless I square up to all this, I can’t change anything. So here, in this space that is my space I am making some room to assert that there a great deal of things in my history that really weren’t ok.

I’ve been giving myself permission to feel angry about this. It’s been a personal sort of process, I will not take that anger to anyone else, to do so would serve no purpose. But I can be angry for me, and for the person I was and the person I could have been. And I can grieve it, and keep saying that it was not justified, it was not my fault, I did not deserve it.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.


Contexts for depression

One of the things that makes it difficult to ask for help around depression, is that depression takes away any feeling that it is worth asking for help. It leaves me feeling that I am worth far less than anyone I might inconvenience with my distress. I feel that it would be better to make no fuss, to hide it, or to go away. However, alongside this it is worth noting that most depression is caused by experiences, not body chemistry, so not being able to ask for help usually means not being able to do anything about the source of the problem.

I blogged recently about anger and humiliation, and it’s become apparent to me how this intersects with depression. It’s often said that depression is anger turned inwards, but it is also the experience of dealing with people who get angry when you express difficulty. It’s being afraid to say there’s a problem in case you bringing it up is a bigger issue than you being unhappy. If the angry defensive response of the person who hurt you in the first place is likely to be even more harmful than the original harm, you soon learn not to say anything.

The person who has gone a few rounds with people who didn’t care, wouldn’t deal with issues, only wanted to be comfortable… that person learns not to make a fuss. They learn that their mental health is less important, while other people being comfortable at all times is more important. They learn that they are not worth as much as the people who get angry with them. The more exposure to this you get, the more you are likely to internalise it. The more you internalise it, the more likely you are to beat yourself up, not seek help, and view any situation in which your ‘illness’ has made someone else uncomfortable, as a potential threat to you.

As a culture, we make depression an issue for the individual, with cure a personal thing to sort out. I can say with confidence that it is nigh on impossible to fix this kind of dynamic while being in it. This is an example of the sort of thing where the behaviour of third parties can change everything. Do you encourage people to paper over the cracks, not make a fuss? Do you take people seriously if they admit they have a problem? Do you step in if one person seems to have far too much of the power in a situation? Do you challenge people who won’t look at their own issues or do you tacitly support their behaviour by staying silent?

When we do nothing, we support the person with the most power. When we do nothing, we facilitate the aggressors and bullies, and the people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and inaction. Not getting involved is not an act of holding the middle ground, it is not an act of neutrality. Doing nothing is how we help bullies carry on, how we let abusers off the hook, and how we fail to tackle people who, unwittingly perhaps, are really piling the shit on those around them. Doing nothing and saying nothing sends a clear message that we have no problem with what’s going on. If more people were willing to be a bit uncomfortable now and then, many people would not have to spend their lives mired in utter despair and misery.


Anger and humiliation

Put in the same sort of situation, some people respond with defensive anger, and others feel shame, humiliation and guilt. As far as I can make out, the response has more to do with the person than their circumstances.

The person who is defensively angry often won’t take responsibility for things gone awry. They don’t change, or it will take a great deal of pushing to persuade them change is in order. The plus side for them is that they maintain feelings of personal integrity and worth, they don’t end up doubting and mistrusting themselves, they are more confident and remain able to stand their ground.

The person who responds with guilt, shame and feeling humiliated will try and change themselves to fix things. They’ll take responsibility, even when there’s nothing they can really do. Humiliated people lose confidence and self esteem, and become less able to protect their own boundaries. There will be times when being able to learn and change things will be to their benefit, but often this kind of response will be costly.

Put together two people, one who does defensive anger and one who does guilt, and what will happen is that one party does not change at all, and the other becomes responsible for everything. If it’s easy to make the humiliation-prone person responsible for everything, then the defensive person may become even less inclined to keep an eye on their own responsibilities.

Put two defensive people together and you’ll get a lot of arguments and not much resolution. Point scoring and trying to blame the other will feature heavily, but things will only change if one person succumbs to being the guilty party. The most likely resolution is to pull away from each other.

It’s when you put two people who can be shamed and humiliated together that you can see what’s going on. Two people who take things to heart, take responsibility and are prepared to change in order to fix things, will negotiate. They’re more likely to try and figure out what the real issues are, rather than just trying to blame each other. As both are likely to feel responsible, they will look for ways to work together in order to create solutions. When two easily humiliated people are working together, the net result is often not one of humiliation, but of cooperation and real change.

I’ve noticed bystanders are often persuaded that the defensive anger equates to innocence and those who are shamed are guilty, and this doesn’t help at all. How people respond is a reflection of who they are, and not a reflection of what happened.

And most things, it has to be said, are better dealt with by working together rather than blaming, or making one person entirely responsible.

There is scope for choice here, in the moment of discomfort. Do we make space to look at it and see what we could have done better? Or do we throw up walls and refuse to engage, lashing back at the person who dared to make us feel uncomfortable? In practice we all need to be able to field both responses, but for many of us it’s one or the other.


Tips for angry arguments

Politics doesn’t bring out the best in people, and angry political exchanges can put strains on otherwise viable friendships. What to do if someone you thought was ok starts spewing hate, insults and what looks to you like madness?

  • Don’t respond in kind. You’ll just cause them to dig in and may confirm their prejudices.
  • If they respond to facts and evidence with insults and unfounded belief, you won’t shift them by hitting them with facts. Instead, ask for their facts and evidence. Ask for the underlying philosophy of their stance. The odds are they are regurgitating unconsidered propaganda. By asking them politely to explain it, you force them to look at it, and this can be rather effective.
  • People project. If greed and self interest are their major motivators, they may be unable to imagine that anyone else has other motivations. Thus it is normal for anyone defending the welfare state to be told that they, personally want a handout and that’s their only motivation. It is worth saying if you are secure and altruistic, but don’t expect them to believe you! Try asking how they picture their old age, how they feel about their own health care prospects, how confident they are that their families can pay the bills for them in an emergency. Keep it focused on them if that seems to be all they can think about.
  • Don’t rise to the insults, and don’t reply in kind. Insults can be undermined as conversation weapons by agreeing with them – I’ve told many an antifeminist that yes, he’s right, I am fat and ugly and that doesn’t bother me at all. When recently told I lived in a swamp I enthused at length about how fantastic swamps are for water management and wildlife. You get the idea. Laugh at the insult and say you’ve heard it before and they need to try for something more original if they want to cause offence. Give them points out of ten for creativity. Treat it like a joke. If they cross the line into hate speech, report them, but otherwise laugh until they lose the will to abuse you. This includes being called stupid, naive, gullible etc – don’t defend your politics to them, it doesn’t work. ‘I’m sure it comforts you to believe that’ is more effective.
  • Sometimes on social media you’ll meet someone who is working from a script. They may be a hired troll. They may be part of a group with unpleasant intentions. Their main aim may be to suck up your time, energy and hope. Unless you know them personally, I advise stepping away because they’re a waste of your time. Here’s some signs to take into account – no discussion, only insults. Incoherence – dropping things like ‘ah, the sweet taste of liberal tears’ in where it makes no sense, referencing irrelevant things (still banging on about Hillary Clinton for example) responding to all questions by calling you butt hurt…. if there’s no real exchange, there’s not much point and they may not be a real person anyway.

It is always ok to walk away from people. Even people you know in real life if they become unbearable to deal with. We are not obliged to try and save other people from themselves. There are some big, social conversations that need to be won, but we don’t win those by echoing the behaviour of angry trolls, or by getting lured under their bridges to play their games.