Anger is a powerful feeling, and one which I was not really allowed to have or express as a young person. Only in the last few years have I been able to recognize and sit with anger when it arises, and I am trying to work with it more skillfully using the sources of spiritual wisdom I practice, including Benedictine spirituality, 12 step principles, and mindfulness.
I don’t know about you, but anger has shown up a lot in the last 14 months or so, disrupting a lot of familial and friend and church relationships. After a particularly stormy week for my students, we spent some time unpacking what anger is and how we can actually use it as a tool for connecting more deeply with those we love.
According to my spiritual director, Rev. Carol Hassell, we need to respect anger--it’s there for a reason. In fact, she recently posed a question to me:
What if anger is not a problem but a gift from God? A valuable part of how God designed all humans?
Anger, she says, works like a warning light; it’s an indicator that something matters to me, and either a boundary has been crossed, or that something important is at risk.
Moreover, she says, anger is always an invitation to practice self-respect and integrity; to recognize what matters to us as individuals or as a group. It is an invitation to speak truth and be true to ourselves. Anger can be used for the common good.
Anger doesn’t need to be directed at a person or institution, but rather at an action or policy. It is generally best to try to respond, rather than react.
We can allow anger to motivate us to grow and do what we truly want in the world, to articulate our choices and values. In NVC terms, this would be the time to turn toward our needs, and make specific requests to get them met, or find ways to meet our own needs--moving to protect and promote what matters to us.
When others express anger, Rev. Hassell says, we can:
Listen for what is underneath their criticism
Frame it as a question and try to stay curious as we reflect it back to them--where are they coming from? (Harriet Lerner notes, it is important that we listen to understand rather than to debate or try to change the other party)
In a setting that involves several people or a group, it is important to allow everyone to answer the question their own way. (Something significant is at stake, or anger would not show up, and participation is the key to harmony.)
When was the last time you felt angry? What was that anger indicating--what was the warning light flashing about? How might your anger help motivate you to take action to protect what matters? Does this framework make anger feel more like a gift?