Anger almost killed me. No, really. And I am a cancer survivor, so I know a thing or two about things that can kill you.
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Anger has feasted greedily on me throughout my life, and I do not believe I am alone in this. We all have had experiences that have left us deeply angry and wounded – and yet we are often told to ignore or suppress anger. But in order to process and truly release it, we must know our anger stories.
Here is mine.
Anger has been an odd taboo throughout my life. My father engaged in anger regularly, making his frequent frustration at the world well heard throughout the house. I was often scared of him, and yet in awe of the command, this anger inferred. I noted that when he shouted, people listened.
But I also noticed that for every person that stopped and listened, two became angrier, and the cycle continued. Good things did not come from expressing anger, I realized. As I got older, I watched how anger affected other adults; people’s feelings were hurt, friendships lost, relationships soiled by words that could not be taken back. And for all my father’s rage – the state of the world did not change.
So I ignored anger when I had my first physical exam at age eleven, and the doctor took one look at me then huffed impatiently that I was overweight for my age and that: “it had to stop”. As if it was my fault, as if I had intentionally walked in, parading my blubbery childhood stomach in his face.
Here was someone who did not care that I was already a talented writer, or artist, did not care that I had sung in a Christmas chorus for hundreds of people in a Belgian choir after months of grueling practice. He did not see me. He just saw fat. I could feel the anger hiding, nibbling at the edges of my heart, hoping for attention.
I ignored anger when I was bullied and teased throughout middle school. I ignored anger again when my first boyfriend became emotionally manipulative and disloyal. I continued to ignore it when I became severely anxious and depressed as a teenager, yet my parents denied me counseling. The anger coiled into my heart and took refuge where I thought no one would see it. But it remained and festered, anxious to strike.
Then three weeks after my wedding, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, at 27 years old. The cage door opened, and anger came rushing out. I seethed, I raged, I cried. How insanely unfair, how indignant of life, that after all my years of working to join a career to help others, I am rewarded with cancer?
For the first few months of treatment, I battled the usual debilitating effects of chemo while juggling insurance issues, almost becoming bankrupt, and trying desperately to enjoy our first year of marriage. But I hung onto my anger as a child does with a security blanket until it became more overwhelming than the cancer diagnosis.
After a lifetime of suppression I had no idea how to release my anger, and it eventually became so strong that I almost decided not to continue with my treatments. I was fighting a losing battle because I had still not accepted one simple thing: anger was not my enemy.
I have since recovered, and one thing I learned on my journey is that all emotions play a role. We would not have them if they were not useful to us, if they had not served us in some way as to prolong our survival and help us move forward as a communal society. And too often, we demonize anger as the reason behind arguments, impulsive negative actions, and violence.
But anger has its place. Anger alerts us to our pain – it draws attention to an area of ourselves that we have ignored, repressed, or feel fear about. While it is common knowledge that fear is often the root and precursor to anger, how often do we actually sit and connect the dots?
Now you may choose to master meditation, breathing techniques and exercising, but even with these tools I struggled to process my anger. It took a few months during chemotherapy, but I finally found some techniques that helped. Here are some you may find useful:
Follow The Root Of Your Anger
Take the last thing you felt angry about. Write it down or say it out loud, then begin to list reasons why this experience made you angry. Then try to narrow it down to one or two feelings. If these are feelings you can do something about, decide on some concrete actions to counteract them. For example, I was angry about being diagnosed with cancer at so young an age. Other feelings that emerged was a sense of unfairness, grief that I would never be able to enjoy my first year of marriage as others do, and a belief that good things should happen to good people.
Eventually, I realized the most pressing reason for my anger was a fear I would not have enough time to live a life I truly enjoyed. Therefore, I decided to engage in more things I enjoyed on a regular basis and stop doing things I felt merely obligated to do.
Embody, Label And Release
Give anger a shape. Sit and take a quiet moment to recall the last time you were extremely angry. Re-imagine yourself in the situation, and allow yourself to be angry. Feel where in your body the feeling manifests the most. What does it look like, smell like, what would its texture be like for you?
Once you can fully visualize it in your body, you gain some control over it. In your mind’s eye, experiment with trying to move anger around to other parts of your body, and when you are ready, try moving it out of your body altogether and into the ground. Practice this often to gain an understanding of how your body experiences anger.
Tell Your Anger Story
Write or tell someone your anger story. Start with the first time you remember feeling vividly angry, then work through other key moments in your life in which you clearly remember feeling rage. Notice any patterns or themes that emerge. What are the most common reasons you feel anger? Using the root method, what are the underlying feelings behind your anger?
Personify And Talk To Your Anger
We know from the fact that therapy is still a huge profession that talking about our emotions can help us process them. But you can also do some of this at home whenever you are unable to seek help! When a situation makes you angry, find a space alone or in your car where you can talk to yourself out loud.
Pretend you are having a conversation with your anger, as if it is a different person. Why has it arrived? What is it trying to tell you? What does it want you to do about the situation?
What would be the benefit of ignoring or acknowledging it? If anger has come at an inopportune moment, tell your anger you will give it a space and time later to talk to you. While it sounds silly, this technique has helped me get through some very difficult moments, and plus it can be fun to boot!
Your anger story does not have to end in pain. Anger is powerful, and when we acknowledge and process it, we are capable of amazing transformations. It is not the enemy- so don’t let it fester and eventually rage when you reach your tipping point. Emotions can be our teachers: so take a breath, find a quiet space, and find out what your anger wants you to learn.