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June 16, 2021

Letting Anger Come Out of the Corner

Letting Anger Come Out of the Corner

Anger is destructive. Anger is unbecoming. Anger needs to go stand in the corner and take a timeout.

At least that's what we're usually taught as kids...and as adults too.

When I was young, I learned that anger was something to be feared. My dad's anger overwhelmed everyone else's in the family. At that time (not anymore), he embodied the classic Korean alpha dad. What he said went, no questions asked.

If his authority was undermined or I did something "unacceptable" – which could be anything from singing too loudly while he was napping to not memorizing my timetables by his set deadline – I would meet his ire. My dad had a mean bark and a tremble-evoking stare that would strike the fear of bejesus into my young, sensitive soul (not even being dramatic here).

Another very old-school Korean thing he did was punish us for "wrongdoings" by spanking us or making us stand with our arms held out in front (picture a zombie stance) for a pain-inducing length of time. I was terrified of inciting my dad's anger and suffering the consequences of it, and what I've come to understand is that I adapted to this part of my reality by constantly walking on eggshells to avoid stepping on yet another landmine in my home.

(I've since noticed that I adopt the same hypervigilance in my romantic relationships where there is that same insecure attachment: I'll carefully watch my partner's facial expressions for signs of safety, bracing when their body language feels disconnected from me or when their energy shows signs of "dark" emotions brewing underneath the surface. I sense that it's only a matter of time before the tension detonates, and so I'll cautiously manage what I ask or say, so as to not trigger the anger I imagine might explode.)

But back to my childhood. Aside from the occasional mandatory-for-growing-up fights with my sister, I can't recall ever really expressing my own anger in the home. Knowing what I know now, I understand that this isn't a sign of wholesome development. Anger in and of itself is a healthy emotion, and kids often express it when their needs aren't being met and they're trying to call attention to that need.

In fact, our biological development is such that, as infants, when our core needs (i.e., connection, attunement, etc.) aren't met by our caregivers, we will respond with protest, then, if still not responded to, with anger. "Anger is a life-supportive response intended to impact an unsupportive environment" (Healing Developmental Trauma). And when anger chronically fails too, we shut down our anger as well as the need that precipitated it in the first place.

By the time my parents separated (temporarily) and my dad was no longer living with us, my anger had indeed shut down and turned inward, manifesting as hopelessness, depression, and a deep sense of "I am the problem."

At the same time, when I would get triggered by certain things, the floodgates would burst open and my temper would unleash itself. Maybe without the shadow of my dad around, I finally felt like I could express something that wasn't total and utter obedience.

But I wasn't being calculating about any of it. If anything, I felt very much out of control with my anger and emotions in general. The guilt and shame would seep in soon after yet another enraged outburst and door slam.

"She's out of control," I'd overhear.

Why couldn't I better control myself? Why couldn't I just treat my family better?

Inevitably, through these early experiences I learned that anger was indeed destructive. My dad's anger, experienced as yelling and punishment, had been terrifying. My own anger was now destroying my family relationships.

I moved out as soon as I graduated high school. To me, it was the only way I'd gain peace in my home. And maybe through some separation, I'd learn to be a better, less-angry daughter.

* * *

Much has happened in the 20 years since I moved out on my own. Overall, my relationship with both my parents improved a lot. We eventually settled into a peaceful dynamic where there wasn't as much opportunity or need for fighting.

And also, I had learned to shut down my anger so well that only faint tremors of it could be felt underneath the surface. Usually.

Of course, Anger, having been banished to the corner, can't stay there forever. It, like any emotion that emerges within us, requires tending to and will do what it can to get our attention.

So when I'd inevitably get activated by something that poked at old wounds, or encounter a new experience that justified my anger, Anger would run out of the corner, waving its arms wildly: See me now! Listen to me now!

But in a flash, Guilt – who had apparently become my bodyguard – would run into the room, tackle Anger, and send it straight back to its dark corner of my inner home to endure further isolation.

Over time, this became my knee-jerk reaction when anger arose. Or sometimes, before Anger even had a chance to run out of its corner, Compassion-In-Disguise (not truly Compassion, because its true motive was to avoid conflict) would notice Anger getting riled up and run over to "save" it from creating chaos.

Compassion would remind Anger that whoever it was angry toward didn't really mean to cause harm, and that Anger should really stay in its corner and calm down before it ruined even more relationships. Anger would sit there, trapped, doubt creeping in as it second-guessed itself and its reasons for its brewing fury.

And other times, Anger, having learned time and time again that it would ultimately be pushed back into its corner for trying to be heard, would just give up and sit there – resigned, defeated, hopeless.

Anger had been exiled. But at least I wasn't hurting anyone. At least I was "at peace" and not creating conflict with those I loved. At least I was finally feeling like a good daughter, a good human.

* * *

In a somewhat recent therapy session, I shared with my therapist some of the painful things that had occurred during my earlier years. A glimmer of anger would emerge every now and then. I shouldn't have had to go through that, was the message surfacing in my body.

But when my therapist invited me to be with that anger or, more terrifyingly, verbally express it, my eyes widened and my body curled inward. I even covered my face with my hands. "Ahh! I don't know if I can!"

It just felt way too uncomfortable to say "That wasn't okay" out loud. Inviting anger to show up felt at a deep level like I wasn't honoring all the hard things my parents had been through, all the hard things I believed I had put them through.

My therapist acknowledged where I was at, but suggested that we could perhaps "commune" with my anger some time. And for that – her more-than-willingness to go into "the shadows" with me – I am forever grateful.

"Self-development" and "healing" are often portrayed as processes that will bring a person peace, calmness, and into a deep well of compassion for self and others. According to the high-vibing Instagram gurus, it isn't "supposed" to look messy or chaotic or dark, which is what many of us associate with being in a state of anger. Instead, give gratitude, just let it go, quell the ego. Love and light, y'all.

During the Wisdom of Trauma conference, Dr. Gabor Maté spoke with the incomparable sex therapist Esther Perel about anger. (They also discussed how relationships, including what shows up in sex, can be mirrors of our trauma – but that's for another post). Esther said that the therapies of today tend to ignore anger. It's all about safety, compassion, etc. – which are, of course, important elements for healing. But healthy anger and justified rage can also be necessary for us to come into wholeness.

As Gabor added, "The very idea of positive psychology puts my teeth on edge, because I want people to look at not the positive side of things but the full reality of things. Real optimism is rooted in a willingness to look at reality, which might include anger."

He also said that so much of what people experience, and what drives and dominates us, is subconscious. So trying to figure out what we believe on a cognitive level through approaches like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) often misses deep layers of pain and rage. (If y'all have listened to my podcast for a while, you know how I feel about healing approaches that only focus on the mind.)

And so, anger and justified rage continue their exile wherever we turn to for support.

There's some hope though. I first really started to think of anger and rage in a different light through Dr. Jennifer Mullan's posts on her @decolonizingtherapy Instagram channel. Dr. Mullan, a self-proclaimed "Rage Doctor," reminds us that for Black people – who "are children of murder. Of massacres. Of lynchings" – rage is their protector, a form of reparations, and it is healthy and sacred.

Yet, "There is still a part of all of us that wants to bypass our Rage. That is NOT what our Sacred Rage and their disguises desire."

Jordan Pickell (@jordanpickellcounselling) also reminds us that anger is a core emotion that can be an important tool when setting boundaries. We might grow up learning that anger is threatening or dangerous (as I did). And certain factors like calling someone names, gesturing in a way that conveys threat of physical violence, etc., can indeed push anger over the edge to being violent. But showing our anger in our voice, on our face, and with our body language is not inherently violent. Jordan says that she will use her voice and yell if her child is in danger or if she is fighting against injustice.

Also, anger is just part of our aliveness. And so: "You don't have to strip yourself of your humanity. ... We're all entitled to our anger, to feel those emotions fully."

It's all reminded me of how much anger and rage can be so justified and even necessary when harm and social injustice have been inflicted. And I'm now fully realizing how much I myself am entitled to anger – and that feeling and expressing anger doesn't mean I am not loving, compassionate, and grateful. It means I am human.

It also usually means I have an unmet need or a boundary that's been violated (which necessitates a need). It sometimes means I feel a deep pain that isn't being heard and needs tending to.

And it might mean Anger has just been sitting in the corner for far too long and has some shit to get off its chest. Given that Anger was unfairly exiled for so much of my life, I think it deserves a chance to finally air its grievances.

* * *

But how do we let Anger out of the corner when it's been stewing there for possibly our entire lives and trust that it won't go all anarchist on us? How do we give our anger space in a way that feels doable?

For me, reconnecting with my anger has been made possible through doing Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy work. And doing it slowly. With a therapist.

I describe what Somatic IFS Therapy is in this post, but briefly, it's a therapeutic model that sees an individual as having various "parts" – our vulnerable parts (which have typically been rejected, shamed, and thus exiled) and protector parts (which attempt to defend our vulnerable parts from future hurt, but by refusing to relax their grip unwittingly block our vulnerable parts from the care they need to heal).

Our "Embodied Self" is "our true nature" that enables us to be in the present, grounded, and in connection with our internal experience. In this state, we are separate from our vulnerable and protector parts instead of being blended with or overwhelmed by them. And in being so, we as our Embodied Self can tend to those parts as the regulated and unconditionally loving presence we may not have had guiding us in our earlier years.

When I first tried to connect with my anger through Somatic IFS therapy, I couldn't even access Anger. It had been engulfed by Hopelessness so entirely, that there was barely any sign of its existence.

Even when I tried to reach Hopelessness as the first step, my Embodied Self couldn't "talk" to it without getting overwhelmed. It was clear these parts of me had been long-neglected, and it was going to take some time to repair my relationship with them.

So at first, my therapist was the Embodied Self presence I needed to sit with Hopelessness long enough to make some headway. During our session, we did an "exercise" where I visualized meeting my Hopelessness part: she was a teenager, sitting on her (our) bed, looking very dejected and disconnected.

As she tried to voice her feelings – that she just wanted to be accepted and feel valued; that she was trying really hard to help support the family financially, get good grades in school, pursue her dream to become an opera singer – the guilt came flying in fast. "But I know I could do better, be better."

I came in and out of the visualization, sometimes at a loss for words and too overwhelmed to stay in that room with Hopelessness.

"What are some things I can say to her?" I asked my therapist.

She suggested: "I'm here for you. I'm not going anywhere."

I could say that.

"You don't have to change anything about you."

Oof. As much as I wanted to offer her those words, I didn't even know if I believed them myself. Anger had been told over and over again that it absolutely needed to change. Why would it suddenly believe it could just be itself?

But gradually, with my therapist's help, I was able to come more into my Embodied Self. I even noticed Hopelessness looking slightly more curious as to why I was still hanging around with her. And that was all I needed to know that all was not lost.

"You don't have to change anything about you," I finally said. And she relaxed just a bit more.

After that therapy session, I was able to "meet" with my Hopelessness part again by myself. Each time I did, she looked slightly more open, her face softened just a bit more, her body turned just an inch more toward me.

And finally, in one of our conversations, Anger emerged.

Anger was able to share with me what she felt invalidated by, what she needed. Anger no longer felt completely hopeless, because someone was actually, finally listening. And as my Embodied Self, I let her know how understandable her feelings were, that I was so sorry she wasn't receiving the support she needed, and that I would be her biggest cheerleader.

Then I said what I had probably wanted to hear all these years: "I'm always here for you, whenever you need me. We'll get through this together."

"Thanks," she said.

She still wasn't smiling, she still wasn't facing me, but I could sense that she had genuinely accepted my acknowledgement of her. And as I wrapped my arms around her, she put one arm around me, and we both shed tears.

* * *

Since these experiences communing with my anger part, when I've noticed anger come up within me, I have felt less scared of it. Guilt and Compassion-In-Disguise have significantly relaxed their defences because they see that Anger won't burn the place down if she's allowed to express herself. We all understand now who Anger is and what she needs – and truly, she's not as threatening as we once thought her to be.

As always, this is all a work in progress, but Anger doesn't sit in the corner as her default position anymore – she is welcome in the room with everyone else.

Nonviolent communication has also been a great tool for helping me express my anger in a way that honours how I feel and what I need, but without "attacking" the other person or escalating the situation (if escalation would be unhelpful, which it often is). And learning how to identify, communicate, and maintain my boundaries in relationships has also been life-changing. (I actually took a course on boundaries because I really had no foundation for this practice up until then.)

But to be honest, practicing these more cognition-based tools would have taken a lot of "efforting" if I hadn't bonded with Anger first at that somatic and emotional level. Because we can have all the intellectual awareness in the world that "we should have good boundaries and communication," but if ultimately every time we try to stand up for our needs, we feel that deeply unconscious pull to stay quiet because our needs and anger and feelings in general were continuously shut down (and thus, we learned that expressing our needs and anger would mean the loss of attachment), then all we'll experience is dissonance and teeth-gritting throughout the entire process.

Aside from Somatic IFS Therapy, there's probably lots of other helpful ways to get in touch with our anger and learn how to channel it in a truly empowered way. The important thing, for me, has been that the more I commune with Anger, the more normal and acceptable its presence feels.

I recently asked my dear cousin Lilli to fill in the blank: "Anger is ..." She replied: "It is there to protect me. Feeling anger has meaning and is trying to try tell you something."

I couldn't agree more. And what I believe both my suppressed and explosive anger was trying to tell me (and others) all that time was that I didn't feel heard. I didn't feel truly seen. I needed emotional support. I needed to be held. I needed someone to help me make sense of all the scary and overwhelming things in life that I was experiencing.

I truly wish we can help our young ones be with their anger in a way where they feel safe, heard, and not "bad" for having such intense but normal emotions. But I now know that if we haven't learned to be with our own anger, not only will it likely be difficult to be with others' angry emotions, but their anger may trigger our Guilt or Compassion-In-Disguise (or other protector) parts to make their scheduled appearance and send Anger into the dreaded corner.

So I'm wondering if when anger comes up for us, can we be a bit more open and curious as to why it's there? Before we shut it down, might we take a pause instead to ask Anger what it's trying to tell us? I know it's not the answer to everything, but it can be a start to cultivating a deeper connection with ourselves and learning what we (and, in turn, others) truly need to feel safe and accepted with our full family of emotions.

* * *

Using the metaphor of Anger being exiled into the corner was inspired by one of Dr. Gabor Maté's talks, where he commented that kids are often given a timeout when they express anger, and that making a child isolate themselves during an experience of intense emotions is counter-intuitive to what they actually need in that moment.