Since childhood I’ve suppressed, hidden, and compartmentalized negative emotions like fear, sadness, and anger… especially anger. All through my life, well into my 40’s I was the perfect eldest Asian daughter of immigrants. Control your feelings. Work hard. Be nice. Don’t draw attention to yourself (unless it’s an academic achievement). Obey your elders. Don’t raise your voice.
Prior to last year, I honestly don’t recall the last time I felt really angry. Honestly, I was afraid of anger. I thought it would overwhelm me. I thought I couldn’t be taken seriously if ever I showed up as another “angry bitch”. So I stewed and simmered on low, locking up anger in a cage.
Last year, I rediscovered anger.
Now, I’m ANGRY. I’m furious at the national inaction on gun control in the wake of the twenty seventh school shooting of 2022 – that’s right, Uvalde is #27. I’m livid about how Roe v Wade will most likely be overturned in just a few months. I’m enraged that an out of state millionaire is pouring money into local political races in a way that’s dividing, disrupting, and distracting my lovely rural community. And, to be honest, I’m right now in an emotional tumult with feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration, and deep sadness over two arguments I had today with people I love.
It wasn’t always this way. I was raised in a household where emotions simply weren’t talked about. There simply was no language to express what I felt inside, so I ignored or suppressed it. I covered it up under the polished armor of a nice, obedient, perfect, high-achiever. I wore that armor proudly and bottled up my feelings, particularly anger. For decades I never allowed myself to be angry. Frustrated, annoyed, betrayed, disappointed, and hurt – yes. But never ever red with anger and rage. Even after I was sexually assaulted in college, my response was numbness, humiliation, violation, shame, and betrayal… not anger.
Fast forward several decades and my incredible personal coach, Jay Fields, saw beneath the armor. She challenged me to “find anger” on a medicine walk in the Southern California desert. She challenged me to see if I could get so angry that I saw red fury and felt irrational rage. She encouraged me to make use of verbs to find it. Throw. Kick. Scream. Destroy. Rip. Shred. Cry. She told me to let nature provide the answers.
Okaaaay. Ummm. Not quite what I expected from a day with my coach but I trusted Jay and went alone into the desert to find anger.
Dry brush and rocks lined my path as I wandered away from my car. Pavement succumbed to sandy brown dirt with a tumble of rocks interspersed with cacti and snarls of brush. After a quarter mile, hoping that I was far enough from other humans, I started to throw rocks at a boulder a little ways off the path.
[Throw.] I’m a pretty lousy shot. [Throw harder.] Ugh! My aim got worse. [Throw. Throw. Throw really hard.] Hey… I’m feeling mad.
[Throw.] Why can’t I hit that damn rock? [Throw.] Now my shoulder hurts. My body hurts. [Throw.] I’m hurting inside from the people in my life that have shamed and betrayed me. [Throw.] I’m hurting from the injustice of big huge things I can’t control – sexism, racism, environmental destruction, injustice in all its forms. [Throw. Throw. Throw really hard.] Wow… I’m really angry. And… I’m crying.
I stormed across the desert like a whirlwind. I threw. I swore. I kicked. I screamed. I destroyed. I cried. I prickled. I raged until I was exhausted and simply collapsed on a rock. It felt like an hour had passed but my watch reported I’d only been away from my car for 15 minutes. Surprising how quickly that initial wave of anger coursed through me. Surprising how the anger, while powerful, wasn’t overwhelming. I could handle it. Surprising how good it felt, like a good cry.
I wandered the desert for another hour and had several other angrily insightful adventures. Nature really did provide some answers for me.
Just as I’d decided that I had better find my way home, I emerged out of a frustratingly torturous tangle of prickly brush into a startling green meadow – open, wide, and lush under a clear blue sky. I felt my body soften and the anger fade into sheer relief at the sight. But then, right there in the middle of the glorious meadow was a rusted piece of machinery half buried in the soil and grass. The tangled, disintegrating hunk of metal felt so out of place. My anger surged, and the first word in my head was DESTROY. So I rushed forward and kicked, bashed, and tore at the rusted metal until a huge 3 by 2 foot panel broke away.
My anger broke apart into exasperation and defeat. I now held a huge 30 pound piece of metal trash. I couldn’t bring myself to leave it, so I lugged it a mile back to my car. The entire walk back I was so frustrated and annoyed that I had to drag this stupid, ugly, rusted, useless, metal burden the whole way. More tears. Back at my car. I finally found a trash can big enough to dump it. I slammed the lid and left it behind.
When I finally returned to my coach Jay, I told her everything I’d experienced. She paused, then told me this fable:
“Once upon a time, a woman went out into the desert to find her anger. She threw rocks until she released the anger that had been trapped for decades. She found out that her anger wasn’t as scary and dangerous as she once thought it would be. She found green, beautiful, thriving life – her true Self with all its imperfections – behind the thorns and tangled branches. But there, amidst the greenery was hunk of rusted, twisted metal. It was her armor. The armor she’d been dragging around since she was a child. [Thud went my heart. Damn. She’s right.]
It was the armor she’d never dared to put down. But now that she freed her anger and wasn’t afraid of it any more, she could see her armor for what it was – an old, rusted, outgrown burden. She dragged the armor of her niceness and obedience, the armor of her perfection and striving, to the trash and slammed the lid.”
Anger as Rocket Fuel
Since that experience, I’m no longer afraid of my anger when it shows up. I’m learning to recognize it and let it flow through me. I’m learning to tell the difference between anger and aggression, between anger and assertiveness, between anger and other fierce emotions like dismay, overwhelm, disgust, and jealousy. Most importantly, I’m learning to use anger like rocket fuel. It launches my greatest gifts and talents towards my purpose.
Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, says, “When a girl or a woman is angry, she is saying, ‘What I am feeling, thinking and saying matters.’ …by effectively severing anger from good womanhood, we choose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us from danger and injustice.” Chemaly claims that anger is an asset which can be transformed into the fires of empowerment, motivation, the fight against injustice, passion, determination, and assertiveness.
My niceness and politeness wasn’t protection from danger at all. That comes from clear boundaries and assertiveness. My perfection and high achievement wasn’t protection from injustice. That comes from living into my values and purpose.
Chemaly shares the story of Nina Simone who wrote the impassioned civil rights song “Mississippi Goddamn” in response to the murder of four young black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on Bloody Sunday, 1963. Upon hearing about the tragedy, Nina was so angry that she wanted to kill someone. “At first I tried to make myself a gun. I gathered some materials. I was going to take one of them out, and I didn’t care who it was. Then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.’ When I sat down the whole song happened. I never stopped writing until the thing was finished.”
So that’s what to do with anger: turn it into the rocket fuel of determination and purpose. My purpose is to encourage the light in others, especially leaders, to shine brighter. Thus, my boiling rage about the leaked draft decision in Roe v Wade turned into a blog post that has allowed me to connect with hundreds of other humans and learn their stories. My explosive fury over local politics has turned into community building – reaching out across the aisle to build compassion, hosting political events, and holding space for others so that people feel less alone with their emotions.
“Their rage supplies them with weapons.” - Virgil
Tips for Turning Rage into Rocket Fuel
Here’s three tips for directing your rage towards a greater purpose than throwing rocks in the desert and how I’m applying them to my rage concerning school shootings in America.
1. Self awareness.
Emotions are natural human experiences that help you mount a coordinated response to significant events in one’s life. Anger, fear, disgust, joy… all of these shift our perception, attention, decision making, and motivation for a short time, allowing us to survive whatever the Universe throws our way.
However, emotions become problematic when you suppress or get stuck in them. Those who are constantly frozen by fear or anxiety, seething with rage or resentment, or weighed down by sadness or grief, are at far greater risk of developing or exacerbating a chronic illness. Moreover, as Susan David says, “suppressed emotions inevitably surface in unintended ways.”
Thus, the solution is to become aware of your emotions. Recognize them. Name them. Know what you are feeling and why. Many researchers, like Brene Brown, consider anger to be a “secondary” or “indicator” emotion that conceals other emotions that may be harder to recognize. “We live in a world where it’s much easier to say ‘I’m so pissed off’ than ‘I feels so betrayed and hurt.’ It’s even easier to say ‘I’m angry with myself’ than ‘I’m disappointed in how I showed up.’ “
For those of us (like me) who are more often in our heads, and not our hearts, it takes a bit of effort at first to learn words with which we can label our feelings and slow down enough to listen to our body’s cues.
So I got quiet in my body and listened. Instead of numbing with mindless TV and a stiff cocktail, I broke out my copy of Atlas of the Heart and reread the chapters on “When We Are Hurting” and “When We Feel Wronged”. So helpful. I can now name it. I’m feeling a mixture of hopelessness, despair, grief, anger and contempt.
Read More (Part 1)
If you want to expand and explore your own emotional vocabulary, here’s a choice of three different tools to use for that purpose. Pick your favorite!
Book: Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown has a beautiful and unique way to categorize emotions according to the situation we find ourselves in – when we are wronged, when things don’t go as planned, when life is good, when we compare.
Website: Atlas of Emotion by Paul Ekman explores each of five emotions based on intensity and experience over time.
Printable: The Feelings Wheel by Gloria Wilcox is organized by expanding seven basic emotions into more and more nuanced language.
2. Talk. Listen. Write.
The next step beyond simply naming emotions is to talk about them, listen to others talk about them, or write about them. I love the study James Pennebaker conducted with senior engineers that were all laid off together. Most had worked at the same computer company since college and were now in their fifties. In four months, not one of them had landed a new job. In walks Pennebaker with an intervention – write down how you feel about being laid off. That’s it. Write. The control groups either wrote about time management or didn’t write at all.
Those who wrote about being laid off described feelings of anger, rejection, anxiety, and humiliation. They shared the impact of their lost careers on money, marriage, health, and daily life. The results were astounding. Those who wrote about their emotions were three times more likely to find a new job than either of the controls.
If writing is not your thing, then talk about it with your partner, a friend, a colleague, or a therapist. Or even just listen to others talk about their experiences with whatever emotion you are feeling. In talking, listening, or writing, you learn to see your emotional experiences from a different context and different perspective. The emotions are now outside of you, which gives you the space to move past it.
So what did I do? First, I talked and listened. I talked to my husband. I listened to Rage Becomes Her on audiobook. And then I wrote. I wrote this blog. I wrote a letter to my legislators. I wrote an exchange of messages to a friend in Egypt seeking words to explain all the ways America feels broken right now.
Read More (Part 2)
What will you write? Or who might you talk to? Or who could you listen to?
If you want to try my version of Pennebaker’s writing exercise, specifically designed to move past resentment and anger, try this Freedom Letter exercise. The Freedom letter technique was originally described by Barbara De Angelis. I’ve blended it with Pennebaker’s research to offer you a path to move through six emotion in sequence: anger, hurt, fear, regret, intention and compassion.
3. Anger + compassion.
There is a saying, “Anger is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Yes, naming, talking, listening, and writing about anger helps tremendously. But the longest term solution comes from finding compassion.
Consider that the trigger for anger is when something or someone gets in the way of a desired outcome or when there’s a violation of the way we think things should be. In contrast, the trigger for compassion is recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness. It’s like the two are on opposite poles – anger with feeling wronged, compassion with feeling connected. Holding both at the same time creates extraordinary power, especially for mission driven servant leaders like those in my community.
So I’m practicing that. In order to tone down the us versus them mindset so prevalent in politics and the media, in order for me to be authentic and whole with my anger, I am practicing putting compassion before my anger, people before my positions, our common shared humanity before our differences. Our anger can often lead to making the conflict worse rather than better. It takes finding compassion for those that believe differently, and most importantly for oneself, and coupling compassion with anger in order for me to find solutions.
Read more (part 3)
This is a wonderful Greater Good Science Center podcast episode with Soraya Chemaly on blending anger with compassion using a practice called fierce self-compassion. Listen. Then try the practice they describe. You won’t regret it.
4. Take centered, purposeful action.
And here’s the most important part. Take action. Anger is a powerful, energective, activating force. Use it as rocket fuel to fulfill your purpose. That’s what Nina Simone did. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what you can do.
Every individual’s purpose is unique and different, shaped by our life experience and the gifts and talents we alone possess. If you’re a musician, use your anger to make music. If you’re a scientist, use your anger to research. If you’re a teacher, teach. If you’re a parent, grow your kids. Channel your anger into what you do best.
I’m a community builder, so this weekend, I’m building community with other women, teaching them about anger and compassion and how to take centered, purposeful action.
No Read More (part 4). It’s time to take action. What will you do?
If you love this article, consider sharing with someone who might also enjoy this work. And subscribe to my blog for a steady stream of insights and ahas. Not too often. No spam.
If you are seeking one-on-one support to develop self-awareness around your emotions and channel it towards centered, purposeful action, I’d love to support you. Reach out today.
Finally, if you want a community around you, I’ll soon be launching a new mastermind group to start in August. It’s called Collective Wisdom, designed for rising leaders who want a flock to soar with. Recruitment begins in June. Send me a note and be the first to receive more information.