Understanding and befriending anger

Photo of a decorative wrought iron gate that sets a clear but welcoming boundary

We’ve been told that anger needs to be controlled or suppressed, and that it’s a negative emotion, but anger can be the most honorable emotion you have if you know what it is, why it appears, and how to work with it.

All of your emotions bring you specific gifts and skills, and we’ll look at all of your emotions — one by one — in terms of how each one works, why it arises, and which actions you can take to work with each of your emotions (instead of working against them and losing your way).

When I discuss emotions, I always start with anger, because it’s the emotion that can help you understand exactly who you are — as an individual, and as a member of social groups.

Anger is a gift

Anger is one of my favorite emotions, because when you know how to work with it, it can help you become more authentically yourself — and more able to interact authentically and honorably with others as well. Anger is a wonderful and pro-social emotion when you know how to work with it.

However, when people don’t know how to work with anger — when they attack others with it, or when they repress it and lose their way — anger can be a real problem. The troubles that many people have with anger make it one of the most hated emotions there is, but this is truly a shame, because anger brings you gifts that are irreplaceable.

No other emotion can do what anger does, and no other emotion can support you in the ways that anger can. Simply put, anger is a necessary and magnificent emotion that can improve your life and your relationships in astonishing ways.

When you understand that emotions bring you specific gifts and skills, you can change the ways you approach your emotions. Instead of dropping into simplistic valencing (where you mistakenly treat some emotions as positive, while others are negative), this emotionally respectful approach can help you understand emotions more deeply and more functionally.

When you know that each of your emotions arises for a very specific reason, and that each one requires its own action, then you can respond to all of them with intelligence and skill. When you know why your emotions arise, you can respond to them skillfully, access their gifts, and discover your inborn emotional genius.

What is anger and where does it come from?

Anger comes from within you, and its job is to help you set and maintain effective interpersonal boundaries around the things and ideas you value. At its most subtle level, anger helps you uphold mutual respect and keep open the lines of communication in your relationships.

Sadly, most of us weren’t taught about the subtleties of emotional nuance (understanding nuance helps you identify emotions at many different intensity levels), and as a result, we tend to identify anger only after it gets to a very obvious or intense level. Since most of us were never taught how to take effective actions with our anger, this intense anger can often be acted out in very painful ways.

We’ve all been on the wrong end of someone’s badly managed anger, and we’ve all used anger as a weapon (or sarcasm as a stiletto). In fact, when most of us think of anger, we see a red-faced bull or something like it. Anger has a pretty terrible reputation.

However, people can also experience a great deal of pain and trouble in their lives if they don’t have enough anger — so let’s look at anger empathically.

Embracing anger as your ally

Let’s look at the specific gifts and skills that anger brings to you.

ANGER: The Honorable Sentry

GIFTS: Honor ~ Conviction ~ Self-awareness ~ Healthy self esteem ~ Proper boundaries ~ Healthy detachment ~ Protection of yourself and others

WHAT YOUR ANGER DOES: Anger arises to address challenges to what you value: your standpoint, your position, your interpersonal boundaries, or your self image.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Your task is to restore these things without violating the boundaries of others. Your anger will also step in when others are being challenged or devalued, and your task is to address the offense and restore the boundaries of all parties. This is the sacred practice for anger, which I very intentionally call The Honorable Sentry.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What do I value? What must be protected and restored?

Anger is connected with justice; not only for yourself, but for others as well. Your anger can arise when you see someone being stripped of their sense of self, their rights, or their position. Anger is a very social emotion; if you can understand its nuances and subtleties, it can help you become an effective and healthy voice for social justice.

Anger contains a great deal of focused, protective energy, and when you don’t have enough of it, you may struggle to set boundaries and protect yourself in relationships (or to protect the rights and dignity of others). Without your anger, you can lose your vitality and your capacity to respond in resilient ways.

But when you’re using too much anger, you may have so much energy that you’re like a loose cannon with revolving knife attachments that breathe fire. With too much anger, you may set rigid boundaries and protect yourself and your opinions so fiercely that you make everyone’s lives miserable, including your own. So let’s look at anger more closely and learn how to use it more skillfully.

Quiz: How well are you using the gifts of anger?

I have a series of questions for you, and I want you to think about them in the present moment — in relation to your current relationships and your present-day skills.

These answers can change over time, so please focus on your situation right now.

As you answer these ten questions, please grade your responses from 1 to 5:

1 (No – Never); 2 (Rarely); 3 (Sometimes); 4 (Often); and 5 (Yes – Always).

  • I feel heard and respected in my interpersonal relationships
  • I am comfortable speaking up for myself, even during conflicts
  • I take good care of myself
  • I know who I am
  • I can make clear distinctions between my own needs and the needs of others
  • I can say no to demands on my personal time
  • I can make clear distinctions between my own emotions and the emotions of others
  • I can remain present and focused when others are angry
  • I am sensitive to issues of social justice
  • I work to make the world a more just and loving place for everyone

Each of these questions relates to the Gifts of Anger, and a low score (from 10 to 20) can mean that anger isn’t welcome in your life right now — which means that these gifts may not be available to you just yet. However, this can and will change as you learn to work with your anger.

A medium score (from 21 to 39) can mean that you’re working well with anger in certain areas, but that you may have some difficulties in other areas. As you learn to work with your anger empathically, you’ll be able to address any areas where your anger is not currently available to you.

A high score (40 to 50) can mean that you and your anger are working together very well — but notice that almost none of the skills and abilities I listed above are normally connected to anger. If you got a high score, people might think of you as self-contained, self-aware, focused, responsible, honorable, loving, and just. But they probably wouldn’t be able to trace their way back to the emotion that’s helping you maintain all of these qualities!

Channeling your anger

From the Anger chapter in The Language of Emotions

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsIf I were to personify anger, I would describe it as a mix between a stalwart castle sentry and an ancient sage. Anger sets your boundaries by walking the perimeter of your psyche and keeping an eye on you, the people around you, and your environment. If your boundaries are broken (through the insensitivity of others, or in any other way), anger comes forward to restore your sense of strength and separateness.

Ask yourself: What do I value?

The questions for anger are: What do I value? and What must be protected and restored? Both protection and restoration can occur quickly when you ask these questions. This gives you something immediate and honorable to do with your anger, and with its help, you can easily reset your boundaries and restore your sense of self.

All by itself, this simple act will address your anger and circumvent any need for internal or external violence — because you’ll be making the proper action in response to your anger. This will allow you to speak and act from a position of strength, rather than from brutality or passivity, which is where so many people tend to go with their anger.

What happens if you repress your anger?

If you tend to repress your anger, you’ll be unable to restore your boundaries because you won’t have the strength and focus you need to protect yourself; therefore, further damage will inevitably follow the initial affront. Your anger exists to protect you honorably. If you repress it and refuse to respond to an insult or affront, it is as if your castle sentry is letting people get away with vandalism.

What happens if you over-express your anger?

However, if you choose to dishonorably express your anger at a person who offends against you, you will be dangerously unguarded — just as you would be if your castle sentry left his post and went out on a rampage. When your anger is used as a weapon and your territory is left without a sentry, your psyche will have to pour more anger into the situation. If you habitually express your anger, you’ll end up expressing this new infusion of anger as well, and you’ll break your boundaries (and the boundaries of others) even further. This is how escalating rages and furies get started — the problem doesn’t come from the essential energy of anger, but from the unskilled use of anger when it arises.

Let your anger flow freely

When your anger flows freely, you won’t even know it’s there — it will simply help you maintain your boundaries, your inner convictions, and your healthy detachment. Free-flowing anger will allow you to laugh compassionately at yourself and set your boundaries mercifully — because both actions arise from the inner strength and honorable self-definition anger brings you.

You can make peace with your anger

Anger sets your boundaries and helps you engage more effectively because it allows you to relate authentically and respectfully. When you have an awakened connection to your anger and a clear sense of your own boundaries, you’ll be able to honor boundaries and individuality in others; therefore, your relationships won’t be based on power struggles, projections, or enmeshment.

When you can instead channel this noble emotion properly, you’ll be able to maintain your boundaries — and protect the boundaries of others – with honor.

In this post, I demonstrate one way to channel your anger (see A new option for working with your emotions).

If you are never angry, then you are unborn

This saying is from the Bassa tribe in West Africa (it’s interesting that I had to go outside of our culture to find useful words about anger), and it reminds us that anger is a normal part of every life. When you know you’re feeling anger, you can make intelligent emotional decisions about what to do with it.

Anger brings you a lot of energy, intensity, and focus. Knowing anger’s purpose — and asking the internal questions — will help you channel that intensity into healthy action.

A note: Constant expressions of anger may be a sign of depression, especially in men. Remember that you have more than one emotion, and if nearly everything in your life evokes varying levels of anger: impatience, annoyance, irritation, crankiness, rage, indignation, sarcasm, and so forth, it’s time to find some support. Your friends and family will thank you!

Anger is a wonderful and completely necessary emotion, but it’s just one of dozens of emotions. Anger has a very specific purpose, and it can’t do the work of other emotions all by itself. If your anger is out of balance, reach out for help so that it can get some rest and then get back to its real work. Any emotion can be too much (see How much emotion is too much?).

Related post: The magical relationship between anger and forgiveness


36 Responses

  1. Joy
    | Reply

    Hi Karla!
    I, too, am an empath, and have found it challenging navigating life, and relationships among people who “have it all together” (NOT!), and “don’t do anger”. I love it that you honor anger–so do I, yet I’ve been branded “out of control” simply because I’ve allowed it its rightful place when I’ve needed to stand up for myself, and to protect my relationship when it was appropriate. Thank you for your gifts and for sharing them with me, and all of us! I feel like we are kindred spirits! :)
    I have a scenario that I need feedback on if you will.

    [Karla edit — I removed private information about a fight and some name-calling]

    Was I over-reactive or out of place to voice my anger, and my hurt to my girlfriend? Not in my mind or heart but gf thinks so (fear?) I feel justified and content that I voiced (honored) my anger instead of squelching it, and I’m interested to hear what you think. Wondering the most helpful approach for dealing with this–emotion theatre? Hmmm.

    Again, thank you, Karla, for being such a pure presence of delight, hope, and inspiration! Emotions rock and so do you!
    By the way, I love to sing a capella! Would love to sing with you sometimes. Are you familiar with the song, “May You Always”, and “Tell Me Why”(. . . the stars do shine) Bee-U-tiful!!!

    Joy :)

  2. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    I love the way you talk about the embodiment of anger. I’ve actually done a painting of a bull to represent mine.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hah! Perhaps as a Taurus born in the Year of the Ox, I’m protective of my bovine friends. I’m campaigning for this puppy to become the new international face of anger, yes!

  3. Kerry
    | Reply

    I’m wondering about defensiveness. I know defensiveness is one of my “problems,” but I’m just now able to breathe into it enough to calm down, and willing enough to take a look at it, my own behavior and what triggers me.

    Since I’m just, as in the last 24 hours, starting to work with this, I don’t have any deep sense about it and went searching through the material here and in the books, but I don’t really see anything about it.

    It feels like it may be another case as with apathy and confusion where anger is jumping out in front of other things that are going on, perhaps in front of overwhelm in not knowing how to respond to other people’s comments (innocent or otherwise) coming at me.

    Anyone have any thoughts on the subject?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kerry, you might want to look into other emotions. When defensiveness is a go-to state, you’re right, the anger is usually acting as a pal and protector for one of the other emotions.

      I see defensiveness as a form of hyper-vigilance, where your intuition and instincts are stuck in the “on” position. Intuition and instincts live in the territory of fear, anxiety, jealousy, envy, and panic. Each one of these is a delightful, worthy, and completely necessary emotion, but you’ll notice that each one could also enter a contest for “the most despised emotion.” And they’d all win! So it’s hard for people to really address them, and anger knows this, and steps out like the big brother it can be.

      What I notice in defensiveness, and this may not be true for you, is that there are usually three responses: Lash out and attack people (openly, or covertly, as in sarcasm); Avoid the whole situation; or lose your words and your focus, and become incapacitated. Strangely, these are not anger responses — they’re the fight, flee, and freeze responses of panic!

      In defensiveness, a person doesn’t just feel that their sense of self is being challenged (as in anger); but rather, that their very lives are at stake (which is why panic comes forward). So the work is in calming yourself, as you’re already doing, to thank anger for its excellent protection, and then to look at why and how panic got so activated.

      Now let me say that most people get anger and panic tied up together. We also see a lot of modeling of this behavior, and there are very extreme versions of it going on right now. Here in the US, our Senate and Congress are acting it out every day, and their panic-based defense of their ideologies and positions are actually stopping our government from working.

      But you can also see it when people get into a beef with each other, and no one is listening; instead, they’re fighting, fleeing, or freezing. I really think this is a function of how little training we get in all emotions, but also how little instruction we get in what anger is for, how it works, and how to use it honorably.

      There’s a good book I talk about in The Art of Empathy. It’s called Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Ellison. Her site has a lot of excerpts, including audio ones, and I think you’ll like it. Sharon doesn’t speak about anger and panic in the way I do, but she teaches people how to down-regulate from panic to curiosity (which is a soft form of fear), and how to ask questions and make statements that set good boundaries without damaging the boundaries of others (which is the honorable task for anger). It’s cool!

      Here is her site; I’m sending you to a page of audio clips that will give you a good idea of her work.

      I hope that helps!

  4. Kerry
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Aw, that is awesome. I was tearing up as I was reading your response, which means you nailed it. I felt the jealousy and envy in there, but that didn’t seem to be at the core, but rather seems to be what triggers my defensiveness.

    But adding in the panic…oh yeah. The fight and the freeze seem to be my two response choices. I guess I’m not much into fleeing, though…I have been known to avoid things. Preemptive fleeing? And the anger comes out for the fight and to try to save face and get me moving out of the freeze.

    Thanks for the response. This is great. Now for a deep breath as I go check out that website and go read up on panic.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Remember that panic is fabulous when you need it, and that you definitely want to use it! Just maybe not all the time. I call panic one of the “special event” emotions, because it shouldn’t be active at all times; however, when you need it, wow, it’s awesome!

  5. Thea Khama
    | Reply

    I love your post! Gonna buy your book! Thank you for contributing your awareness to the world!
    Thea Khama
    Botswana, Africa

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Thea! Thanks for bringing more emotional awareness to our waiting world!

  6. Pat
    | Reply

    Karla, Ah, anger. Was never a friend of mine, till now, well, sort of. Thanks to you, the idea of having a relationship with my own emotions has provided me with a long needed way to own and operate. Til now, anger has meant the end. If I am angry at you, well, I guess I mostly suck it in. or blast away…having anger “AT”.

    If you show anger around or near me, I get angry AT you for it. You have caused my anger to come out and I get so pissed because when it is “out”, I am in a hell. It means hurt, separation, blame, scorn, ridicule and failure. There is a separation, a discomfort, an abandonment. There is pain, indignant fury. I say “How could you, how dare you.” Then, there I am in my anger ball, all alone, and I will not come out.” I’ll be damned, eff you, you will never see me again, I will disappear. I will hurt you back.”

    All that being said, as I describe my anger skills as that of a 2yr old, how in the world do I change this? How do I battle the urge that feels so compelling? These anger episodes can take days to pass.They take tons of energy. Talk about feeling like a candle in the wind. I have grown new and healthy awareness thru many means, including therapy. Yet, yet, when I am faced with, lit up with anger, I find it nearly impossible to implement any change in behavior. I go all 2 years old! At times recently, I am able to experience myself as a holder of anger, in other words, differently than in the past. I can experience moments where I am actually relating to my anger as separate from me. But, when I am under that spell, I feel quite unable to “do” my anger differently. What can I actually do to change, to grow?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Pat and hello to your anger!

      Don’t feel as if you’re particularly troubled by your anger — almost no one knows how to work with it well, and if they do, most people can’t even tell that it’s anger they’re working with! People who are good with anger set clear boundaries without hurting people, and they know their own minds, their own needs, and their own limits. None of that looks like anger, but it is — it’s just anger that is running at a very calm and constant level, without needing to move to the mood state, or to great intensities. It’s just there, watching, setting boundaries, being cool, and laughing gently. Emotions exist at many different levels of intensity, and you can learn to down-regulate if you know what the emotion does, what it needs, and what it feels like at its most subtle level.

      Anger sets boundaries, and yours does that very well. The boundaries you’ve learned to create are final, rigid, without question … and that’s fine in some instances. For instance, if someone is really trying to manipulate you, then boom, they’re cut off, done. But as you’ve found, having anger that goes to the most intense setting every time it arises isn’t really workable.

      The process is to work with your anger and understand that you learned to use it at this intensity for a reason. At some point in your life, this anger behavior was effective. Find that point, thank the anger and the person you were, and learn today to set boundaries in new ways.

      When I was working with my intense rage, I grounded myself strongly, set my boundary (some see it as an aura) on fire, and imagined explosions around me. What I was doing was staying in my body, not dissociating, and moving the anger outside of me in a ceremonial fashion. As you know, running that kind of rage in your body is very activating, and it can really wear a person out. That emotional mindfulness process helped me retrain my anger and refocus myself so that I could get out of the pattern of running anger at its highest intensity every time it appeared. You can use the skill of Burning Contracts to achieve the same thing.

      It can also really help to join a martial arts class, and to learn ways to do aggression with honor, rules, and boundaries. I took kickboxing, and it was awesome; I even learned to break wood with my feet. I don’t know when that will come in handy, but one can never be too prepared.

      If it helps, you may want to re-frame your situation with anger, perhaps by telling yourself: My brain is really good at intense anger, and now I’d like to experience lower levels of anger intensity. I can tell you from long experience that you can retrain yourself. This post on channeling your anger may help!

  7. Pat
    | Reply

    Dear Karla, thanks so very much for your quick and specific response. Thanks in particular for the validation. I think that is one of your strongest messages…that emotions, no matter what, are valid. I have spent a lifetime telling most of mine that they should not be here, that they are wrong, weak, trouble-making weirdos! (I feel sort of like that little kid in the movie “The Sixth Sense” where he spent his time under a sheet, trying to ward off the ghosts! All was well when he finally accepted their presence, his unique gift, and their messages) I think it is very difficult for my anger to give up its fight because I really have a hard time with the acceptance, along with the regulation! Thanks so much for sharing your skills with us out here in the “water”, floating around in the sea of emotions! Whew, I think I actually see land!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome, fellow adventurer! Heehee the Sixth Sense: We see emotion people!!

  8. Molly Sharp
    | Reply

    I’m looking at anger in my life, and though I am “middle of the road (23-39)” in dealing with anger currently, I think I have a lot of repressed anger that I stuffed down in my childhood. How do you work with that, free up old stuff, and let it out safely?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Molly, and welcome!

      Working with anger means working with your voice — your standpoint, your needs, your truth, and your view of things. If you’ve repressed a lot of anger, it can mean that your voice was not respected or welcomed. This is often true for children, who are shushed regularly, and it’s a situation most women face, sad to say (or maybe angry to say is more apt!).

      When people think of anger work, they often think of practices involving violence — such as punching pillows or acting out physically. This approach, however, connects anger and violence in a way that’s not healthy. Anger is not violence — anger is about knowing who you are, standing your ground, and setting boundaries without violence.

      Bringing old repressed angers into your current awareness can really activate your entire body, and there can certainly be a lashing out feeling that will arise. This is why I created the grounding and focusing exercises, and Burning Contracts. When you’ve got a great deal of activation and the energy anger brings you, it can be sort of easy to lash out. If you can ground and focus yourself, and work privately with Burning Contracts, you can address all of the activation and the situations your anger is trying to bring into your awareness — without hurting yourself or others.

      Here’s a post on channeling anger in a nonviolent but empowering way: A new option for working with your emotions!

      And here’s a post on Burning Contracts (with inauthentic shame): Reworking a toxic emotion

      I hope those are supportive! Welcome to the clan of the anger people. We have delicious cake!

  9. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    At the risk of sounding either really stupid or really anal retentive I was wondering if you could offer any assistance in clarifying some trouble I’m having with the two questions associated with Anger.

    I understand the two questions are –“What must be protected?” and “What must be restored?” But I’m struggling to understand (from a practical perspective whereby my friends and I can effectively put them into practice) how these questions are actually different from each other and whether or not the protected question is supposed to always come first…

    In other words, isn’t the thing that needs to be protected also the thing that needs to be restored?

    For example, friends show up for a weekend getaway at my Cabin and they bring along their 60 lb dog/puppy without checking in first if this would be okay. (In reality this would actually make me very happy but let’s just say…) So, “What must be protected?” Is this answer supposed to be in literal terms of my lawn from too much too poop or the inside of my house from being torn apart, or the feelings of my other Guests who might not like dogs? Or is this answer more along the lines of because of all those reasons (and perhaps others) my belief system is such that I think it is inconsiderate and rude to bring along a pet without first checking in. So what I need to protect is this belief system about not showing up for a weekend stay with unannounced pets…

    And then, what must be restored? Is the answer to this question always “your boundary” and therefore the act of restoring my boundary is simply accomplished in the action of honorably speaking up and letting my friends know that my belief system is that you shouldn’t show up with unannounced pets (what I originally identified as what needed to be protected.) Or am I actually restoring something specific?

    I’m think I’m primarily struggling with the second question of “What must be restored?” and sort of feel like once I’ve answered the first question of “What must be protected?” then the next step (rather than the next question) is more like a self-directive which is to simply restore my boundary by voicing my belief about what I originally identified as needing to be protected.

    I’ll apologize in advance if I’m asking something that is very obvious to others. I promise I have read and re-read the sections in both books and have listened to the audio portions as well.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Lisa,

      For me, the thing that needs restoring is usually the relationship. If someone crosses your boundary, there’s a level of trust that is damaged, and it’s the trust that needs work. So it’s protecting your boundary or simply voicing it, and then restoring the relationship.

      In the situation you describe, it seems that there’s also some shock going on — which is a fear reaction that leans into panic. Remember that panic has only three responses: fight, flee, or freeze. It sounds as if you froze a bit, perhaps because you didn’t really want to fight, and couldn’t flee. The presence of the uninvited dog brought up more than one emotion; it’s a multiple emotions situation, which would explain your confusion. There was a lot going on there, and anger wasn’t the central emotion.

      This would be an awesome practice situation for Emotion Theatre. As you have already found, situations where people break unstated social rules bring up a huge number of emotions — as they should. This shock may have sent you back to memories of any number of similar situations, and may have activated sadness, grief, anger, shame, anxiety, panic, jealousy and envy … the whole shebang.

      Generally, when this many emotions are activated at once, it’s hard to know which one to focus on. Setting a verbal boundary in this situation wouldn’t actually do much, because the sense of shock and betrayal would still be active. This was an intense situation, and many emotions were necessary!

  10. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for the response Karla! I really appreciate it. Your work is amazing! The Emotion Theater sounds incredible and I wish I could attend in November. I’m on the East Coast and will be attending Kripalu in January instead. Can’t wait!

    If I may, I’d like to clarify one last item tied to the house guests who show up with an uninvited dog with a different slant this time. If the scenario is such that I am truthfully fine with the dog (I’m a life-time dog-lover), I genuinely don’t care about poop on the lawn because we’re in a wilderness setting and there are no other Guests coming that I’d be worrying about…

    … The emotionally evocative stimulus is their arrival with the unannounced dog. The emotion arises. I feel it. I name it: Anger in its soft state (no where near mood or intense state). I ask my question: What must be protected? (My belief system that Guests shouldn’t arrive with unannounced pets.) So I honorably voice my preference that next time around I’d like them to check in first about bringing along Fido… My boundary is restored and my soft state of Anger recedes. We go on to enjoy a nice weekend.

    In other words, when emotions are in the soft state and are free-flowing it can it be a pretty straightforward process similar to what’s described? We are trying to get some basic examples established – a few foundation blocks that we can use to then spring board into the more complex scenarios that involve mood and intense states of an emotion and as you pointed out stimulus that evokes multiple emotions.

    Thank you for being you. I know you’ve heard it a millions times but – you rock!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Lisa — yes, when the emotions are in their soft state, it’s a great way to practice for more intense times. What’s interesting to me is that most people don’t identify emotions in their soft states, as you just did with anger, so they don’t realize that they already have skills in each emotion.

      We call skill with anger in its soft state anything but anger: directness, focus, certainty, assertiveness, but not anger. So when intense anger comes up, people can sort of lose their place, emotionally speaking, and use all the intensity as a weapon instead of grounding it and becoming more embodied. Whoops.

      Good call! I’m glad you’ll be at Kripalu — we’ll do Emotion Theatre there and have fun with it!

  11. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Hello Karla! The “Language of Emotions” journey here on the East Coast continues… It’s remarkable! We understand the gifts associated with Anger and how this incredible emotion helps to protect your voice, your values, personal beliefs, sense of self, etc…

    Can you help to clarify our understanding of an “impaired” boundary vs. a boundary “violation” and how they relate to Anger? We are very clear on the boundary “violations” and how Anger is your Honorable Sentry – What must be protected? What must be restored? But what if an individual is operating with an “impaired” boundary whereby they don’t have a clear sense of self, suffer from a lack of self confidence and/or self esteem and simply don’t like themselves?

    In this scenario, it feels as though there is a degree of dependency whereby in order for Anger to be effective, the boundary it is protecting needs to be relatively “healthy.” So would it be correct to say that before Anger can operate as designed, a person has to begin to heal/develop/define/establish a boundary (sense of self) they are comfortable with? In other words, without a relatively solid/healthy/established sense of self, the emotion of Anger may not be able to provide protection because there is conceivably confusion about what it should be protecting? Is this flawed thinking? Any words of wisdom you can share?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Lisa — awesome! Yes, if a person has impaired boundaries, their anger will often be very confused. In some cases, this person will set boundaries with sadness, and will give away, let go, back down, or give up in the face of conflict or boundary violations (or even in regard to making simple decisions).

      Sometimes, shame will take a forward position in the psyche of this person, and there will be a lot of self-talk that is shaming and hypercritical. In this situation, the shame becomes toxic, but it’s actually trying to help, because the anger is out of commission, and the psyche can’t function properly without it. The shame sort of steps forward and makes emergency decisions in the face of loss and instability.

      During Emotion Theatre, I usually kick anger out of the psyche, and the resulting commotion is fascinating. In many cases, the emotions that I call “the guest china,” or emotions that only come forward in very specific, and generally rare circumstances (such as Hatred, Suicide, Panic, and Depression) — they all instinctively stand up and move forward, because without anger setting a healthy boundary, they know that some seriously bad stuff may go down.

      What’s interesting is that something like this also occurs when we ask anger to go on rampages and expressively attack others. You would think that this attacking behavior would feel like strength to the psyche, but it doesn’t at all — it feels like panic! Healthy anger is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy, well-functioning emotional realm!

      When anger is being expressed clearly, without violence, and without trying to control others, the other emotions can do their work. What’s interesting to me is that anger and sadness and fear work together on this kind of communication — sadness helps the person let go of things that aren’t working, while fear hones his or her instincts so that the communication is precise, and then anger can calmly and without violence set a boundary and wait for the response of the other person.

      In anger responses that aren’t moderated by healthy sadness and fear, you’ll hear people set boundaries that are rigid, and that have no room for the other person to have an opinion, a need, or a different viewpoint. So just learning assertive techniques is often not enough, because people are still using their anger as the final say, bam.

      When anger works well with the other emotions, it tends to be less of a rule enforcer and more of a fluid, engaged, and active participant in what I call the “interactional calculus” of human relationships. Healthy anger is a magnificent thing to see, and often, people can’t identify it as anger at all — because it’s completely and utterly different to the way that we’ve been taught to use and approach anger. But we can identify healthy anger! Anger rocks.

  12. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla! Thank you so very much! The promptness of your reply is greatly appreciated and instrumental to our/my fuller understanding. It makes sense… so much sense…

  13. MR
    | Reply

    I am just discovering your work and finding it very interesting. I was wondering if you could share any insight on a couple of anger-related questions. How about dealing with anger towards strangers? I find this to be one of the most intense sources of anger, specifically because I’m so powerless to do anything about it. The classic example is road rage. Someone else can endanger you and there’s no real way to express your disapproval (and trying can trigger an escalation). How do you handle that feeling of defensiveness? Another question is what to do when you have triggers that you know are unreasonable (meaning there’s no realistic way that the other person/people could accommodate them). Is it healthy to want to dampen your anger feelings toward these triggers? Is there a way to do this? How do you avoid going into a shame spiral over being so “oversensitive”?
    Thank you!

    • MR
      | Reply

      Edit: where I wrote “defensiveness” I was meaning to type “defenselessness”–although I’m sure there’s some defensiveness too! LOL

      • Karla
        | Reply

        Hello! I agree that defensiveness and defenselessness are both involved in extreme anger displays like road rage.

        The answer is, yes, these displays usually need to be down-regulated (rather than repressed), because they’re not helpful in the long run, and they’re not very good for the brain or the body (especially the heart).

        In my applied work, Dynamic Emotional Integration, we work to help people understand the purpose and function of anger, which is to set boundaries without cruelty and to respect them in others. When people attack others with their rage, they’re usually dealing with other emotions, notably panic, that perceive challenges to boundaries as challenges to one’s physical life.

        It’s a process, but it’s something that people can learn to do, and it’s very worth the time! This kind of process also occurs in assertiveness training, and in many martial arts, where people learn to meet threat with calmness and skills instead of explosiveness and cruelty.

  14. M
    | Reply

    Hello Karla my senile grandmother and her and my uncle’s vexing dog have lived with me and my immediate family for 1.75 years ago and having both things daily is a boundary violation and I have regularly experiences anger conniptions due to the boundary violations. How do you recommend I deal with such anger because I feel unable to set meaningful boundaries until I am financially independent, it is that or both of their deaths when this situation ends? No amount of anger expressed will change anything for this situation.

    -Thanks, M

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello M, and sorry for the situation!

      Vexations like this are not likely to respond to anger, boundary setting, or thresholds, so it could be that another emotion would work better.

      Remember that almost anyone can protect and defend themselves against obvious anger. Also, anger is about setting boundaries in a place where you have the right to, and that’s not this situation. It seems to me that the more appropriate emotion right now is grief, because of the way that their presence has ended your experience of your home as you know it.

      Do you have access to any counseling, or a support group for caregivers? It seems to me that you need some human support from people who understand the issues and can give you effective ways to manage (that aren’t about conniption fits). You know already that the anger approaches you’re taking aren’t effective. This doesn’t make you a failure; it’s just time for some new input and new coping skills that will work.

  15. Kerstin
    | Reply

    Dear Karla,
    I’m so glad I came across your book and your work! I’m habitually repressing anger, often to the point of apathy, so I’m mostly working with the excercises for grounding and defining my boundaries at the moment. I’m struggling a bit with the latter and I have two questions in this context:
    – The idea of this sacred space still feels imaginary to me and I am wondering if I should vizualize an empty space around me framed with a bright contour? Or a bubble entirely filled by that colour? I’m sorry if this sounds pedantic, but it makes a difference to me.
    – Usually there are several times per day when I am forced to be in situations where I don’t have an arm’s length distance of free space around me available, i.e. in public transport or in crowded places. I feel that I could particularly benefit from boundary defining excercises in those situations (I tend to dissociate there), but is there anything I can do if my personal space has already been invaded and there is not really a way out – besides waiting until the situation is over (which would play into the hands of apathy again)?
    Thank you and best wishes

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Kerstin, and thanks for your questions.

      If you regularly repress anger, then it may take a while to get a feel for personal boundaries. However, it sounds as if you do have a sense for your boundaries when people are near you.

      It may be helpful to know that your body and your brain regularly map the areas around you and re-calibrate the size of your proprioceptive space to fit the situation. So if you’re in a crowded elevator, you (and everyone else in the elevator) might have boundaries that are 1-2 inches away from your skin — yet if you’re out in nature by yourself, your boundaries may open up to let all the scents, sights, and sensations in.

      In The Art of Empathy, there’s a boundary exercise called Breathing with Your Boundary that may be helpful. You imagine your boundary responding to your breath, getting slightly larger as you inhale, and slightly smaller as you exhale. This simple exercise can help you connect with your boundary more easily.

      There is also a course on anger coming up at Empathy Academy, and the instructor, Anchen Texter, is very good with helping people get a true feel for their boundaries. The course starts on September 11th, and it’s called Befriending Anger. You would really like it, I think!

  16. Dylan
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    I am so grateful for your book. I am a 19 year old man just out of high school. I stumbled upon your book while I was at Barnes and noble and one of the customer helpers recommended me your book. I was looking at books that deal with PTSD because back then I was suffering from it a lot. Two months later I decided to buy your book.

    It has been God-sent. I have a confusion between anger and shame. Can shame turn into anger? Sometimes I feel angry at myself which is shame, but then all of the sudden, I might feel angry at other people for nothing, which would be anger. But it all started with the anger I had at myself and then I turned it out to the friends near me. Clarification would be awesome please!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Dylan, and thank for your question.

      Yes, anger and shame can exist at the same time, and you can move back and forth between them. Everyone experiences emotions a bit differently, but shame tends to be a difficult emotion, and we don’t have a lot of good information about how to work with it.

      Shame can be painful because it’s trying to get us to change our behavior, or apologize, or feel remorse, and sometimes that’s rough. Often, people might lash out in anger because they feel so disturbed by the shame. Some people might also feel anxiety because they’re so activated by the shame. Some people cry because they’re overwhelmed.

      The key with the powerful emotions is to learn to notice when you shift away from them — which you’ve already done. Nice work!

      Then the work is to learn how to just be with the difficult emotion and learn how to work with it and tolerate it. Shame requires behavioral change and, if you’ve hurt yourself or someone else, a heartfelt apology and a promise not to do the thing again.

      It takes a lot of strength to be able to sit with shame and know that you’ve hurt yourself or someone else. Who wants to hear that? It can make people lash out.

      But if you stay with it, your shame will help you make amends, make change, and grow as a person. It’s hard, but it’s so necessary.

      I hope this is helpful.

      Thanks for your question.

  17. Vera
    | Reply

    Hi thanks so much for this ! Really needed it. Can I suggest another question to ask yourself when angry?

    “What was taken away from me?”

    It’s really close to “What do I value? What must be protected and restored?” But somehow I couldn’t really get an answer from these when my anger was actually directed at myself. There’s one particular episode of self-anger that I just had to get to the bottom of and try to understand what to do with it. All the things written about anger seemed to be applicable to anger directed at outside elements, I just couldn’t figure out how to transpose it when it came to self anger. I almost maybe even doubted that that was the emotion.

    “What was taken from me?” Helped me get an answer. I took it from myself, but I just really needed to ask myself the question in this slightly different way.

    Curious if you have any more things to say about self anger or other emotions closely linked to it.

    Thank you again for your work!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Vera, and thanks for your questions.

      Anger directed at the self is usually shame. And the question would be about the ethics that were destabilized or trampled upon — by you or others.

      What was taken away from me is an interesting question. Who took it? Do you feel grief about the loss? If you took it, what led you to do it? Was it self-protective, or was it based on contracts you signed somewhere?

      For me, this is one of the most interesting things about the emotions: they contain multitudes. As my colleague Sherry Olander said so beautifully:

      “The emotions are the only parts of the psyche that have witnessed everything in our lives, and they remember the things that we may have forgotten; they hold the deep truths.

      The emotions themselves know what the solution is. The emotions know what the next step is, if there is one. The emotions know what’s needed, and if people can get into a flow with their emotions, then the rest will fall into place.”

      Thank you, Sherry.

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