Learning to Listen to Anger

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It has become apparent to me that I have a hard time welcoming the human experience of anger and figuring out what to do with it. That becomes quite a setup for struggle and heartache – especially during years like this past one! As I look around and observe other humans all around me, I realize that I am not the only one having a hard time here.

Never mind that God created the emotion of anger; never mind that his Son Jesus was truly human and experienced anger without sinning. Many of us Christians feel a major “should” that warns us against anger – and then we find ourselves stuck.

Far too often I have avoided feeling or expressing my anger. It turns out that it doesn’t just go away by itself. Anger is experienced interiorly as an urgent call to action; it wants to do things! If we ignore it, much like rushing water, it insists on finding a path. It leaks out on others through sarcastic or shaming comments. It swirls around in resentment, pulling us and those around us down into the muck of self-pity. Or it propels us up to a pedestal of self-righteousness and judgment, from which we eagerly label “those people” as inferior to ourselves and cast blame on them for our misery. It’s all their fault! If only, if only, if only…

Resentment is an especially common way of not listening to our anger. As a wise man I know likes to say, we cling to our resentments; we hug them close and snuggle up with them. That sounds strange yet so true. It is easy to stay in a place of resentment because it doesn’t take any courage. In my resentments, I can identify myself as a victim. “That guy” or “those people” have caused all my problems, and I am powerless to do anything about it. That feels a whole lot safer to me, because it also means I cannot be held responsible – which in turn means I am entitled. Commiserate and gossip about “those people”? Don’t mind if I do! Think of witty labels for those who are causing all my problems? Sure, that will be fun! Binging on comfort food or sugar? Yes, please! Avoiding important tasks that will actually make the world a better place? Hey, if you were suffering as much as I, you would understand!  You get the idea…

Many of us, especially if we have highly empathic hearts, may find that our anger turns inward and erodes us from the inside out. Enter anxiety, depression, or an assortment of bodily illnesses. We can’t bear the thought of showing our anger to others, so we allow it to consume us from the inside. For some reason we find it okay to pour contempt onto our own human dignity, telling ourselves we are being kind to others by holding it in. Only our anger leaks out anyway, and others don’t much care to be around us in those moments.

What can one do?? Clearly, just putting our anger in the driver seat is not recommended. Aggression and violence cause harm to self and others – whether the overt violence of interrupting, shouting, raging, or assaulting; or the more subtle forms of violence such as the silent treatment, sarcasm, gossip, or passive aggression. They all harm and rupture our relationships. They all result from not truly tending to our anger, not learning to listen to it.

Instead, we can see our anger as a God-given warning signal, an invitation to be curious and pay attention, a call to receive the care we need and to work for the justice and peace that Christ came to bring.

Our anger always has something to tell us – although if we listen deeply and empathically, the full message may surprise us. So often what we think is the problem is not really the problem. The thing we think we are so resentful about is actually just the tip of the iceberg – to borrow an image from Mark & Debbie Laaser. If I am really telling the truth to myself, the thing I feel angry about right now – as frustrating as it may be – is actually so painful because I am feeling the same way I felt way back when – and that causes a strong reaction within me. The anger reaction is a call to action warning me of danger – that if I don’t do something, I will feel just as terrified, just as sad, or just as alone and abandoned as I did back then. Instead of “should-ing” away my anger (which never works), I can invite Jesus to join me in listening to it and revealing to me where I most need his love and truth.

In some cases, listening to my anger makes me aware that I am guarding deep and scary places of my heart – reservoirs of unshed tears and grief, tremors of fear or terror, or perhaps even stronger and older anger over harm experienced that was far worse than the injustice presently bothering me. If I allow Jesus to take me into (and back from) those places, my anger becomes the fuel on a journey of retrieving all these broken fragments and becoming a whole person capable of both mercy and justice in the present moment. I begin to know who I truly am and what I deeply desire, and I can be strong in the face of present evils, without needing to “power up” in aggression against others, nor to shrink and hide my true self or let others trample upon me.

Sometimes our anger needs to be expressed. It can be interesting to notice our anger and ask it what it wants to do. Curious asking is quite different from acting out – and if we are in a posture of curiosity and kindness, there is no real risk. Does our anger want to scream? Does it want to smash or break something? Does it want to throw things? Kick or hit or pound? Isn’t it interesting how many different nuances our anger can have? Often noticing what our anger wants to do helps us also to get down to its original root and receive the care that we have needed for a long time.

We can also allow our anger to express itself, giving it healthy outlets, allowing it to pass out of our bodies so that we can be released of it. If we think creatively, there are all kinds of ways for our anger to do what it wants to do while honoring human dignity. As long as we are not harming others or self or damaging personal property, pretty much anything goes.

This is all so counter-intuitive for those of us who have been conditioned to view our anger as “bad.” Far from causing harm, when we take ownership of our anger, allow ourselves to feel it and acknowledge it, and listen empathically to it, we actually gain the freedom to be released from its grip. Our anger does not actually want to be in the driver’s seat – it is crying out for attention and help. When it actually gets heard and taken seriously, it will gladly step out aside and allow the Wisdom of God to take over.

This post was originally published on abideinlove.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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