A few years ago, I sat down with a piece of poster board and a mug filled with markers and I started exploring anger. Something in me could sense that my attempts to banish anger from my emotional reality was only gumming up the works, sometimes functioning a little too much like a potato in an exhaust pipe.
I started by exploring how I saw anger in myself. I wrote a list of words that included descriptors like frightening, doubt-filled, unproductive, and reactionary.
Next, I named it – something I do with my gremlins but, in this case, the process was flipped on its head. Instead of naming the part of me that was poking me in the ribs with a sharp stick, I named anger itself, a kind of anger that I could see elsewhere but not in myself. I named it Nina.
For Nina’s anger, I wrote descriptors like: Actionable, authentic, empowering, honest, understandable, passionate, self-loving, responsive, and bold. In fact, that’s the whole list that I wrote.
Quite a difference between the two lists, huh?
Then I drew a bunch of hearts and rainbows because, really, is there ever a time a poster board isn’t enhanced by a smattering of hearts and rainbows?
Finally, I added a line from Rumi:
The Prophets accept all agony and trust it for the water has never feared the fire.
I was fearing my own fire and yet with my imagined embodiment of anger, Nina, I could easily see a version in which anger was a constructive tool. They key, as is so often the case, is moving from reactivity to responsiveness – moving away from reacting from our emotions, including anger, and toward responding with curiosity and open-mindedness.
With reactivity, anger has all too often turned into the very outcomes that we most fear – violence of the emotional and physical sort.
With responsiveness, anger has turned into voting rights for women and people of color. It has turned into an array of protections for children. It has turned into a worldwide Me Too movement that is changing the dialogue and dynamic of power and sexual exploitation.
Yes, suppressing our anger shoves it into the exhaust pipe of our psyches, leading to a poorly-functioning or non-functioning car or turning the potato into a projectile when enough pressure builds. (You can overlay whatever emotional, psychological, or physiological outcomes on that metaphor you’d like; they pretty much all work.)
And suppressing our anger robs us of energy we can be putting toward the work of creating our biggest, baddest lives, and our best world.
If you fear your fire might burn you and others, remember that with a little thoughtful harnessing, it can also be the very thing to light the way.
And to roast s’mores over. Don’t forget the s’mores.
I have an email that goes out on Mondays. This week, it has some nifty quotes, articles, and videos on anger – and an explanation of where the name Nina came from to describe my idea of functional anger. It’s not just an email, though; it’s also a community. Join your people here.