It took me a while before I understood the importance of anger. That being angry is not a sin. That you are not doing anything wrong when you feel angry. That it doesn’t mean you are not mindful enough. Perhaps it’s quite the opposite: the more mindful you are, the more space you have to allow anger to come up. The less it is suppressed, the more it can flow. I think this is what mindfulness is about: truly acknowledging what is happening and giving it space. Not exaggerating it, not minimalizing it, but just allowing it to be. Well, “just.” I have to admit that it took me years to learn this, especially with anger, and it is still a process of trial and error.
Angry, Angrier, Angriest!
I remember a Zen teacher already tried to explain to me six years ago that anger is not something negative. That it has something to say to us, like every emotion does. When we dare to really feel our anger, we can gain more understanding of what it is we need. It shows us where our pain is, and which need is asking for our attention. This is a basic idea in Nonviolent Communication as well: To find out about your deeper needs by looking at your thoughts and feelings. Then you can formulate a request to fulfill your need. It sounds simple, but it does require a lot of insight and self-knowledge in order to do this skillfully, and not fall back into blaming and accusations. It takes time to see all the obstacles and communicate them in an open and honest way.
Anyways, back to anger. The past few months, anger was very predominant in my inner world. Pretty weird, as most people tend to see me as a sweet and gentle person. Personally, I also have an image of myself as a friendly woman, even accommodating and compliant—someone who rarely or never gets angry. It was strangely unfamiliar to suddenly feel so much anger coming up, as if a part of me were trying to compensate for all those previous years. As if, once the lid was lifted, a lot of old and unprocessed anger was ready to come to the surface. It felt like a great relief. I learned that anger can also give us energy and strength. It allows me to better respect my boundaries, to dare to speak up and to disagree, to be more assertive. So my teacher was right: Anger is not necessarily something negative. It can be the fuel for right and wholesome actions.
Agreeable or Authentic?
In some Eastern traditions, certain gods or archetypes actually embody this anger. I find that very powerful. The Hindu goddess Kali, for instance, is a ferocious goddess whose fierce energy enables her to combat evil in the world. At least as far as my knowledge goes. In the Buddhist tradition, the bodhisattva Manjusri’s attribute is nothing less than a sword, with which he cuts through all illusions. To me, he symbolizes the kind of anger that brings about clarity and insight. “Cut the crap,” so to speak. A fierce energy that cuts deeply and that therefore is healing. Sometimes this kind of compassion is necessary: Someone who is radically honest and dares to confront. I really enjoy it when I see people modeling that, even though it can be uncomfortable. Gosh, how I’d like to dare to embody this more and more myself…
As far as I know, we do not have a “fierce goddess” equivalent in the Christian tradition, but it could be that my knowledge of the tradition just falls short. In any case, my sense is that young girls in the West are mainly raised with the belief that they should be good and well-behaved. Agreeable. Not to stand out, not to be a troublemaker. They should conform. Do their best. Smile. Therefore, reading Thomas D’Ansembourg’s book Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real was a real revelation to me. He encourages us first and foremost to be authentic, and to only be nice if that is really how we feel. Taking off the mask. Being truly ourselves, including all our feelings and moods: happy, sad, frantic, dispirited, angry, enthusiastic, playful. Of course, this does not only apply to girls or women, but for all of us who have a tendency to please and to adapt to what the other is (presumably) expecting.
From Irritation to Connection
What has all this anger taught me so far? On one hand, it has revealed some patterns that I was not aware of before. I now realize that I often ignore my own needs and tend to consider other people’s needs more important. I also know better what I need, and sometimes I even dare to ask for it. There seems to be a strong need for space, appreciation and recognition in me. Because these needs have been neglected for a long time, a lot of pain seems to be stored underneath. It will require attention, time, love, and patience to heal the past suffering and grief of these unmet needs.
On the other hand, my anger has also led to some frictions and discussions. Because I don’t know yet how to skillfully express anger and to formulate my needs in a clear way, there have been some conflicts with my close friends. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by very kind people who want to support me in this journey towards more openness and authenticity. It is not easy, but it is a path that is well worth traveling.
My hope is that this development of daring to allow and express anger will lead to more open, honest and fulfilling relationships. While I used to be very afraid of conflicts and I consistently tried to avoid them, I have learned how they can bring insight, mutual understanding, and a deeper connection. And that definitely benefits the relationship. So long live anger! Or long live safe relationships in which we dare to experiment with anger, and solid friendships that will survive all these storms. It is my deep wish to all of us to have radically honest relationships in which we can be truly ourselves, and discuss and discover our needs in a mutually loving way.
This article was originally published in Dutch on Leni’s blog Living Loving Learning.