From the vantage point of my therapy chair, I can often sense lots of emotions coming up in the person seated across from me, even if they aren’t necessarily showing what they’re feeling on the surface. When I checked in with a client recently who I sensed was angry, she said, “I AM angry. Really angry! I don’t know what to do with this feeling.”
At that moment, the image of a volcano came to me: On the surface, my client was the calm-looking solid volcano, but brimming beneath the volcano’s surface was red-hot lava bubbling and churning and wanting to explode. I see this a lot with women- especially when it comes to identifying and dealing with anger.
But before I go on, I’d like to make you laugh with a wonderful clip from INSIDE OUT– a children’s movie about emotions…this one explores anger and will definitely make you laugh.
I always tell my clients who are startled by the hot-lava emotions which bubble up to the surface that while it can be upsetting to feel such strong emotion; that there is no danger in any feeling. Feelings like anger are energy that come up and out and with some mindfulness applied, can be channeled for healing and peace- in our relationship to ourselves and others. The most important caveat I give clients is to not lash out in anger either to ourselves or at another person. That never turns out well.
How We Internalize Anger and Hurt Ourselves
Basically, the majority of my clients come to me because they are lashing out in anger towards themselves through various forms of self-harm. Here is a brief list of how we hurt ourselves:
Staying in abusive relationships
Saying unkind things to ourselves on a consistent basis
Beating ourselves up constantly for our perceived inadequacies/weaknesses
Especially for women, when someone else hurts us or life hands us a serious blow, instead of lashing out at the other person/situation, we internalize our hurt and anger and end up hurting ourselves instead. We blame ourselves for what happened, instead of externalizing it and placing it squarely on the shoulders of the person/situation which hurt us. This is often the case when we have been victimized in the past. I’ll share some suggestions on how you can let go of past hurts so that you aren’t hurting yourself:
One thing I have learned both personally and professionally over the years is that holding on to hate and seething anger suck the life out of us and often make us physically sick and end up repelling the people/things we most long for in life. Let’s face it- an angry person isn’t a lot of fun to be around.
I also feel that it is highly unproductive to constantly put ourselves in the role of ‘victim’- assuming that because people have done horrible things to us, that we should expect to have people treat us like dirt in the future. Just because it happened in the past, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it in the present.
Instead of using the word “forgive”, I prefer to talk about “letting go of the past”. I find that most of my clients feel much more comfortable knowing that they can let go of hatred and anger without necessarily having to forgive the person who harmed them.
I think that the most important point to remember when ‘letting go of the past’ is that you are doing it for YOU- not to let the person who wronged you off the hook. When we recognize that anger seething away inside of us only ends up hurting ourselves and does nothing to right the wrong done to us in the past, it becomes easier to let it go for good.
How to Let Go of the Past
- Write it out- write a letter to the person who harmed you (do not send this!) stating exactly what they did (the crime), how it felt to you at the time (your lived experience), and how it has affected your life as an adult (the repercussions/costs). Then write a second letter to this person telling them why you are letting go of your anger and hatred towards him/her and exactly how your life will change for the better as a result.
- Create a meaningful ‘letting go ceremony’ which you can do alone or with people you love and feel supported by. Some clients of mine have gathered friends around, lit candles, sat in a circle, and read the second letter they wrote to everyone present and asked for a blessing of some kind from each person in the circle.
- Grieve the losses associated with being abused/harmed in the past. These may be many and very painful to acknowledge, but you will feel a whole lot lighter and energized as a result.
- Lastly, if you’d like, you could find some way of helping others who have been victimized in some way. This can be extremely healing and empowering to you and so helpful to the other person. Some people I know volunteer on local crisis lines and find it incredibly healing or write about how they overcame obstacles for younger people going through similar situations.
How to Release Anger in Healthy Ways
The following article is my most popular blog post of all time. In it, I offer a concrete method for working through anger and letting it go and it has worked for thousands of people!
This is another popular blog post where I answered a reader’s question about dealing with spontaneous anger. Try out my suggestions and hopefully they will help you too.