Anger, Boundaries, and Personal Power Part 1: Anger
Anger, Boundaries, and Personal Power Part 1: Anger
(A few important notes: I wrote this from my own perspective as a white cis-woman living in America. The topic of anger is huge and there are many aspects that could, should, and probably already have been, further explored relating to anger and the power dynamics of American Society.
I wrote about anger as taboo for white American culture because it is. I don’t have the lived experience to say whether it is taboo in other cultures that make up this country. However, because this county is still a nation dominated by white supremacy, the fact that anger is taboo in white culture affects and hurts everyone, which is why I chose to mention it specifically.
Also, as a woman, I understand and am deeply affected by the fact that women and men are socialized differently to anger and personal power. I chose not to address this because I know many men who are disconnected from their anger and personal power and who would benefit from doing this work. So, while I wrote this from my perspective, I believe it is a universal topic and that all people can benefit from working with anger, and that we all have the capability to attain a state of personal power. If you resonate with this, I hope that you find something here that is meaningful to you, and if you do not resonate with this, I hope that you are able to find whatever your soul needs somewhere else.)
This is a something I could talk about forever. Anger is a raw, nuanced, and provocative topic. That is precisely why it is so important. Modern culture doesn’t hold enough space for nuance in difficult discussions. In an effort to boil everything down to a headline or a soundbite, we have forgotten the reality of nuance, and the power of it.
Anger is one of the last great taboos in white American culture. There are a lot of taboos still alive and well, but many of them are slowly (or quickly) being brought into the light. More and more people are refusing to be let important things go on being unseen or unheard. We talk about ignorance. We talk about fear. We are building the vocabulary to talk about toxic masculinity, cis-heteronormativity, and we are stumbling awkwardly, painfully, and importantly into conversations about toxic whiteness and white supremacy. All necessary conversations. But there is another topic that has been left out of the conversation because it is so ubiquitous and totally human. We desperately need to start talking about anger.
Many of us have been socialized to believe that anger is a “negative” or “toxic” emotion and that it is not socially acceptable. Yet, we have been socialized to respect righteousness, moral superiority, and a strong military response. We have been socialized to respect and fear the police and to believe that violence is a common and sometimes necessary occurrence. We were told as children that violence is never the answer… except when they hit you first, except when it’s in “the line of duty,” except when you are serving your country, except when you are protecting yourself from a “predator” or a “thug”. I can think of many more exceptions. Personal power is something we hold in the highest regard in some people and something we actively tear away from others. Anger triggers us. Personal power triggers us. They inspire our awe and respect and arouse our deepest sleeping demons and feelings of inferiority. Because the two are so inexorably intertwined, and because we live in a hierarchal society that functions on the basis of have’s and have-not’s, anger can be a weaponized show of power and also a gateway to personal freedom.
So, what are Anger, Boundaries, and Personal Power? How are they connected?
What is Anger?
Anger is an emotion. Simple enough. We all experience emotions. But I’ve found that the explanation I absorbed as a child about emotions has been insufficient on my journey to untangle the web of my psyche and understand the roots of my beliefs and traumas. So, let’s start with: What is an emotion? If you ask most people what an emotion is they would say, well it’s a feeling. They might say it’s something you can’t control and something that doesn’t always make sense. And that is true. Where the disconnect comes, however, is that an emotion isn’t something we primarily experience with our mind. That is why it feels so uncontrollable and irrational. It’s not of the rational mind.
An emotion is a physical reaction in the body to its environment. Emotions are quite literally chains of chemical messengers spreading throughout your body causing various physical effects. This gets complicated very quickly in several ways. One, is that as a society, we are incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that anything important happens outside the scope of our mind. Often, we are so thoroughly stuck in our heads and disconnected from our bodies that we only experience emotions as an impetus to action. What I mean is that we may only know we are sad when we feel like we need to cry. We may only know we are happy when smiling or laughing come naturally. We may only know we are angry when we feel like telling our boss to shove it (and then picking a fight with someone in some comment section on the internet instead). The chemicals involved in creating emotions have a strong effect on the human body and mind (as literally anyone alive knows) and if we are unable to recognize what is happening to us, we are even more susceptible to their influence.
The second reason this gets complicated is because the “environment” your body is reacting to doesn’t necessarily mean the world around you. Your environment is also the world inside your head. The beautiful computer that is your brain has evolved to do many a great things, but it still cannot tell the difference between the monsters outside and the monsters in your head. This means that most of us have chemical responses (emotions) circulating through our body all the time that have nothing to do with, and may in fact be inappropriate to, our outer environment. Hello, awkwardly timed sexual fantasies. Hello, blatant overreaction to small inconvenience. Hello, feelings of shame over a minor mistake.
So, emotions are messengers that tell us information about our perceived surroundings and our state-of-being. Anger specifically is the messenger that alerts us that our boundaries are being violated. Let me say it more clearly: anger is a normal response from a person with healthy self-esteem to their boundaries being crossed. That’s it. It’s a message to provide us with information on how to be in a healthy relationship with the world around (or inside) us based on our current belief structures. There isn’t anything wrong or shameful about it. If you noticed, I said it is based on our current belief structures. Like I said, it’s a nuanced topic, so we’ll come back to it later.
What are Boundaries?
Boundaries are each individual’s personal standard operating procedures. They are the rules we need to enforce to live and work in a healthy way in the world. Each human being is unique and has a unique, important, and dynamic set of needs that must be met so that they can function their best in the world. Boundaries protect our right to having those needs met.
What is Personal Power?
Personal power is the state-of-being we attain when we recognize our intrinsic value in the universe. In this state-of-being, we freely exercise our right to have our needs met and our boundaries respected. When we reach a state of personal power, we are able to accept and hold space for all aspects of ourselves, including the socially unacceptable parts and uncomfortable emotions. The more deeply we are able to realize this self-worth, the less our external circumstances matter. Through our journey towards radical self-acceptance, we move more deeply into compassion and respect for others as we understand that we are all struggling internally and externally. Personal power is the embodiment of the understanding that your individual empowerment and the empowerment of the whole are one and the same, contained in a dynamic and responsive state-of-being.
Anger Work as a Road to Personal Power
There are many roads to self-acceptance. In my experience, learning to own your anger is an effective and radical one. Specifically because it is still taboo and specifically because it inherently contains so much power. Anger is a powerful message. It contains within it the knowledge of our right to be here and our inherent worth. It contains within it the ability to stand and fight for our lives and fight for the things we hold sacred. When we suppress or misplace that latent power, we are squandering a precious gift from our physical body. So, while it may sound scary to begin to work with anger because of the misuse and abuse of anger that we see in the world around us, when handled with care it can truly be a doorway to our own power.
Working with Anger
It’s important to note that when we begin to work with our anger, it does not mean that you can, or should, take it out on those around you. Owning your anger means you take responsibility for it. Owning your anger means that you stop stuffing it. Owning your anger means that, if you are already taking it out on others, you stop. Owning your anger means you take time to reflect on and examine your anger. Owning your anger means you get to know your anger and start to understand its messages. Owning your anger means you begin to look at the times and places where your boundaries were crossed, either because you allowed it, or because you were unable to stop it. It can be incredibly painful to address these instances because most of us either can’t accept that we really did do everything we could to protect ourselves, or we can’t accept the fact that we continually have not done everything that we can to protect ourselves. Regardless of how we end with our trauma, we need to understand that we are always doing the best we can with information that is available to us at the time. I recently remembered an important lesson I heard a while back and it has been resounding in my heart ever since. It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility. Unfortunately, counter to the modern medical model, you can’t just pay someone to heal you (and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says they can). If you want to feel better, love yourself more, be in better relationships with those around you, and be more at peace, then you have to do the hard work. But you don’t have to it alone. There are many compassionate and talented professionals who can help guide you through this process. There are internet forums, subreddits, and IRL support groups that can provide you with community and insight. If you are lucky maybe you have friends or family members who can help support you on your journey.
Some Important Concepts
In a perfect world, we would all have a healthy relationship to our anger. We would be able to make time and have access to support to help us heal our traumas. We would feel safe and empowered to deal with infractions of our boundaries. We would have an effective and equitable legal system and enough resources to change institutional or systemic injustices, and anger would be just a fleeting messenger. It could come in, alert us to what we need to enforce or change, bestow on us a brief but intense chemical power-up, and then pass through us as we are boosted into action to make the necessary changes. That is what anger is meant to do. It is a healthy kick in the ass that says, Hey time for you to stand up for yourself! Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the world we live in. We constantly face situations where we feel unable to exert our needs or enforce our boundaries, either due to societal pressures, personal trauma, or systemic oppression. We live in a hierarchal world wrought with imbalances in power that are real. Depending on our place in that hierarchy and on our personal experiences, anger can manifest in different ways.
The amount of nuance to this topic is about as big as there are people in the world. However, there are a couple important concepts that I would like to address before moving forward.
Anger as a Messenger from the Past
While anger in its essence is a response to our environment, often anger manifests because we have unhealed trauma around an event (or events) when our boundaries were violated in the past. It is common for us to have traumatic experiences that are beyond are ability to process at the time we experience them, and if we lack the support and resources to help us, we find ways to cope and move on without processing. This is a valid survival strategy. However, it is not a long-term solution once we want to do more than just survive. If we find that we have anger that shows up chronically, at levels disproportionate to the apparent cause, or anger misdirected towards others, it may be due to old wounds that we need to process and heal, when we have the time and resources to do so. Anger is a healthy response but not if it is a chronic condition.
Anger and Entitlement
Another common theme that often runs hand-in-hand with anger is entitlement. Entitlement is a huge topic in its own right, but the link between these two things is important to understand. It’s time to talk about belief structures. Anger is a response to our boundaries being violated, but that doesn’t mean that the boundaries we have are healthy or viable to maintain in a society. Entitlement is born out of faulty belief structures based on the misunderstanding of the scope of one’s own rights in respect to the rights of those around them. I say faulty because “bad” is a moral judgment. In essence, they simply are not compatible with a functioning society of sovereign individuals. For example, in a functioning society of sovereign individuals, maintaining the belief that you deserve to have what you want at all times and therefore building a boundary around never hearing the word no, is simply not feasible to maintain, as it infringes on the rights of expression and autonomy of those around you. This boundary will inevitably be crossed, as it is not compatible with universal sovereignty. When this boundary is crossed, it may indeed send signals of anger throughout your body, but this anger is not justified because it was triggered by the existence of faulty belief structures. Now in our hierarchy, as we are wrought with power imbalance, we are wrought with faulty belief structures, and thus wrought with entitlement. Entitlement is the root of many destructive forms of anger because, by definition, it infringes on the rights of others. What makes entitlement, and everything relating to our belief structures, difficult to address, is that they are based on assumptions about reality that often appear invisible to the person who holds them. Most of our assumptions about reality were informed either explicitly or implicitly from our environment, usually during childhood. Understanding and addressing your belief structures is an entire post of its own, so I will end here with: If we find ourselves becoming angry at someone who is merely exercising their rights to be authentic, for their needs to be met, or exerting boundaries of their own, we need to ask ourselves if we are angry because we have a faulty set of beliefs and if we are, in fact, feeling entitled to a right that may not be ours.
Holding Space for Anger
We respond to anger in our environment instinctually. Depending on several factors, we tend to respond either by becoming angry ourselves and exerting our will more strongly, or we suppress our ego drive in the hopes of placating the source of anger. These instinctual fight or flight reactions derive from the place in our brain that gets activated when we are scared and function under the assumption that our life is in danger when someone is angry. While there are times when this is true and our instinctual responses may be useful, more often than not it is our ego and our belief structures that are in danger. We are deeply uncomfortable with anger because it triggers our fears and insecurities and so we try to suppress it in those around us, either by force or by excessive peace-keeping. I would like to emphasize again that you are not ever obligated to allow someone to hurt, threaten, intimidate, or attempt to control you with their anger, nor should you be doing that to anyone else. But, we must begin to understand that anger itself is often healthy and justified. Many of us experience infractions made on our boundaries daily and our corresponding anger is a normal response. As individuals, we need to recognize that our societal insistence on keeping anger taboo and “keeping the peace” is oppressive to anyone who experiences violations of their boundaries, including ourselves, and also makes us complicit in our individual and collective disempowerment.
We need to learn to hold space for anger. It doesn’t feel good to hold anger. It brings up our own anger, fears and hurts. It causes our heart to race and our breath to become shallow. This discomfort is part of the necessary process. The message contained in anger is that we matter. When we suppress and oppress that message, we are saying that our rights to happiness and integrity don’t matter. We cannot begin to heal, individually or collectively, until we can let our anger be understood and validated. We cannot begin to move forward into our power until we tell ourselves that, yes, we matter. We cannot move forward as a society until we learn to hold space and validate each other and recognize the rights of each person to their own physical and emotional integrity. Once we begin to own our anger and learn to hold space for it, it becomes easier to hold space for someone else’s anger, because it no longer triggers us as deeply. Once we learn to own our anger, we begin to understand our boundaries better and we are less likely to feel powerless in the face of someone else’s entitlement. Once we begin to own our anger and step into a sense of our own personal power, it becomes easier to face our own entitlement. Once we can face our own entitlement and move into a place of responsive compassion for self and others, we have changed the world.
Self-Reflection > Personal Responsibility > Personal Empowerment
So, if you made it to the end of this post, you may have learned something or gravitated towards a particular message, but you may be wondering how to practically apply this to your life. Or maybe you totally disagree with my perspective and you think it’s all garbage. My message is the same either way. If you only get one thing out of reading this, let it be this: spend some time with your anger. Don’t take my word, or anyone else’s, on what it means. Let your anger speak for itself. The real pathway to personal empowerment is through taking personal responsibility for ourselves and our state-of-being. Just like the path to adulthood, we cannot be responsible for things we don’t know or understand. Active self-reflection is the first step. Take the time to understand what makes you angry. Dig a little deeper to find out why. Take the time to understand what your anger tells you about where your boundaries are. Take the time to figure out what your boundaries tell you about your belief structures. Maybe even take the time to think about what personal beliefs you would have to change to recognize and embody the truth that you, and every other person in this world, have an intrinsic worth and inherent right to have your needs met and boundaries respected.