Why you need to be “good” at anger

Posted on: March 22, 2021

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle

Spring is a time of rising energy, when we move from the hibernation of winter into birthing new projects. It’s exciting yet it can also be stressful – giving birth is not a relaxing process! Right now I’m feeling agitated about injustices in the world and don’t want to talk about bunnies and daffodils.  I’m finding it increasingly hard to turn away from the things that anger me and telling myself that someone else will do something about them is feeling like a cop out.

Saturday was the Spring Equinox – one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length, before we move into the lighter half of the year. It’s a time to pay attention to balance: where am I in equilibrium and where am I out of balance? My empathetic part which is calm, patient and listens to people is highly developed in my work as a coach and mediator. The part of me that feels my outrage over inequality and is willing to speak out is less well used.

In response to Sarah Everard’s tragic murder in the UK I watched Gina Martin’s TEDx talk: They told me to change my clothes. I changed the law instead. Gina successfully campaigned to change the law to make “upskirting” a criminal offence. At a festival, a man placed a phone between her legs, took photos and proceeded to share these images with his friends. Despite handing over the perpetrator and his phone to the police she was appalled to discover that his actions were not against the law – even though it’s been a crime in Scotland for 10 years. She decided to do something about it, and – after 2 years of campaigning and enduring horrendous abuse on social media – she succeeded in changing the law.

Another of my anger role models is US Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who made this extraordinary speech last year calling out Republican senator Ted Yoho for verbally abusing her on the steps of the Capitol.

After over 30 years’ experience as a lawyer, coach and mediator I see that most of us (myself included) are afraid of anger. But we need to befriend anger if we’re going to make positive change.

What is anger for? It shows us that something is not OK and gives us the energy to stand up and be counted – to care more about our purpose than being liked. Wendy Palmer, creator of Leadership Embodiment, talks about the trap of being dependent on approval. Whilst belonging is important, if we care too much about being liked it can sap our courage to speak out.

In my psychotherapy training I learnt that a reason we fear anger (a feeling) is that we confuse it with aggression (a behaviour) – we worry that if we allow ourselves to feel the hot uprising of energy in our body and act on it we will lose control and say or do something we regret – so we suppress anger.

Personally, I was trained out of my anger at an early age – my Catholic upbringing rewarded obedience and conformity and speaking up could lead to public humiliation by the nuns. It’s taken me a long time to reclaim it.

How can we use our anger as fuel to create positive change, rather than suppressing it and becoming apathetic, or turning it in on ourselves and becoming paralysed by self-criticism?

As a mediator in teams and organisations I give people space to recognise and express their feelings so that they don’t hijack working relationships.  Time and again people say: ”Oh no, I’m not angry… I’m just disappointed/concerned etc.”. Anger is frequently taboo in the workplace, but when suppressed in comes out in unhealthy indirect ways such as bullying. It’s time to rehabilitate anger.

As women it’s easy to be stereotyped as strident when we show anger.  At times I have dissolved into tears at work when really I was angry. Men have more permission to show anger but are shamed if they show vulnerability such as sadness or fear. Women have more leeway to show vulnerability but can be judged harshly if they express anger.

Learning how to recognise and act on our anger in constructive ways might be one of the most important things we can do as leaders. As ever, the body is the best place to start. Try this somatic practice:

  • Bring to mind a topic that stirs anger in you – it could be personal or in society (e.g. violence against women).
  • Scan your body – what sensations do you notice? Where in your body are they located?
  • Breathe into the sensations.
  • Draw the sensations down your body into your belly and notice what effect this has.
  • Say to yourself: “I am angry that…” – simply recognising anger and feeling it without acting on it is powerful.

So tell me, how “good” are you at anger?