- A natural response to injustice
- A transitory stage of grief
- Sometimes safer than sadness or vulnerability
- Considered a secondary emotion
- All of the above
I find that when “all of the above” is offered on a multiple choice it is usually a safe bet. In fact, William Poundstone asserts in “Rock Paper Scissors: A Practical Guide to OutGuessing and OutWitting Almost Everybody” that when you don’t know choosing either “all of the above” or “none of the above” is 90% better chance than your other options. But test development, human bias, and strategy are not what I’m writing about. So I digress. Back to what might be the most prevalent emotion on the internet.
I was at work recently when a rumination on anger bubbled into my consciousness, connected to a memory from previous work. I currently work as a hospice social worker. Sometimes one human issue reminds me of another human issue. It is not uncommon for anger to come up in hospice. It is, after all, one of the faces of grief.
A memory surfaced about working at The Nurturing Center in 2008, a treatment center for families of children ages 0-5 at risk or with a history of abuse or neglect. It was a mix of involuntary and voluntary clients. Many of the mommas and poppas I worked with had themselves experienced childhood trauma and been in a series of unhealthy adult relationships. I remembered being perplexed by a case in which one of my mommas was reflecting on how her trauma history shaped her and I was stumped by her absence of anger.
In supervision, I shared this with my supervisor Cindy Nord and my therapist colleagues. I had intellectualized theories on why anger was important. It is, after all, one of the stages of grief. It’s possible that I wasn’t quite ready for her response. She listened to my description of the client’s story, my response to my client and she smiled at me and told me that I didn’t need to answer her next question in the moment and asked, “Why did you need her to be angry?” I’m sure, as I had trained myself to do each time she threatened to annihilate a paradigm I held dear, I responded, “I’ll have to think about that.”
Why did I need this momma to be angry? I suspected that she could not possibly not be angry and that continued suppression of anger would inhibit her ability to heal. Catharsis supported this presumption. Cindy’s feedback (holy smokes did I get good feedback there when I wasn’t busy being angry) was that by my needing her to be in a different emotional place than she was, I was inhibiting my own ability to join with her where she was and support her in her process.
I had my own anger in response to the issue of child abuse. The topic doesn’t illicit warm fuzzies. Child abuse is unacceptable and it should make us (the collective us) angry. Anger in response to injustice is righteous anger. However, my vendetta against child abuse wasn’t going to help the momma I was working with. I had to learn to be present with her in her process at whatever point that might be. Being present demanded I not bring my own agenda into our session.
Outside the therapy session, I needed to do something with my righteous anger. In this way, anger can be a gift. It can drive change. I think of our country and the atrocities we have committed against humans. I think of the Tuskegee experiments, of Charlottesville’s August 12, 2017, of why the women of congress were dressed in white during yesterday’s presidential address. In so many contexts, anger is due and it calls for us to DO something.
Anger is often considered a secondary emotion. Ah yes, returning to our quiz question. This is worth a mention though. There’s a lovely little graphic you can find by searching the internet for “anger secondary emotion.” It’s of an iceberg. The graphic, and associated interventions geared towards anger-management asserts that underneath anger is another feeling. It may be sadness, fear, or powerlessness to name a few. It could be that my anger about child abuse was rooted in my sadness about child abuse. When sadness manifests as anger it can be empowering, creating a catalyst for action.
It can also swallow us whole.
In 2008 the economy was in the shitter. I accepted my first job at The Nurturing Center in Columbia, South Carolina out of graduate school at the bare minimum salary that I could afford because I wanted to do the work. Two months later everyone in our organization took a 10% pay cut. That same month President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, bailing out corporate banks. The contrast between how America took care of people vs. how American took care of corporations was stark. In the context of the times I felt helpless, angry, and disempowered. Righteous anger without empowerment morphed into despair.
Times have changed, but there are many paralells that can be drawn between those times and our current state of affairs. In September of 2017, which still feels current more than a year later, I went out dancing, which happens with a frequency of nearly never. Less than a month before that night, a self-proclaimed “white nationalist” drove a car into a crowd of people killing Heather Heyer within three blocks of the club I was at. When a friend who I see nearly never asked how I was doing I responded that I was often distracted by being so angry and dumbfounded by our sociopolitical climate that it made questions like, “How are you?” difficult to answer. Sometimes I get really awkward really fast. When I returned to my car from dancing I jotted the following into my phone’s notes:
There’s a balled up sock
Wrinkled from being pulled
From a tiny foot
Resting on my dashboard
“Anger is the background noise
Now for everyone…”
And gave me permission
To laugh and feel
The bass pounded like
It had a thousand times before
Where I spun in circles
And felt the intention in my hips
My feet leading my legs
Into the universe
I arrive back to my car
Away from the noise.
The comrades. The laughter.
To the place that I drive home.
And tiptoe in
As not to wake the tiny feet.
Sometimes anger is a community’s anger and trauma is a community’s trauma. What my friend did, that made me feel that I needed to write about it upon returning to my car, was to normalize the way that I had internalized that anger and to put it in it’s place, creating room for the other pieces of my experience to come into focus.
Anger has it’s place and can be a force for good. It is also a natural response to injustice and a transitory stage of grief. Often it is the surface for a deeper, more painful, feeling and in it we may find safety from the underlying pain. Purpose can be derived from it, but it can also take on a life of it’s own and consume us or, misplaced, obliterate progress and sabotage alliances. It’s a shifty beastie. It is this multifaceted nature that fascinates me, but sometimes I move too quickly to it as a secondary emotion. Sometimes, as was the case with the momma I got to work with in 2008, there are lessons to be learned from the underlying emotion and it’s okay, if not necessary, to sit with pain.