Letters to Anger
As a therapist who is also an Aries, I thought I was familiar with anger. I thought I had an ease and a fluency around anger because of how often I myself am perceived as angry, or described as “intense.” And yet it wasn’t until recently, when I started an ancestral healing coaching program with Cassandra Solano, that I began to understand how complex my own relationship to anger really is.
I’ve written about the utility of anger before, especially in terms of therapy. Anger can be an incredibly useful and illuminating emotion, and a trusting relationship with a therapist can be one of the best — or perhaps one of the few — places where we can truly come to familiarize ourselves with our anger. What is it like to feel anger? Where do we feel it in our bodies, and what is its somatic quality? How do we experience it relationally — especially in the present, with and toward our therapist? Do we suppress it, express it, or ignore it and wait for it to go away? How do the various aspects of our identities impact how we experience our own anger, and whether or not we express it?
Like other emotions, we learn about anger in childhood, in our observation of our caregivers’ relationships to anger and how it showed up in their relationships; between our parents, or with us. For some of us, however, it can be hard to remember our childhoods, especially if we grew up in turbulent, abusive, or emotionally neglectful households — or even simply households with stressed out, distracted parents who couldn’t be fully present for us and take care of everyone’s basic needs at the same time. (Financial instability, lest we forget, is a huge stressor for families, and even in households with well-meaning, devoted parents, the stress of poverty can provide distinct challenges to parent-child emotional attunement.)
When I told Cassandra that I couldn’t remember a lot from my childhood, and that I don’t remember much about how I experienced anger as a kid, she offered me a simple but incredibly meaningful exercise, to be done in two parts. In the first, she suggested, I should write a letter to my anger. And in the second, I should write a letter from my anger to me. The point of the exercise is not to end up with perfect pieces of prose, but rather, to free write, similar to the morning pages exercise made famous by The Artist’s Way. Here is what this exercise taught me.
“To my Anger…I miss you”
One of the most interesting things about free-writing prompts is how surprising it can be to read back what you wrote. I wasn’t, for example, planning on writing about missing my anger — in fact, while the complaint that caused Cassandra to recommend this prompt to me (“Why can’t I feel angry about the ways I’ve been mistreated in relationships?”) suggests that I might be cut off in some ways from my anger, at a conscious level, I couldn’t comprehend that this might be the case. I often feel angry; it’s hard to be alive and caring in this world and not feel furious. “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” And yet there it was, clear as day in the first line.
Maybe there is a part of it, too, where I’ve internalized that expressing anger means you are crazy. The mad woman in the attic. That it means people (men) will laugh at you and invalidate you…[After being followed on the street and yelling at the man who followed me] I remember feeling something like stage fright, like I was making some kind of spectacle, like I was embarrassing myself by defending myself. That sliver self-doubt that arises simultaneously with anger, like a clumsy, reluctant partner in a three-legged race. Internalized gaslighting. The way the male gaze is eternally present, not just in how my body is objectified and threatened, but also in how my anger is diminished, made “cute” or “funny” or “spicy” or “exotic,” rather than allowed to be the powerful, lifesaving, life preserving force that it is.
My letter took a meandering path, reflecting on the shape that anger took in my childhood home. The blustering, loud, explosive anger from my father. The silent, suppressed, invisible anger of my mother, turned inward on herself, becoming numbness, sadness, that kept her at a distance because it kept her from her authenticity. How much I needed to see my mother’s rage, to learn that I was worthy of my own. The deep grief I feel, for her, for me, because, until quite recently, she never felt like there was any way for her to own it.
If therapists have any sort of refrain, the most common one would be, “Where do you feel that in your body?” Describing my anger gave me a in pit my stomach: a small, smooth iron ball, dark as pitch and incredibly dense. Cassandra prompted me to reflect: What was behind the ball, beneath it, and immediately I knew these weren’t the exact questions I needed to answer. This small iron ball wasn’t hiding something; instead, with its weight holding me down, it was an anchor to keep me from flying apart at the seams, anxiety containing the strength and potential energy of my anger inside it, which I think has frightened me for a long time.
As children, Cassandra explained, we need the adults in our lives to be our containers. Intense emotions can be frightening for children. It’s why, when we’re young, we need the adults in our lives to be emotionally grounded and mature enough to know how to provide these containers; to put our huge, child-sized feelings into context, and to teach us that while our feelings are intense, they won’t destroy us, and we can control them and learn from them. Cassandra told me that, in creating this small iron ball, I had created my own container when one couldn’t be provided for me. A brilliant survival mechanism that was my only way of parenting myself through anger as a child, but which now, as an adult, does its job a little too well, keeping me safe (that is, frozen) rather than self-assured; not explosive but not expressive either, and cut off from the fullness of my relational agency and power.
“My Dear…I’m here, though it is hard for you to feel me”
Writing from the perspective of anger was a challenge. A tip: Fake it til you make it! The first sentence I wrote was, “I don’t quite know what to say to you” — a line referring mostly to my own self-consciousness, but one that also served as a bridge. When I described this exercise to a friend, she said, “Yes! I love prompts that get you out of own head!” Sometimes to access our emotions, it helps to externalize them. “If these tears could talk,” your therapist might ask you, “What would they say?”
My anger wrote to me:
When you’re tired I taste bitter in your mouth. I make your bones heavy and tired, I dim the light in your eyes. I want to know what it is like to move through you when you are resourced, well-fed, well-loved, well-rested. When I can emerge beside you, holding your hand, guiding your voice, clear like a bell and indomitable, self-assured, so clear in the way you see the world and remember the events of your life…You can love them, and let me sit beside you at the same time, lending you clarity, creating boundaries around your sadness. My name is not synonymous with hatred, you know, or even bitterness. Let me help you see clearly — yourself, most of all.
For the femmes I work with, we’re often out of touch with our anger. Like my mother’s, our anger turns inward, to sadness, depression, disconnection from ourselves and our authenticity. What examples do we have of femme rage? Anger that is love, not hatred. Anger that is fierce in its protectiveness. Anger that is forceful; that burns bright and can be wielded with intention and efficacy.
When I wrote my anger’s letter to me, the tone was one of gentle and slightly wry correction: Anger setting the story straight as to its role and usefulness, the psychoeducation I offer so frequently to clients now being reiterated, with quiet irony, to me. Anger as an exercise in self-worth, self-trust, and clarity. Anger as the means of asserting our sacred right to take up space, to say no, to declare not only our needs but also our desires and expectations— and our requirements for how we will be respected and honored in relationship with others.