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I invited my friend Rick Hanson to a Facebook Live last week, and he shared a fascinating piece of research from his newest book, Neurodhrama; namely that anger is the only negative emotion that feels good. Anger releases dopamine and norepinephrine which feels good in the moment.
But as Rick said, “anger has a honeyed barb followed by a poisoned barb. Feels goods at the moment and poisons us over time.”
I’ve certainly been feeling this way; almost unable to bear how angry I am.
Anger is NOT bad or wrong! If you are a woman, especially a woman of color, we have been taught by the dominant culture that our anger is, at the very least unseemingly and bitchy. And at its worst? It can get you killed.
When we deny our anger, the personal and collective costs are devastating. We have to learn to work with it so it energizes us to take action, both for ourselves and for our world. Anger, among other emotions, has stirred millions of people to protest against systemic racism all over the U.S. and the world. This November will hopefully be the biggest voter turnout the U.S. has ever seen.
Here is one way to work with your anger, based on my conversation with Rick. This is part of a longer exercise I made for the Oasis.
The uncertainty of the pandemic…
Witnessing in the media, the murders of Black folks…
Reading about the worsening global climate…
A few small slights from loved ones…
Microaggressions from co-workers…
Worries about money…
Imagine all the hard things that have happened to you, and been witnessed by you, as pieces of kindling collecting in the corner of your heart.
As that kindling pile grows higher, it takes less and less for it to ignite into a huge conflagration.
The match that ignites you can be one news story, one stupid comment on social media, one person cutting you off in traffic…
And bam! You burst into flames.
A burst that can leave relationships in tatters and your nervous system raw.
A conflagration that can make it hard to focus on your work, your activism, your creativity, for days or weeks. A blast that causes you to sever a relationship you treasure, or leave a job you need.
It’s safe to say at this point in history that everyone’s kindling piles are at an all-time high.
Prevent the Blast exercise
Write down everything in your kindling pile. Name the anger. Write fast. Things done to you, things you’ve done. Anything goes.
Put your hand on your heart. Let out a long exhale through your lips while making a whoosh sound. Repeat a few times. Remind yourself you are safe.
Recall a moment when you offered your natural warmth and goodness to another human. For me, it’s being extra friendly on the trail because my face is masked. I love to call out, “Have a great day!” and do a little friendly dance to other people. Recall what you do: spontaneous texts to friends, checking on an elderly neighbor, donating to causes. Feel your natural warmth and goodness now.
Read your kindling pile list. Is there anything in it that you want to, and can, take action on this week? It could be writing a letter to your police department, cutting back on news, registering to get out the vote in your town. Break it down into two or three specific things you can actually do this week. Vague plans or feeling hopeless will only feed your future fires.
Next, notice if there is anyone on your list you have a personal relationship with and, if so, take a few breaths to remember they too are essentially good. They too extend warmth and kindness to others. They too have good intentions, if not always skillful means. (Note: you do not need to do this for anyone you don’t want. This is not about a spiritual bypass or gaslighting yourself.)
Take what is left in the pile, the specifics, as well as general feelings of outrage, rage, fury, frustration, bitterness, even hatred, and imagine all of it is being held in a field of love. Again, not as an act of ignoring what is wrong, but to feel the truth that love is a reality, that love is a force that changes the world in incredibly practical ways. That love is where true transformation begins.
The bad stuff is never erased by love, but you remember that lasting change comes through love. That everything is held by love.
I hope you find that useful and calming. I’ve been doing it as a practice this last week and I feel calmer.
If you’d prefer audio and having me lead you through the experience, you can listen to the excerpt from the Oasis here as my gift to you.
Here’s to using our anger to make a better world.