Managing anger and other big feelings

There are a lot of big feelings flying around out there lately. Understandably so. Our consciousness is overstimulated with local, national, and worldwide news that has all our systems on high alert.

It’s crucial that we understand how our body is designed to respond to our circumstances, so we can be healthy and regulated as individuals, families, communities, and citizens of the world.

A word on anger…

Anger. There’s a lot to be angry about in the world right now. I get it. I’m angry, too. And when our outside world makes us angry, we are much more prone to anger in our inside world as well. But anger is just a feeling. It’s not the boss. When we let anger run the show, we get all sorts of ugliness, like hate and violence.

Culturally, anger is the only acceptable negative emotion. So every time we have any big feeling, we call it anger, and express it as rage. And so, although this post is not necessarily anger-specific, when we talk about managing and regulating big feelings, we need to keep anger in the forefront of our minds.

Anger is not the problem.

The first thing we need to clarify is that anger isn’t the problem. All of our emotions – negative or positive – serve an important purpose. Big feelings are how our nervous system communicates with us, so we can respond appropriately to the world around us. If there is danger, fear sends us a warning. If there is adventure, excitement tells us to be alert and present. If there is beauty and safety, joy tells us to relax. If there is injustice, anger tells us to defend.

Unfortunately, humans have historically been too smart for our own good. Over centuries, the human species learned to suppress our natural emotions. We learned that by masking our true feelings, we can control the outcome and the people around us. We learned how to manipulate our reactions to create a desired outcome. And in many ways, we have been quite successful at this – at least outwardly.

While we were busy manipulating the outcome of our outer circumstances, our subconscious was still functioning just as it had been designed. This incongruence between our inner feelings and our outer behavior wreaks all kind of havoc on our nervous systems.

The importance of action

When we try to push down our natural emotional responses and pretend they aren’t there, only then do they become destructive. Anger turns to rage, resentment, and bitterness. Sadness turns into depression. Jealously turns vengeful.

 Rather than burying our big feelings, we should instead channel them into action. That is, after all, why they are there. Our big feelings exist to communicate something to you, and our bodies are designed to respond to them with action. Our big feelings are there to tell us that something either is or isn’t right, and we need to respond accordingly. When we neglect to act, we confuse our nervous system.

One way or another, our big feelings will find a way out. Just as pressure builds in a volcano, if we keep all those feelings bottled up, they will eventually do one of two things… They will either explode in an outburst, or spread throughout our system and bubble slowly to the surface in the form of physical or mental illness.

Our emotions are not the boss.

One of the major reasons the human species learned to suppress emotions is because we did not understand their purpose. Rather than trust our emotions as instructive and useful tools to be used to inform our actions, we allow them to run the show.

Just because we are angry, we don’t have to spin in a rage spiral, ripping up everything in our path. We simply need to listen to it, think about it, figure out what we can do to help solve the problem, and then act. When we do this, our nervous system feels regulated. Once the injustice is resolved, the emotion subsides.

Of course, the complex social structures of human civilization requires ongoing action. We aren’t going to solve the problems that trigger our anger in one tidy moment. Managing injustices done to ourselves and others sometimes takes a lifetime – or several lifetimes – to resolve. And our anger (or whatever that big feeling might be) is going to stay activated until the problem is solved.

We can do hard things.

Managing big feelings that stay activated over time can be tricky. But it’s not impossible. It’s tempting to give into anger and allow it to overtake us. But that’s not how we were designed to function. Yes, it’s exhausting sometimes to stay ahead of our big feelings. It’s exhausting to be constantly checking in with ourselves, constantly learning all that our emotions have to teach us. But you know what? As the author Glennon Doyle says, we can do hard things.

It takes just as much energy to suppress our big feelings as it does to take action to resolve the problem that triggers those big feelings. When we continue to stay in charge of our own actions, using our emotions as a roadmap and catalyst for positive change, the human race can accomplish truly remarkable things.

Who is driving the car?

I compare it to driving a car. In a healthy nervous system, you are behind the wheel, choosing where to go. Your emotions are the navigator. It’s their job to pay attention to the map, to guide you along your journey. They tell you what neighborhood you’re in, what roadblocks and detours are in your path, and what you should watch out for. But ultimately, it’s your job to decide what route to take.

When we let our emotions take over, we are giving up our spot in the driver’s seat. When our emotions are driving the car, they react haphazardly. When an obstacle is in their way, they overreact and jerk the wheel, spinning your car (your life) out of control.

When we suppress our emotions, we kick them out of the car entirely. This leaves us adrift, always following the easiest path of least resistance, or bumping along uncharted dirt tracks that lead to nowhere.

Every time we feel an emotion, we have a choice. Will our big feelings be in charge, or will they simply inform our course of action? The more stressful the circumstance, the harder it is to stay ahead of your big feelings. This is why we see higher rates of crime and physical and mental illness in families, communities, and cultures with higher rates of trauma.

Family and cultural trauma

In dysfunctional families, feelings are running the show. This manifests in one of two ways:

  • Everyone reacts defensively, always anticipating the next attack. Nothing is predictable. Nobody thinks before they speak. One person’s big feelings trigger another’s, and suddenly, it’s a toxic soup of big, messy, bossy, unregulated feelings. People lash out and harm one another.
  • Nobody shows any pure emotion. Everything is suppressed – anger, sadness, excitement, joy. The result is something like emotional robots, where individuals react the way they are “supposed to” rather than how they actually feel. Everyone smiles for family photos, but internally everyone is on edge. People begin to be numb to all feelings. Their emotions are silenced.

When this happens in families, it is tragic. When it happens in entire cultures, it is catastrophic. Trauma begets trauma. Traumatized people traumatize others. When entire populations allow their big feelings to run the show, scary things happen. The culture is ruled by blame, fear, anger, shame, sorrow, and hopelessness. Change feels impossible. People give up, and tyrants reign.

No map, no direction, no purpose.

The paradox of allowing big feelings to be in charge is that we no longer have any navigation tools. We are giving our feelings a task they were never meant to perform. They aren’t meant to steer the ship. Their purpose is to map our course.

When we hand over control to our feelings, we are rudderless, aimless, confused, lost, and scared. The only way to regain purpose and direction in our lives is to learn to regulate our big feelings, placing them back in the role they were designed for in the first place. When your family, your life, your nation, your world is spinning out of control, the first place to look is not externally with blame, but internally, within ourselves.

Who is running the show? Your anger, fear, sadness, and grief? If your big feelings are in charge, you don’t have any source of navigation. You are lost, and you will remain lost, until you slip back into the driver’s seat, and start paying attention to where your big feelings are guiding you.

Whether we are handing our lives over to our big feelings, or suppressing them – pretending they do not exist – we are ceding ownership of our own lives. We need leaders of our families, our schools, our places of worship, and our local, state, and national government who are trauma-informed and courageous enough to sit with their emotions long enough to correct our course.

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