Alchemize Your Anger for the Good of the World!

The events of the last several weeks have been extremely painful, as well as extremely eye-opening. I can say for myself that I have been sitting with a mixture of hope, heartbreak, and a sinking realization of all the things that I have already always known, but haven’t quite had the words to express until now. 

I am deeply aware that I move through the world as a white woman, with all the privileges and experiences that this affords me. The fact of the matter is, the racial division that has been a reality in this country for years, centuries, has been one that I have recognized (I grew up in the South, after all) but that I have also had the luxury to avoid. 

Like others, I know that I have a lot of work to do around this. And that I will continue to shine a light on my own biases, the ways in which I have been impacted by systemic racism, and the ways I have benefited from it—even if those effects are not always visible or immediate to me.

As I move through my own awakening, I am seeing all around me that people’s eyes are opening up to a truth that has always been here. It is painful, difficult, frustrating, and confusing to sit with. I feel a great sense of responsibility in this moment to be with these complexities, and I’m also noting that everything that is happening is much bigger than me.

As I watch the news and hear reports about the uprising that is occurring in the name of racial justice after the murder of yet another black man at the hands of the police, it is easy to be sickened by the facts on the ground. A number of groups are coming out to protest injustice; at the same time, many are hijacking the movement through violence, suppression, and the refusal to move in the direction of the change we so obviously need. 

As we sit with all of this, it is understandable that many people who have never directly had to deal with the kind of injustice that has gone unchecked for so many years will feel uncomfortable. Defensive, even. Instead of focusing on the reasons that the “destruction” is happening, it can be easier and more convenient to target protestors as being violent, lawless looters destroying the fabric of our society—failing to remember that “peaceful protest” has often drawn just as much vitriol in the history of our nation.

The discomfort people are feeling can be an excuse to turn a blind eye to the anger that is rightfully present in our nation’s black people, as well as those of us who are sick and tired of the unquestioned status quo of mistreatment and oppression—those of us who refuse to go back to sleep and keep ignoring the elephant that’s in the room.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?….It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

So many decades later, Dr. King’s words still ring true. I wonder to myself what those of us who stand by and stay silent in the face of injustice, while hypocritically preaching nonviolence, are refusing to look at. As we hold to the all-American principle of liberty and justice for all, even though it’s clear this is more of a lofty ideal than a reality, what are we refusing to feel? As white America goes about its business while unconsciously clinging to racial stereotypes of the “angry black woman” or “violent black man,” why is it so difficult for us to feel our own anger? 

How I Learned to Use My Anger As Fuel

The reason why so many of us can’t seem to feel our anger, and why we get freaked out when we see it in others, is that we’ve come to see it as dangerous. 

But just because it feels dangerous, doesn’t mean that it actually is. Just like any emotion, anger can be both beneficial and destructive. Anger only becomes a firestorm when we let it rage out of control rather than acknowledging and honoring its presence, as well as what it has to show us.

Throughout human history, our anger has always been a necessary tool for helping us recognize injustice, and for letting us know when our boundaries and rights have been violated. Contrary to what we think, anger is not innately destructive. It can be optimized into powerful action and transformational change. 

I can definitely say for myself: I have been angry my whole life—and it’s how I’ve gotten a lot of things done! I have worked my whole life to allow the emotion of anger to arise in me without having it take me over and completely rule my choices. Now, at almost 52, I feel like I can finally reflect on how I have used my anger as a catalyst for positive action in my life.

From an early age, ever since I was sexually abused by my father, I held the deep righteous indignation of someone who had been a survivor of violence…and whose truth was gaslit, silenced, and shut down for decades. For a long time, I felt powerless to address any of it, but ultimately, it was the rage I felt at the injustice I’d experienced—an injustice that so many women across the world know all too well—that inspired me to start my global community. I wanted to create a safe space for women to channel their anger into truth. I wanted this to be a forum in which we could move through victimhood and blame, and into potent action and a sense of greater purpose. Anger is the reason Women For One came to be!

Something I learned through my own experience is that the way that we choose to use anger can determine whether or not it will end up working for us—or against us. 

One of my favorite Women For One Truthtellers, Dr. Maya Angelou, once said, “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.” 

Take a minute to read that quote again and take a deep breath in and out. It’s so powerful. Dr. Angelou knew that anger could be catalyzed into powerful action. 

It’s foolish to dismiss anger, deny it, or judge it as “wrong” or “destructive,” the way so many women (I would argue) have been taught. We have the power to alchemize it instead—to use it as a force that can serve to wake us up, open our hearts and minds to change, and lead us to creative new possibilities.

Five Tips for Alchemizing Anger

Our world is allergic to anger. But I think a better question than “Why are you so angry?” (a microaggression I’ve seen more times than I can count) is “Why aren’t you angry?”

Given the painful experiences of injustice that are the daily reality of so many people of color, we should be mad as hell! We shouldn’t be hunkering down in fear, complacency, or self-righteous criticism of people who are rightly expressing their pent-up hurt and rage. More than anything, we need to stop suggesting that anger at pervasive injustice is the “wrong” response. 

While some of the anger we’re seeing on our streets can feel overwhelming and chaotic, it is forcing many of us to look at racism as a poison that has infected our country to its core rather than an evil of the past. This anger we feel is moving us in the direction of potent change.

And that change is happening in so many different places. It’s happening on our streets; it’s happening in our voting booths; it’s happening in the conversations we’re having with friends and family members about systemic racism and implicit bias. These are things that have risen from the force of our collective anger. Sometimes we need that fire in our belly in order to muster the motivation to do something about injustice. 

My feeling is, the better we get at addressing our anger and being with it, seeing it for what it really is, the more skillfully we can actually handle it.

From my own experience, I’ve come up with five different steps to alchemizing anger so that we can gain awareness and power from it rather than allowing us to control us:

  1. When it comes up, identify it without judging it. Now, I know this might be difficult to do because most of us are uncomfortable with feeling anger, but even more than that, many of us don’t even register that it’s present when it comes up. When we are willing to identify our own emotions and connect to how they feel in our bodies, it becomes easier to neutrally name anger and allow its presence.
  2. Notice any feelings that come rushing in as a response to anger. Many women are taught to stamp out anger and to feel guilty about carrying it. Notice the cascade of other feelings that come up around the presence and awareness of anger. These might include resistance, grief, hatred, shame, denial of the anger, or even intensification of the anger. Allow those feelings to be present, with the same neutral awareness, and name them if you can.
  3. Sit with your feelings by softening and allowing them to be there. So often, when we experience anger, we tend to numb out or distract ourselves, or to jump into making up stories about it instead of fully feeling it and creating more space for those sensations. See your body as a container that is large enough to withstand and hold the anger. Feel the anger softly settling into this container, almost like it’s settling into the arms of a completely loving and non-judgmental presence. Let yourself breathe deeply. You might want to silently repeat a mantra like, “I allow my anger to take up space,” or “It’s safe to feel my anger.
  4. Find the truth inside your anger. Again, this isn’t about creating an elaborate story about your anger. It’s about recognizing the anger is there for a reason; it came from somewhere. Whether or not you think the anger is justifiable, it has its roots in a situation or experience. You can’t deny your feelings or insist they don’t have a right to be present. Once again, anger is usually a reaction to boundaries that have been broken—perhaps over a very long period of time. The better we get at being with our feelings, the easier it will be to recognize why they are here to begin with.
  5. Take that truth into powerful action. As Dr. Angelou noted, anger is incredible fuel. The more we are connected to our anger, the likelier it is we’ll take actions that are aligned with our values. What is a powerful action you can take based on the anger you feel? It could be writing a letter to your elected officials, going out to the streets to protest, having a hard conversation, going for a run, or screaming into a pillow. The action you take should be something that honors and moves your anger in ways that make you feel powerful.

The process of alchemizing your anger so that it works for you is not always linear or obvious. It may sometimes feel unbearable to sit with the feelings. So be kind and patient with yourself. Other times, the right action to take may not be all that clear. Understand that it’s a process to learn to be with your anger, especially if you’ve been conditioned to fear it in yourself and/or others. The process will take as long as it needs to take. 

Your anger is powerful. You are entitled to feel it, and responsible for how you choose to wield it.

At the same time as we learn to respect and familiarize ourselves with our anger, we can make the choice not to get stuck in it. We can use it to become more awake, aware, and committed to justice. 

In truth, the world doesn’t need more empty memes about “love and peace,” or well-meaning yet fear-based criticisms of the people who are out there fighting for their rights. What it needs is the kind of fierce compassion that comes from stepping up, owning our anger, and taking the kind of action that sends a strong message to the rest of the world: We will not turn a blind eye to injustice and the violation of our dignity. 

We will get angry, and we will do something about it.

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About the Author | Kelly McNelis

Kelly McNelis is the founder of global community, Women for One, a speaker, coach, facilitator, and bestselling author of Your Messy Brilliance: 7 Tools for the Perfectly Imperfect Woman. With more than 25 years of experience as a nonprofit and small-business consultant, Kelly empowers generations of women around the world to build the relationships, community, and confidence they need to achieve their wildest dreams. She finds daily inspiration in spending time with her husband and children in her home outside of Seattle.

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