Using Anger Skillfully at Mid-Life
Anger. It’s a thing in our life- in any human life. We know this. And we also know there are lots of cultural messages about how women are not supposed to get angry. Because we’re supposed to be ‘nice’ or ‘good’ or some other non-threatening thing. But..we get mad don’t we? Yes. And, especially in mid-life, as our hormones and perspective change, it sometimes can feel like we’re mad all the time. So, how can we deal with it well? How can we use it to help us get clearer and healthier? I’m glad you asked!
One of the things about anger is that it can be exhausting. Have you ever felt that or noticed that? On top of peri-menopause symptoms and/or the Sex Surge, anger make you tired and that just feels like insult to injury. If we think about it, this isn’t too surprising. Anger happens when our needs and values are stepped on or disrespected. And that hurts. Any kind of pain, physical or emotional, makes us tired. I have suddenly felt tired, my eyes lose their sparkle and the gray circles beneath them show up, and I physically just want to curl up in a ball and sleep. (How does anger show up in your body?)
And the emotional impact of anger is much wider and deeper than other emotions. It’s more like a bomb blast going off- scattering feelings and pain all over the place. It also leaves a crater- a place where our emotional and physical selves are lower than where we first started. This is probably why people fear women’s anger- because it can destroy things and we have expectations that women are here to tend, build up, and care for life. But- anger is an honest emotion and it’s also part of caring, tending, and growing ourselves and our lives.
But still…anger is difficult. And dealing with it -both expressing it and recovering from anger directed at us- in a healthy way takes intention, practice, patience, and self-kindness (also difficult to come by those when you’re angry!).
Getting Through Anger
One of my favorite songs says:
if our hearts are never broken/
then there’s no joy in the mending/
there’s so much this hurt can teach us both
(“New York”/ Fallen Empires / Snow Patrol)
In the spirit of learning from the pain, and thereby turning it into something useful, I offer you what I know about dealing with anger skillfully in mid-life.
1. Let it all out.
Sometimes, in angry moments, we aren’t in an appropriate place to express our true feelings. If we aren’t in a safe place to express ourselves, it’s healthy to make sure that we schedule an appropriate time and place to process. To cry, to piss & moan, to vent. If we also have a kind friend who lets us go over every detail of the interaction, until we have gotten everything out, that is truly a gift.
Getting out the anger by expressing it verbally isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if we don’t express it somehow, the impact isn’t just emotional, it’s physical. Those who are less likely to express themselves are more likely to have heart disease, depression, and stress-related diseases.
2. Accepting support.
It can be difficult, but in the midst of our anger we should try not to cut ourselves off from supportive resources. This means we have to intentionally soften and open our hearts when we usually might react by closing it and hiding away from others.
But by staying open we can get so much in return: love, acceptance, support, and compassion from family, friends, and co-workers.
3. Time out.
Adults need these, too! One time when I was very mad, I went to my car, found the loudest song I could, and turned up the volume until I could feel the music move through me physically (better speakers are worth the cost, btw). I figure if you can use sound waves to break up kidney stones, you can use music to dissipate anger. It worked.
Doing something physical can also be really helpful- maybe cleaning out the car, the bathroom, or the garage. Or doing some task with a flair only reserved for when we’re angry- a little extra punch here, a little more ‘fuck this’ there. Whatever feels like a ‘time out’ or an ‘energy out’ for you is going to be helpful- find what works for you.
There are two kinds of fantasy you can let yourself indulge in when you’re angry. The first can help get rid of the anger if we imagine, in full detail, all the nasty things we would have liked to say or do to the person we are angry at. (Side benefit: this might also make you laugh.) This is a fantasy, so please let yourself be honest- it’s not going to come true. Feel free to swear and shake fists and yell. (I do this; it feels good and cathartic.)
The second kind of fantasy can help you figure out what you could learn from the situation. You can imagine how you would have preferred to handle the situation or how you would like to handle it in the future. This doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ‘nicer’ next time, you just get to be clear on how you’d rather handle it (because maybe a little swearing is actually in order). This transforms the anger and helps train the brain to handle the situation more calmly next time, because the connections are already laid down.
Anger can be a tough emotion to handle- to admit we are feeling, to feel, to express. But it is a useful emotion: it shows us where things we care about are being stepped on or disrespected. And we can use anger skillfully- both in how we express it and how we learn from it- so that it becomes a trusted friend, rather than a frustrating experience.