Anger…a Prelude to Courage

Anger…a Prelude to Courage

The title of this month’s e-newsletter Anger: A Prelude to Courage is a direct steal (with deep bows) from the June 2011 issue of Ode Magazine’s article “Prelude to Courage” by Diana Rico. Well-researched and well-written, the entire article is a fascinating look at how the “destructive” emotion of anger can surprisingly improve health, enhance intimacy, spur creativity and inspire social change. Diana credits Eric Hoffer with the idea that “anger is a prelude to courage” which translates readily to anger as a prelude to changes that are necessary and overdue. We can experience our anger, and other people’s, as afflictive or adaptive, as stuck or catalytic. May these reflections and exercises on the skillful channeling of anger be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Anger: A Prelude to Courage

It’s important to understand that anger is a hardwired-in, body-based survival response. We can feel angry at the drop of a hat from the moment we’re born – because that’s how we survive, individually and as a species. Anger revs up right out of the amygdala when we feel threatened, just as fear does, often in response to the same threat. This revving up of fight-flight in our nervous system is what gets the body moving very, very quickly to protect our own life or the lives of our relatives, our kin, our tribe. Anger is as necessary to our lives as breath and food and love.

(Anger also has its costs. Sustained anger, like sustained fear, sustains the revving up of the stress hormone cortisol which over time leads to increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and a steady compromise of the immune system which leads to more colds, flu, headaches, and less protection against cancer. Research has linked sustained anger to increased risk taking, poor decision making and increased substance abuse as well.)

We experience the body-based revving up of anger in response to danger or threat as a full-fledged emotion as it links up with our perceptions and interpretations of our experience, signaling a perceived violation of a boundary, or a perceived lack of respect, or a perceived unfairness or injustice or oppression. The perception may be accurate or inaccurate, but the fueling of anger is based on our perceptions, not intrinsic to the external triggers themselves.

It’s never what people do that makes us angry; it’s what we tell ourselves about what they did that makes us angry.
– Marshall Rosenberg

The two main problems with anger as an emotion are:

1) anger that is explosive, out of control, our tempers hijacking our better judgment or a full-blown rage knocking the functioning of our thinking brain off line altogether;

2) anger that is repressed; out of sight, out of mind, survival relying on pleasing or placating instead, which can lead to self-sacrifice, self sabotage, self-blame.

In the first case, anger is under-regulated. Not enough top-down management from the higher brain (especially the pre-frontal cortex which bears most of the burden of regulating the amygdala). Anger arises naturally, spontaneously, signaling us and others something important is happening! Pay attention! But then the anger continues unchecked, often fueled by memories and beliefs from past injuries to our bodies or our psyches.

Flying off the handle sometimes causes hammers and humans to lose their heads, as well as their effectiveness.
– William Arthur Ward

In the second case, anger is over-regulated. Too much top-down management from the higher brain. When anger does naturally, spontaneously arise, it is quickly compartmentalized or dissociated away, so as not to offend someone, put us at risk, or get us into trouble, often very wisely so at the time. Over time, the deflection of anger can be so swift, we no longer feel the anger as an emotion at all, though, of course, the activating of it in our bodies is still there. Sometimes the repression of anger can be so powerful, all other emotions are swept into denial, too. We wind up feeling nothing, our feelings flatlined, hence the shorthand phrase – “depression is anger turned inward.” (Why helping people get in touch with their anger and expressing it adaptively can be a skillful means to activate out of depression.)

Since all emotions are body-based signals to pay attention and carry with them adaptive action tendencies, the under-regulation or over-regulation of anger implies that an adaptive regulation of anger is possible, which is what we learn here.

In her classic book The Dance of Anger, Dr. Harriet Lerner talks about the first kind of anger – explosive – which gets us labeled a bitch or a prick. And the second kind of anger – repressed – which leads us to live life as a doormat. She suggests there is a third way to express anger: to channel the energy of the anger into being firm, assertive, clear, and relentless in our cause until our boundaries/needs/rights are respected.

Anger is a signal and one worth listening to.
– Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger

Anger is a signpost showing us where change is needed.
– Diana Rico

Conflict can be a symptom of something that can be improved.
– Vivian Scott

This third option – of anger finding its courage to insist, skillfully, appropriately, on change -can actually happen when the pre-frontal cortex – the executive center of the brain – stays online long enough and strong enough to manage the surges of energy in the body we experience as anger, slowing us down long enough (hence the folk wisdom of counting to ten) to manage the anger, to stop feeding the anger, and to channel anger into some well-thought through adaptive action.

You may have experienced in your own intimate and family relationships an earnest desire for the people closest to you to respect your needs – for sleep, for time away; your boundaries – which music or TV show you’re willing to listen to after 11pm and which you’re not; your rights – to speak your own truth about career, finances, holidays with relatives, and be understood and cared about, even if disagreed with.

Healthy anger requires us to define ourselves and to be the best expert on what values, priorities and desires are not negotiable under relationship pressures. It requires us to change our part in the relationship patterns from which our anger springs…..Healthy anger requires self-focus, so we can observe and change our part in the patterns that keep us stuck, rather than dissipating our energy trying to change another person who doesn’t want to change.
– Harriet Lerner

In the exercises to practice below, we learn simple techniques of compassionate communication that help us find the courage to give our own needs and rights in relationship a fighting chance.

[Sidebar #1 on Shame: Anger is so cued by our perceptions of unfairness, disrespect, discrimination, humiliation, injustice, oppression, it behooves us to bow to the power of its kissing cousin – shame – to fuel the anger response. Anger arises on its own steam, of course. It is hard-wired in to activate the body to move – in fight or even flight to fight another day. Shame is a learned response, conditioned over time in the right hemisphere of the cortex by our experiences in personal and social relationships. The right hemisphere does have a built-in negativity bias toward anxiety, shame, and depression, so everything we learn early on about self-worth and self-dignity can encode negatively in our neural circuitry instead of positively, creating underlying automatic patters of self-doubt, self-hatred.

Shame as a primary experience can then trigger anger as a secondary emotion to protect us from feeling unbearable shame. Anger is often quite justifiable, it is also quite often a reactive force over a deeper underlying hurt, fear, unmet need, or shame. It is more empowering to feel anger than to feel shame. Our body-mind can learn to protect us from shame by being conscious of the anger with no consciousness whatsoever of the unconscious shame trigger it is protecting us from.

Anger is a symptom, a way of cloaking and expressing feelings too awful to experience directly – hurt, bitterness, grief, and most of all, fear and shame.
– Joan Rivers

If we could learn to like ourselves, even a little, maybe our cruelties and angers might melt away.
– John Steinbeck

The August 2008 e-newsletter on Self-Acceptance and the February 2009 e-newsletter on The Neurobiology of Feeling Unlovable offer many excellent resources on healing the toxic shame that can unconsciously drive the responses of anger exploding or imploding.]

* * * * *

In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
– Mark Twain.

Anger or conflict at work is often a signal something drastically needs to change there, too. When needs of the whole – fairness in promotion policies, reasonable deadlines for team projects, adequate recourse for grievances – are being overlooked, ignored, even violated, anger conveys an urgency, something needs to be addressed, NOW. Some problem – unclear goals or timelines, credit given where credit is due – needs to be resolved, NOW. If that urgency can be acknowledged by the powers that be, the anger can act as a signal to open minds rather than close them and work creatively, collaboratively, productively toward the greater good for the entire enterprise.

* * * * *

In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves.
– Abraham J. Heschel

This striving for ourselves is what we want to catch and re-channel for the truth of the common good. There is always plenty to be angry about in the human condition, for ourselves personally and for those people and causes near and dear to us: financial collapse and corruption, the worsening threats to the environment, the siphoning of resources for education and health care into endless military quagmire. When we can channel our anger toward the benefit of the community – thinking globally, acting locally – insisting on recycling programs at our jobs, campaigning for the restoration of music and the arts in local schools, we are converting anger to action for the common good.

* * * * *

Anger is not bad. Anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil.
– Joan Chittister

The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.
– Bede Jarrett

Anger may be foolish and absurd, and one may be irritated when in the wrong, but a man never feels outraged unless in some respect he is at bottom right.
– Victor Hugo

When social-political change is blocked, then resentment builds and rage erupts. We’ve all seen race riots and political protests, in person or in the media. The wisest leaders of all time have had the vision and courage to channel the anger and threat of violence into an unstoppable force to end oppression – ending Jim Crow, ending apartheid, getting women the vote, liberating India from the rule of the British raj.

Anger is a great force. If you control it, it can be transmuted into a power which can move the whole world.
– Joanna Macy

* * * * *

Dr. Agnete Fischer, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, has an interesting angle on anger. She posits: the more words a culture has for the nuances of anger – irritated, annoyed, miffed, peeved, nettled, vexed, irked, cross, resentful, galled, rancorous, riled, wrathful, furious, enraged, outraged, pissed off, put out, in a snit, indignant, irate, fuming, seething, hot under the collar, foaming at the mouth, hopping mad, in a lather, incensed, livid, offended, infuriated the more tools we have to steer anger into constructive rather than destructive directions. The more tools we have to channel all nuances into healthy anger rather than unhealthy rage, the more empowered we are, the more courageous we can be, to channel the signal of anger into the prelude of productive change.

That [anger] which we had previously run from and rejected turns out to be the redemptive source of vitality, creativity and authentic spirituality.
– Stephen Diamond


There’s no such thing as a bad emotion, only an unprocessed one.
– Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

* * * * *

Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead f being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we fell we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
– Pema Chodron

* * * * *

Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.
– Aristotle

* * * * *

Do not teach your children never to be angry. Teach them how to be angry.
– Lyman Abbott

* * * * *

A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good.
– Henry Ward Beecher

* * * * *

Two things a man should never be angry at: what he can help, and what he cannot help.
– Plato

* * * * *

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
– Thomas a Kempis

* * * * *

When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.
– Epictetus

* * * * *

It is wise to direct your anger towards problems – not people; to focus your energies on answers – not excuses.
– William Arthur Ward

* * * * *

For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

* * * * *

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.
– Chinese proverb

* * * * *

Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness, and concealed often hardens into revenge.
– Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

* * * * *

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
– Buddha

* * * * *

Life is too short to hold a grudge, also too long.
– Robert Brault

* * * * *

To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee.
– William H. Walton

* * * * *

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back. In many ways, it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
– Frederick Buechner

* * * * *

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.
– Marcus Aurelius

* * * * *

Consider how much more you often suffer from your anger and grief, than from those very things for which you are angry and grieved.
– Marcus Antonius

* * * * *

Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.
– Seneca


If you would cure anger, do not feed it. Say to yourself : “I used to be angry every day; then every other day; now only every third or fourth day.” When you reach thirty days, offer a sacrifice to thanksgiving to the gods.
– Epictetus (55AD – 135 AD)

The Dalai Lama, when asked if he were angry with the Chinese for their hostile occupation of Tibet, replied, “They already have my country. Why should I let them have my mind, too?”

[This story is a reprise from the June 2009 e-newsletter on Wise Listening.]

Paul Ekman, the noted researcher and author of 15 books on emotions, had struggled himself with intractable anger and rages, three or four “regrettable” episodes a week, by his own count, until he met the Dalai Lama in the year 2000. Paul was part of a Mind-Life Institute conference of Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners meeting in Dharamsala, India to explore different perspectives on “destructive emotions.” Paul has told the story of his eight-minute life-changing experience with the Dalai Lama many times; I heard it two weeks ago when he spoke at the Awakening Joy course. [link]

On the third day of the conference, observers were invited to ask their own questions of the Dalai Lama. Paul’s 20 year old daughter Eve asked, “Why do we get the angriest at the people we love the most?” The Dalai Lama answered Eve’s question (about expectations and the destructive compassion of an over-protective parent) while he simply held the hand of Paul sitting on the other side of him. No words, just the compassionate touch of someone listening compassionately to another person’s suffering. Paul reported his whole body filled with a radiant warmth as he sat there absorbing the caring of the man many believe to be the embodiment of compassion in this world. Paul later reported those eight minutes changed his life. He did not have another “regrettable” episode, not one, for the next seven months. Not even an impulse of anger. As time has gone on, the impulse sometimes re-occurs, but Paul feels no need to act on it. Gone. Done. Personal reactivity changed forever.

Similarly, the teaching story about an aikido master on a crowded bus, watching a somewhat drunken man yelling belligerently, staggering into people, wondering if he would have to use his martial arts skills to protect a pregnant fellow passenger, when another older man called to the drunken man, “Hey! Haven’t seen you in awhile. Come sit down here and talk to me.” The drunken man was a bit puzzled, he couldn’t remember his person, but sat down, and as the older man asked him how his wife was, the drunken man softly said, “She left me. I’m all alone now” and burst into tears. He quietly sobbed out his story to the older man, his pain received by the kind and understanding stranger, his anger undone by the compassion for his suffering underneath the façade of anger. No need for force or agile martial arts here, simply the diffusing of anger through kindness and the recognition of a shared humanity.


1. Working with anger that is explosive – a. our own

At the very first recognition of sensations of anger coursing through our body, we really do need to stop, pause, count to ten. (Thomas Jefferson suggested, if very angry, to one hundred.) We must give our “higher” brain time to come online, catch up to what’s happening, and help us figure out what’s going on and what to do. It doesn’t really matter what the gtrigger is. The problem we have to solve isn’t “out there,” it’s our reactivity inside that what’s going on “out there.” So we slow down, count to ten, count to a hundred, go for a walk, and give ourselves time to reflect.

The best remedy for a short temper is a long walk.
– Jacqueline Schiff

Take no revenge that you have not pondered beneath a starry sky, or on a canyon overlook, or to the lapping of waves and the mewing of a distant gull.
– Robert Brault

Then we have to consciously choose to stop feeding the anger once it has done its job of signaling us. We could find a million reasons to stay angry at whatever – forever – is we wanted to. And all that time we’re not creating any productive change whatsoever. Anger is a signal; once we’ve listened to it, we being to look for the best course of action to deal.

Then we look for the fear, hurt, shame, unmet need underneath our anger.

Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.
– Eckhart Tolle

We have to discern what need met or fear assuaged or hurt healed would dissolve the anger so that, in fact, it actually dissolves. This is moving into a larger view that puts our anger into perspective. It has done its job; it can be released.

1.b Working with the explosive anger of others.

One of the best ways of keeping your temper in an argument, as most of us know only too well, is not to listen to anything the ;other person has to say.
– Alice Miller

Actually, we learn below in using healthy anger as a prelude to change, we do listen to the hurt, fear, shame, unmet needs driving the other person’s anger, just as the kind older man did to the drunken man in Stories to Learn From.

But Alice Miller points to not taking what the other person is saying personally. Once a person is in anger-only mode, with no reflecting going on, they’ve completely lost sight of who we are as a person anyway, so there’s no point in taking the bait and getting defensive. Joining the argument simply risks escalating it. A time out to give the other person a chance to manage their reactivity is a better bet. When they can calmly state their case, we have a much better change of identifying what we might actually be doing (or not doing) that contributes to their legitimate signal of anger.

I don’t have to attend every argument I’m invited to.
– Author Unknown

There is nothing more galling to angry people than the coolness of those on whom they wish to vent their spleen.
– Alexander Dumas

This calling for a time out may mean setting clear boundaries about what’s acceptable in a conversation and what isn’t. I once had to tell a boss, I can’t hear you when you’re yelling. Please speak softly, more slowly, so I can take in what you’re saying. (She did, and I experienced right there my own healthy and assertive anger creating a positive change.)

P.S. Researchers have discovered that we perceive our own anger as less negative or less powerful than we perceive other people’s anger, because we don’t see our own non-verbal signals – the piercing stares, the clenched jaws, the furrowed brows. We can’t see ourselves, but other people are seeing what we are saying.

[Sidebar #2 on Forgiveness: Explosive anger so often creates in its wake the need for forgiveness.

Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were.
– Cherie Carter-Scott

Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on.
– Alice Miller

Holding on to anger, resentment, and hurt only gives you tense muscles, a headache and a sore jaw from clenching your teeth. Forgiveness gives you back the laughter and lightness in your life.
– Henry Ward Beecher

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
– Malachy McCourt

Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.
– Buddha

To forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest, since anger, resentment, and reveng are corrosive of the “summum bonum,’ the greatest good.
– Bishop Desmond Tutu

The May 2010 e-newsletter on Forgiveness offers many excellent resources on the practice of forgiveness.

2. Working with anger that is repressed

I was angry with my friend
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not; my wrath did grow.
– William Blake, A Poison Tree

I have a right to my anger, and I don’t want anybody telling me I shouldn’t be, it’s not nice to be, and they something’s wrong with me because I get angry.
– Maxine Waters

Anger is a flow of energy, energy that would get us moving. When, for survival reasons, we have learned to repress our anger, to try to get rid of it (as though we could), we not only numb out our anger, we run the risk of numbing out all of our other emotions, too. (The psychic energy it takes to repress a normal, healthy anger is enormous.) Even worse, we run the risk of losing our self, our integrity, our truth sense our passion and life force.

In order to recover our legitimate anger, in order to de-numb ourselves, we need to understand how truly normal, how appropriately human it is, to feel angry at a violation, an injustice, how necessary, even health, it is to push back. And we need permission from somebody – ourselves, a trusted friend or therapist or coach or spouse, to begin. Even experimenting with the profanity Mark Twain suggested. Not venting or complaining with no adaptive action at the other end of It, but feeling the anger as a body sensation and allowing it to move through us to guide us in what action in needed – standing up, pushing back, stepping out, calling forth. Just as Epictetus suggested 2,000 years ago, reducing anger one day at a time until celebrating a month’s worth of no anger, we can experiment expressing our anger one day at a time until feeling and expressing it feels natural and productive of change again.

3. Working with anger to be courageous, assertive, acting for change.

Anger blows out the lamp of the mind. In the examination of a great and important question, everyone should be serene, slow-pulsed and calm.
– Robert G. Ingersoll

One of the most effective ways of channeling anger into productive change is the method of non-violent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg 45 years ago. Now called compassionate communication, NVC focuses on helping people (in intimate relationships, corporate board rooms, government and academic settings, even opposing sides in a civil war) express their needs/fears/wants clearly and hear the other party’s needs/fears/wants clearly.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.
– Marshall Rosenberg

The “formula” is very simple and straightforward. When I perceive (whatever) I feel (whatever). What I truly want/need is (whatever). Therefore, I request that you (whatever). And reflecting back to the other person: I hear that when you perceive (whatever) you feel (whatever.) What you truly want/need is (whatever) therefore you would like me to (whatever).

NVC levels the playing field, validating the reality of both sides of any disagreement, asking both parties to be grown up about their disagreements, and opening the way to understanding, empathy, and cooperation. The non-violent part of the method refers to removing all judgment, criticism, shame-blame, respecting the human dignity and self-worth of each person/party involved, and using even anger as a signal that something needs to be changed. (See resources below for more information on NVC.)


The June 2011 issue includes the article “Prelude to Courage” highlighted in this Healing and Awakening e-newsletter. Ode for Intelligent Optimists is a gem of a monthly international journal. Politically-socially-environmentally-culturally-spiritually correct. The website allows you to access and download many of the feature articles, including “Prelude to Courage”, subscribe to a free daily feed of good news, with links to many, many other resources like the Global Oneness Project and Travel for a Good Cause vacations. When you subscribe, they plant a tree.

The Dance of Anger: A Women’s Guide to Changing Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner, PhD. Perennial Currents, 2005 (20th anniversary edition).

Dr. Lerner addresses the “dance” of anger – the dynamics women (people!) get caught in – venting or repressing anger, and offer an approach to using anger instead as a powerful vehicle for lasting change. This book has been a best-seller for 25 years, for very, very good reason. I recommend it to clients all the time.

Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshal Rosenberg. Puddle Dancer Press, 2003.

Highly recommended by professionals from every walk of life. Very practical and effective tools for building a vocabulary for feelings, making requests consciously, sustaining empathy, shifting have-to to choose-to, resolving conflicts, expressing appreciation, etc. An excellent foundation for communicating needs and grievances on both sides of the table.

Living Like You Mean It: Use the Wisdom and Power of Your Emotions to Get the Life You Really Want by Ronald Frederick, PhD. Jossey-Bass, 2009

Dr Frederick teachers readers how to use their emotional mindfulness to recover the power of all emotions, including anger, to bring about more fulfillment and vitality in one’s life. Very accessible and practical.

30-Minute Anger Therapy: Everything You Need to Know in the Least Amount of Time by Ronald T. Potter-Efron. New Harbinger Publications, 2011.

Nuts and bolts of anger management, practical suggestions easily implemented, including using your anger to fight for a cause.

Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh. Penguin Putnam, 2002.

Sage advice for transforming anger through mindfulness, including meditations for looking deeply and releasing anger.