Anger is a force to be reckoned with. It has been described as a volcano erupting . Americans use the word “mad” instead of angry because “in the heat of the uncontrolled moment” a person can be irrational and insane. Anger is hot and fiery. We talk about “seeing red”. The root chakra in the Hindu energy system is red. It is our primary chakra related to grounding, pow er and anger. In a balanced energy system, anger is transformed into a manageable emotion. E-motion being energy and feeling naturally flowing and moving out through the body. Rage has been defined as out of control anger usually resulting in violent actions including shouting and screaming. In this article I am going to stick with anger which includes rage. Anger is a little more sophisticated – a ‘civilized’ or conditioned rage.
In a behavioural sense I understand anger to be both a defence against fear, terror and hurt and also fury at not getting my own way. When thwarted or defensive our f ear and anger may be aggressively projected on to others (all violent actions come from fearful thoughts). In our outward struggle we might start a mini war or a world war and annihilate the ‘opposition.’ A more passive person retroflects the emotion and carries their resentment through gritted teeth and clenched jaw, poisoning the atmosphere around them with sarcasm or cold silence.
Ken Wilber (1) talks about a frustration which is deeper, darker and more powerful because the struggle involves recognizing and releasing the trapped daemon within. This daemon is our true self, our potential, our godhead, Buddha nature, creative force, whatever name you want to put on it. It it is never released it becomes a “demon”, a destructive force forever gnawing at the soul. The world’s greatest tragedies reflect this dramatic straggle, Medea’s daemon turned into revenge and murder. Othello’s sexual jealousy destroyed his love and Macbeth brought about his own downfall through ambition.
All religions or spiritual practice emphasize the destructive nature of anger and how it causes so much suffering. This is true and we do have to find a way to take responsibility for this strong emotion. I do think, however, that organized religions have been somewhat naive in their handling of anger. I’ve sat through many funerals (feeling angry) and listening to well intentioned clergy saying that we shouldn’t feel angry with God or even sad, because the loved one is in a better place. This is of little comfort to those left behind who are naturally feeling pain and anger. If we do believe in a God then surely he/she can cope with our anger just as a good parent can cope with a two-year old having a tantrum.
I believe through psychotherapy and spiritual practice we cm gain a real understanding of the nature of anger and have the power to transform this powerful emotion into a creative rather than destructive force. There is a process to be gone through, however, and as a Gestalt therapist I would be more naturally inclined towards a homeopathic approach than an allopathic, i.e. to find the cause and encourage emotion rather than suppress the symptoms. This requires going through a process of risk, recognition, release and realization.
Developing the courage to stay with an emerging feeling. Many of us are terrified of our feelings, particularly strong ones like excitement (sexual, joy), sadness and of course anger. The emotion can seem overwhelming. Early childhood recognition of emotions and their expression is a crucial development in the management of strong feelings.
“….a parent is faced early in a child’s life with the full intensity of the child’s ruthless pursuit of her/his own needs. Children have a single-minded and aggressive desire for contact that can often feel overwhelming to a parent who is expecting sweetness and light. A parent’s duty, in the face of this emotional assault, is not to withdraw or to retaliate. It is to survive. This survival sends a message to a young child that her/his emotions are not scary or destructive.”(2).
I can remember being sent to my room as a child and demolishing it in a rage. Finally exhausted I started to tidy up and put things back, to make order out of the chaos. It was the space needed work through the fury. There is pain and frustration sharing the universe with others, in letting go of omnipotence. The benefits of course are in making friends and having relationships rather than existing in glorious isolation.
Giving the feeling a name. We need to be able to not just tolerate the strong surges of emotions but be able to identify what they are and give them a context. If anger is a defence against fear, then what or who am I afraid of? If I feel pain then what is the hurt and who inflicted it? If my needs are not being met, what are they and who is not meeting them? What can I do for myself? How do I start to take responsibility for my anger? What is my ability-to-respond in different situations?
There are families who suppress feelings, families where emotions are not talked about and families with no boundaries where feelings are acted out all over the place. This can lead to emotional confusion. For example, women often burst into tears when they are in fact angry because they have been told that women don’t get angry (it’s not nice). Men often rage when they feel sad because it’s macho to be brooding and sullen and they have been told that “big boys don’t cry”. So when we are working with anger in a therapeutic context we will often uncover layers of different feelings and it is important to name them as they emerge.
Psychotherapy provides a place and space for recognizing, naming and releasing emotions. Ken Wilber has outlined a 9-tier structure of different pathologies with a corresponding treatment. (3) Different strokes for different folks. In combining Gestalt therapy with my voice and drama training I am able to work comfortably with people at a cathartic level – I realize this type of work does not suit everyone.
There is nothing new about cathartic work. The Ancient Greeks recognized the need for purging negativity and held group festivals or orgies to rid themselves of tension and angst. They took hallucinatory drugs, danced into trances and remained in an altered state for days at a time.
Gestalt therapy has always encouraged the release of trapped feelings at a physical level. It would see both the swallowing down (or introjected) anger and the out of control use of violent behaviour (whether verbal or physical) as an interruption to the natural flow of aggression in making good contact with the environment and other people. A violent and abusive person alienates others and is always fearful. The person who is “never angry” remains scared and isolated, rarely gets their needs met and often ends up in a confluential relationship (usually with an aggressive person) where they will do anything for “peace and quiet”.
I am particularly interested in going back to the body to discover through movement and sound ways of releasing emotion and energy. I feel it essential to the therapeutic process to encourage the use of sound because it is one of the first things to be suppressed in our early development. The word ‘personality’ comes from the Latin “per sona” meaning “from sound” – it implies that our identity is linked with our voice. In the same way that we have a unique fingerprint so do we have a unique voice print. If you listen to voices they are unique – they may be similar, particularly in families, but if you listen closely no two people sound the same.
Children who are not encouraged to express themselves and find their own way with language may develop a stammer and their frustration and fury get locked into their body structure. Just as there is body armouring (Reich) so there is voice armouring. A choked off voice is often struggling to keep down repressed anger and possibly sadness. A thin reedy voice coming from the throat often implies sexual dysfunction. Sexual identity and development is closely related to vocal development – this is particularly true for men who undergo a change in pitch during puberty. Along with many physical changes there is a whole new voice to adjust to. For a full surrender in orgasm there needs to be a release of sound. Joy, anger, pain and sadness all have their sounds.
We are inhibited as a society with sound. Our civilization has become sophisticated in its use of shaping sound into language and language codes are structured and have set rules. Sound like everything else is going the way of technology- muzak, sound bites, minimalist use of words and devoid of passion.
I encourage clients or groups to first get in touch with their bodies and movement before launching into sound. An easy way to start is to imagine yourself as an animal – preferably a powerful one – and be this animal. This gives people permission to physically let go of the civilized human form and become an animal, prowling on all fours, using their bodies in a much freer way – a hunting animal or a playful animal or an angry animal. Then gradually give this animal sound. People often get in touch with sounds and depths of pitch they never knew they had - wonderful growls and squeals and purrs and grunts. What is fascinating is that people often start off in their private animal world – territorial and aggressive and eventually move into socializing – play then develops and the sounds change. An interaction takes place and people communicate and devise their own responses.
If I am dealing with anger then I encourage a physical release but there are some rules. There needs to be a safe target for the wrath. Large cushions on the floor or up against me act as protection and give the client something concrete to push against. This is both invigorating and empowering. I always encourage the sound. Often the verbal is abandoned and early sounds of frustration are released. These include growling and roaring or biting into a towel or cushion. Hurt and pain is often expressed with a scream that can only be described as coming from the bowels of the earth. The release of years of accumulated terror can be released in one scream. Exhausted rage often softens into deep sobbing where early hurts can be acknowledged. Once anger has been named and the rage dispelled I get clients to ground themselves in their anger and feel the strength of their feeling. By this stage they can put a context to their feelings and coherently express themselves. Gradually they gain control and mastery over a feeling that may have appeared overwhelming.
There are some people who are stuck in rage and use their violence and anger as a defence against the pain of their sadness. This defence covers fear and terror. The catharsis here needs to be the underlying fear or the cycle of violence just goes on getting repeated. The fear has to be uncovered and this may take time and of course trust. Grounding and supporting people in their fear brings the terror to light. The client may physically shake for a long period of time. Their teeth will chatter in the grip of fear and again sounds can be encouraged using a soft reassuring voice. Often a person has been in a terrifying place where they have had to stay silent to survive. They have literally lost their voice.
Transforming anger through sound and silence. People come to therapy and to voice workshops not just to exorcise their demons but to release and discover their daemons. This is always exciting and rewarding work. Much anger is related to feelings of limitation and inhibition. A sense of failure, disappointment or time wasted. Many people have never felt able to express joy through movement or dance. Many people feel they can’t draw or paint and many people have been told they cannot sing. Everyone can sing if they allow their voice to do it.
In order for transformation to occur we have to go through the process of pain in order to unblock the vocal armour brought about by a conditioning which prefers children to be seen and not heard, which encourages the use of language but not sound, which trains voices for singing but doesn’t allow noise.
I suggest people choose a musical instrument they resonate with and then be that instrument, making the appropriate sounds and movements. Then we get brave and form an orchestra. Then we might add vocals. I remember a member of the clergy at the end of a workshop feeling that he had a big voice deep inside of him, He had been trained to sing hymns which didn’t really fit his soul. He had always wanted to do Negro Gospel music. I suggested he closed his eyes, put two feet firm on the ground (sound always comes up through the ground – it is never just stuck in your vocal chords) and think “black”. Well, the sound was amazing Paul Robeson come to life.
How can we transform anger? Through meditation. Many people come to a point where they know themselves pretty well and their quest in psychotherapy is more than just an emotional healing – they are looking for spiritual answers and ways of working on their own. I know myself that I got bored and tired of bashing cushions, blaming my parents and my therapists! And that there were ways I could support myself and take responsibility for my feelings.
After years of working with drama, mime, dance and voice I found meditation which requires sitting in stillness, pacifying an active mind and learning to tolerate uncertainty and states of anxiety. The paradox is that by sitting in stillness I became aware of my movement. By becoming an observer of my emotions rather than getting swept up into them I realize how fickle they are. Anger, sadness, excitement, boredom, elation, depression and worry can hurtle through my mind in the space of half an hour. Exhausting. If I were to pay attention to each feeling and get deeply involved I’d have a busy day. Which of course is what I was doing. I’m not saying the feelings have all vanished. They are still there and they still plague me but I have more choice. I can actively go with the flow or choose to let go. I can move and release tension and anger. I can sit still and let the anger move off on its own.
So I incorporate meditation and relaxation in my workshops. After the noise and the movement there is stillness and silence. It is important to become aware of the body as a living, breathing entity. Then we experiment with different sounds to express peace and quiet. Humming and chanting is very powerful and over time softens the vocal armouring.
Somewhere between the sound and the fury and emptiness is a middle path where we can take charge of our powerful feelings and put our daemons to good use. Even if you start with peace and quiet you will at some point meet the demons and go through the storm. Jack Kornfield describes going into the woods and hurling rocks after experiencing his anger in meditation (4). Others, exhausted and battered by a life time of storm are surprised and delighted to come home to the quiet.
1. Going to Pieces without Falling Apart, by Dr. Mark Epstein talking about Winnicott. 1998
2. Grace and Grit, by Ken Wilber 1991
3. Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional Contemplative Perspective on Development, by Ken Wilber. 1986
4. A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield, 1993
Sarah Krzeczunowicz (Kay) is a Gestalt therapist and member of IAHIP. She is also an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto where she taught Speech and Drama.