Responding to Anger and Powerlessness (How to be gentle with yourself on a day like today)

Today has my head, heart, and stomach in knots. I’m angry and I’m hurt. I feel baffled and want to find land that feels solid under my feet. A place where things make sense. A person who somehow knows that the story ends well and will leak this ending to me.  Today, however, the ground will not feel solid. Today the complex mix of anger and powerlessness is too strong, and the sense of dysregulation too real, for me to do much of anything with any kind of grace or peace.

Anger is an emotion that demands attention. It is loud and explosive and head splitting. Anger is not wrong nor is it a sin. Anger can motivate us to do important things. Things like working through conflict, calling out injustice, and putting our own selves on the line for what we believe to be important. When unchecked, however, anger can cause harm to self and to other. Responding with anger has potential. Reacting impulsively in anger often shuts this down.

When a sense of powerlessness sits alongside anger, dysregulation rules the roost. Amped up and dumbfounded, we’re not sure where to turn. Too often, feeling like we just need to do something, ANYTHING, to make sense of it all, we start doing to escape the incomprehensible experience of being. We eat another bag of chips or drink the third cocktail. We compulsively clean the house or detail the car. We yell, and curse, and rant at the television or our roommate or our children. And, most of all, we compulsively check our devices, seeking out kinship and comfort or some sort of commentary that will help this all make sense. If we’re angry and hurt, however, there is precious little that will make today make sense. We fear setting the anger down for even a moment, knowing we must maintain the energy and fuel that it provides in order to keep working at making changes in this world. All of this, together, leaves us in a jumbled state, not quite knowing how to respond but reacting all the while.

Because of this, I want to offer a few ideas of how to handle the weird, dysregulating mix of emotions that often flood us in times like these. A few ideas to give us an opportunity to soothe ourselves for a brief time so that we have what we need for the long road ahead. I offer these humbly, with full disclosure that I need them as much as the next person. Anger, disbelief, and “is this actually really happening” befuddlement must be walked through if we are to be healthy, whole humans. The first step to not staying in a reactive (rather than responsive) space is to keep walking. Here are a few ideas to encourage all of our steps.

1 Express the anger then take gentle care. The biochemicals our bodies release when we experience anger are real and intense. Finding ways to work these through can be helpful. Run as fast as you can up and down your stairs. Do jumping jacks or push ups. Get in your car, close the door, and scream. Do a brain dump (With a paper and pen write down everything that comes to your mind about the situation and your anger. Keep going until your hand hurts from writing if you have to). Tire yourself out. Then wrap yourself up. Swaddle yourself in a blanket. Listen to soothing sounds like water or lullabies. Drink water or herbal tea and tend to the feeling of swallowing. Cry.

2 Power your phone (or other device) off. Don’t just put it on airplane mode. Literally turn it off. Our brains and selves need to be reminded that we can choose to turn away from constant information, that it’s important to make sure we are ok, that it’s actually crucial that we do so. We cannot be effective if we never tend to self care. Just like sponges need to be wrung out periodically to maintain an ability to soak up messes, so we need periods of time for “wringing out” and for getting grounded. Nothing is going to be said today that isn’t going to be repeated hundreds of times in the days to come. For just a while why not give yourself a break? You will come back to your self and your work with more energy if you do.

3 Be flexible about your day. When hard things happen it can be easy to minimize the potential impact they may be having on our ability to focus and behave as “normal.” Today is not likely the day to expect yourself to accomplish something major. It may even be difficult to tend to your routine. That’s ok.  We are where we are. We won’t be here forever. Be gentle with your self.

4 Pay attention to the sensory stimulation in your environment. When we experience strong emotions for prolonged periods of time our bodies and brains become dysregulated. We can help regain a feeling of groundedness and calm by making sure that the stimuli around us are soothing and not stimulating for a deliberate period of time. This is why we crave soup when we’re sick. It’s simple. Not too much. Today is a day for smells that soothe and clothes that are comfortable. While you may need loud music to help you express your anger, once you’re done, let there be some quiet. If you’re sensitive to music, make sure you don’t indulge in that which actually intensifies depression or loneliness. Turn toward simple gentle sounds or uplifting music instead.

5 Find a place to be heard and seen. Share your anger and sorrow. Identify someone to share with who will listen well. It’s important to tell this person what you need. Do you need to simply be heard or do you need to be affirmed/reassured? Once they have listened, return the favor and let them share. 

6 Fix your attention on finding grounding. There are many places where you can find meditations to help you find calm. Here’s one I recorded during the last inauguration. It may be fitting today (Click here for meditation). Another favorite place of mine for guided meditations is here. This is the perfect day to begin a practice of developing a calm center. Ten minutes a day will help you maintain this skill so you can use it when you most need it. (And it seems like we’ll be needing it….)

7 Start a gratitude list or write a thank you note to someone. If you absolutely cannot tolerate being and must, instead, do, consider expressing your gratitude to someone in a phone call, text, or hand written note or begin a list of things you are grateful for. These kinds of activity have been shown to increase feelings of contentedness and joy.

8 Remember that it’s o.k. to laugh…even today. I tend to gravitate toward intensity and seriousness and can sometimes feel as though it would be disloyal to the world for me to feel light hearted while anyone is currently suffering or in pain. Days like this can make us feel like we must hold the sorrow of the entire country. That’s not a bad thing but it is also not completely sustainable. We must take turns holding sadness and anger, trusting that tapping out here and there to experience laughter and light heartedness will heal us and empower us to pick up the work of empathy and advocacy again.

It is up to all of us to be good neighbors and to take good and intentional care of ourselves and those within our spheres of connection. Compassion for the world begins with compassionate care of our very selves. May you feel the love and comfort I am trying to send to you through these words and may you find soothing for your weary heart and mind.