Thursday, 27 July 2017

On Anger, and the Pitfalls of Positivity

Since writing ‘Furies’ several weeks ago, and thinking about the emotion of anger, I’ve come across several pieces of writing, and a spoken-word poem, that deal with the positives of anger, the necessity of it, and these have told me that I am not alone in my feelings.

… a terrible thing is lost in the suppression of anger – your relationship with one of your greatest allies: Instinct.

Anger arises when your heart has been offended, your values have been wronged, your beloveds are threatened, or somewhere, justice has been denied. (1)

Anger is not 'bad' or 'negative' or 'unspiritual',
or a sign of your weakness.

You are alive. And you have a right to ALL your feelings.
You need not act on them, and please don't push them down.

It comes to cleanse, not to destroy.
It comes to remind you of your tremendous power.

So be kind to your anger;
It is only trying 
to protect you from harm. (2)

Kayla Q’s powerful spoken-word poem, ‘Questions I’ve Been Asked as a Midwife’, ends with this line:

Thank god that being a woman has given me enough rage to get my work done. (3)

The point, it seems painfully (and beautifully) clear to me, is to not eradicate anger, but to try to be clear about when and why and at whom I am angry, and to be mindful of my anger. When appropriate, to let anger inform and even possess me so long as it does not consume me, as I can, when appropriate, let love or fear or joy inform and possess me so long as they too do not consume me. To aim my anger, not displace it, just as I would hope to aim and not displace my love, fear, or joy. I do not mind when someone expresses anger at me for something I have done to him or her. I do, however, mind when someone expresses anger toward me I do not deserve. The same can be said, obviously, for love and other emotions. (4)

And Lucy H. Pearce writes:

Nice girls don’t feel angry. We are taught that early on. We should focus on the positive. Send love and light.

And so we push it down, distract ourselves, and learn to turn the anger in on ourselves, to pick ourselves apart. And gradually we become fragmented in order to survive, cutting off from our bad body parts, our big feelings, our traumatic memories, the horrific news stories.

And rather than get mad, we get sad. It’s easier to cry quietly under the covers than yell in someone’s face. We have been socialised to express anger as sadness. It’s the safety valve for when it all gets too much. Or we turn the anger in on ourselves. It makes us sick. Makes us bitter. (5)

But anger is the key. As Mary Daly so ably says: “Unlike depression, which is a defeated withdrawal and turning one’s energy against the Self, righteous anger is expression of creativity and hope.” Burning up injustice in white hot words and furious emotion. Anger is explosive and raw and real. Anger hurts… but it can also heal. (6)

As I’ve read and pondered, it has especially bothered me that we tend to categorise emotions and thoughts as either positive or negative, as though some things should be felt or thought, but not others; some things embraced, others rejected. Yet emotions are neutral, neither good nor bad, but merely responses to situations, and therefore natural; and, unless suppressed, they are unavoidable. 

To be human is to experience all emotions, to feel and express and be taught by them. If we skew all our thinking and feeling to the so-called ‘positive’ side of things, we lose the opportunity for so much development and learning. If we skew our heart-minds that way we become false, putting on a display of light and optimism that is inauthentic and shallow. 

This led me to think of the practice of ‘positive thinking’, of directly combating negative thoughts with positive ones, which has indeed been helpful for me. Though my own personal experience leads me to state that I think the practice has been inaptly named, for it is less about being positive than it is about being aware. The reality is that in the midst of difficult feelings, thoughts or symptoms, it can be almost impossible to be positive; but, with deliberate attention and gentleness (and much practice), it is possible to be aware. That is, to be aware of what you are experiencing, and to acknowledge and accept it for what it is—a difficult state, yes, but not a negative one. Just a feeling/thought/symptom. Just a circumstance that you happen to be going through, and a temporary one at that. It will pass.

I think the pitfalls of positive thinking can be two-fold. Firstly, forcing yourself to think positively all the time can in fact lead to more negative thinking. For instance, when you berate yourself for having a negative thought—This thought is bad! I should not be thinking this!—you are merely creating another negative thought. If, instead, you simply allow yourself to think the thought, and become aware of it as unhelpful, then you can gently set it aside, and tell yourself, It is okay. I am allowed to feel this. Essentially, to be gentle and kind with yourself, rather than trying to enforce rigid rules that must be obeyed, and becoming self-critical or upset when you are unable to stick to them.

Secondly, positive thinking can be used as a means to suppress all emotions that are considered negative or undesirable, to cover over and ignore whatever is difficult, rather than dealing with it. In the long term, this is disastrous for the health, not to mention for the feeling self, who may well lose the ability to feel at all.

I’m not saying that positivity is a bad thing, or that we should be angry all the time, as that would be skewing things in the other direction entirely, when what is best is balance. Yet we are human, and in our perfect imperfection, we feel, think, and sometimes behave in ways that are not balanced, and that is okay. Difficult emotions and negative thoughts do arise from time to time, and have to be dealt with. Papering over them with a veneer of everything is fine, does no good. What is required is a courageous acknowledgement of negativity, of all thoughts and emotions, and a safe and healthy expression of them. Instead of trying to control our emotions, we should just let them be. Just let ourselves be.

In the case of anger, expression of it may mean speaking up, disagreeing, saying ‘no’, swearing, yelling, even destroying something (ideally in a controlled way). The mature expression of anger does not involve violence or aggression (at least, not in ways that would do actual harm to yourself or others). It involves an honouring of the emotion and what it is telling you. 

Anger is a messenger, a teacher, a facilitator of change.  

All emotions must be honoured for what they are.

What I’ve come to feel about illness is very much the same. It must be honoured, acknowledged and accepted. Even when symptoms are hard to bear, they must be recognised for what they are—a temporary state that you happen to be experiencing. It’s not all you are, though it is part of you. 

This past year has been full of dis-ease and difficulty for me: problems with my health, meaning I’ve had even less energy than usual, and a corresponding struggle as my emotions follow the downward trajectory of my body; an inability to create as much, or in the way I’d like to, resulting in much frustration, and the return of self-doubt; and a spiritual crisis of sorts, requiring me to reassess and question what I believe, leading me in some exciting, though testing, directions. In short, I’ve been reminded of the challenges of illness, and have had to think more deeply about my circumstances, rather than just trying to glide over the surface of things with positivity in tow, refusing to face reality.

When you have a chronic illness, and are unproductive in a society that tends to value production over people and the earth, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling ashamed and guilty—I should be doing more. I should be trying harder. Why aren’t I getting better? (Shame and guilt are difficult emotions that also need to be acknowledged and learnt from.) But what illness—and nature—has taught me is that things occur in cycles—day and night, the lunar phases, the sun’s path across the sky, the seasons … Nothing is ever static, though it may often seem that way for those of us stuck in bed, housebound, or severely limited in how we live our lives. Yet shame and guilt, like anger, like all feelings, will take us somewhere, then pass by, transforming into something else.

Illness needs to be accepted. This doesn’t mean that we stop trying to find ways to feel better, to seek out ways to address our problems, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. What it does mean is that we should not be searching for ‘cures’—this is the equivalent of positive thinking leading to a denial of reality. (This kind of search tends to get our hopes up, only to have them destroyed, over and over again.) What I am looking for is a kind of healing that enables me to cope with and find joy in my life as it is, right now. This, I think, is the more revolutionary way, to live with awareness and acceptance in the present moment. To embody and honour each feeling, each thought, each situation that life gifts to us.  

The ultimate challenge, perhaps, is to be positive even when you are negative—to be both, not one or the other. Be aware of and embrace the darkness with the light, the sadness with the joy, the anger with the good humour.

I know that what I want and need to do is sink into the depths, to peer into my own shadow, and see what bright-with-darkness treasures I find there. One of the fiery-black gems I have found, along with the wisdom of illness, is Anger. It has been teaching me some important lessons, and helping me to transform. 

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where anger was no longer necessary; but the reality is that we live in a world filled with abuse, violence and injustice. I would argue that anger, in the face of such things, is a moral imperative. It is wrong not to feel it, for anger is what can and does drive change, what seeks justice, and brings healing, if we harness it and use it well. Lucy H. Pearce writes:

Just imagine for a moment what would happen if women, individually, united, got angry about the injustices they face. Imagine if we focused our power. The walls of civilisation as we know it would come tumbling down pretty fast. (7)

Yes! It may seem paradoxical, but our anger would indeed make the world a better place. Let’s feel it, learn from it, express it and act on it in creative ways, finding the blessings in negativity. 

(I began writing this piece two weeks ago, when I had a cold and was resting in bed. Of course, my mind refused to rest, so I grabbed my notebook and recorded my thoughts. I think this is proof that good things come from illness and the shadow-lands it forces us to roam.)

1. Toko-pa Turner, ‘Making Anger Your Ally’,
2. Jeff Foster, ‘The Beauty in Your Anger’; I originally found this poem on Facebook, but you can read it here:
3. Kayla Q, ‘Questions I’ve Been Asked as a Midwife’,
4. Derrick Jensen, excerpt from p. 288 of Endgame,
5. Lucy H. Pearce, Burning Woman, Womancraft Publishing, 2016, pp. 63–64
6. Ibid, p. 65
7. Ibid, p. 66


  1. Therese, thank you for these thoughts and observations, "fiery-black gems" indeed. Re anger driving change, I just read an opinion piece by Charles Blow yesterday that pointed out how that the only times our societies seem to progress is when people come together in reaction to a great crisis or wrong. Blessings on your internal journeys.

    1. Thank you, Carmine. I think we need to feel anger, to know when a great wrong has been done to us, and then, yes, we come together, using that anger to create progress and change.


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