Two kinds of anger exist in the universe: grounded (conscious, awake anger) and un-grounded; (dissociated anger). Awake and asleep. Although anger is deeply complicated because of its layering with other emotions, when we get mad, we either know it in the moment or we block knowing it. We either stay grounded, present, awake to all our feelings and what we do with them, or we become dissociated. It all happens in fractions of seconds. More on dissociation in a moment. For now, let’s slow the whole process down and take a look at the two possibilities.
Knowing It: Grounded Anger
This may seem too elementary to merit attention, but please bear with me. Knowing you’re angry means being fully grounded and awake in the moment. What does that mean? If I’m grounded, I can fully sense my body moving in space, held to the ground by gravity. I notice my emotions and thoughts. I see what’s around me. My senses tell me everything: the relative time of day, what’s cooking on my neighbor’s grill, the sound of my stomach growling . . .
So when I get an anger flare, I know it immediately from the sudden physical signals of heat, a shift in my breathing, and a forward movement feeling . . . like I want to lean in to something, to speak, or get up and do something. I know it’s anger too; I don’t confuse it with whatever comes immediately after the flare (such as shame).
If I hang on to the present and keep breathing, I’ll stay awake to all the possibilities. I know it will pass. It’s just an emotion that tells me something. I might need to speak it, even though that makes me nervous. I stay with it anyway, knowing I’m not out to hurt anybody.
Un-Knowing It: Dissociated Anger
What if I get an instant download of fear or hopelessness on top of my anger. All those years of church school training work like an invisible seatbelt and duct tape, holding me in my chair and sealing my mouth shut. At that second moment in my experience, I may go un-grounded and stop knowing, stop feeling, lose my sense of self. Another way of saying this: I’m asleep to my anger.
When I was a university professor, I discovered that my feelings over departmental nastiness were always met with hidden bullying or passive indifference. Nothing I said did much to clarify the experience to my higher-ups; I wound up just looking paranoid. So, my anger became what John Bowlby called, the anger of despair. I dissociated a lot; and I got sick instead of angry: chronic asthma, to PTSD, to breast cancer.
Dissociation is a psychophysiological process that shuts off our awareness, orientation, and even our identity in a particular moment. We lose connection to the specific thoughts, emotions, and body sensations we once had and become numb and/or disoriented. We get foggy, depressed, have panic attacks, or a number of different things. Dissociated anger leaves us vulnerable to acting out in some unhelpful or dangerous way; it also keeps us from getting closure, moving on, resolving trauma, and healing from past hurts.
I’ll have lots more to say about dissociation in my next piece, but for now, hold onto this one idea. Dissociated anger means I either shut down the direct feeling of it or I move into an exaggeration of it. Too much IN or too much OUT. “Rage” typically means dissociated anger, where I’m throwing a tantrum I’ll regret later.
To allow anger the wisdom to do its job, we must stay awake to it.