Five Ways of Resisting Without Punching Nazis

Wow! It’s been a hell of a week, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty damn raw and emotional.

There are many people who are scared, angry, grieving, etc. over the events that happened in Charlottesville.

Many are calling for measures to suppress free speech, seeing it as inextricably linked with the violence of the previous weekend. There are others arguing that we should go around and punch Nazis, harass them, send them threats, and “make them afraid” to show their faces in public.

I get it. I do.

But I can’t help but cringe at how these responses merely contribute to the problem. We’re dealing with extremism, and we have to be smart about how we deal with extremism. I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it’s safe to say that these white supremacist movements qualify as cults and that they have a very deliberate recruitment program.

And you getting pissed off enough to punch someone in the face for their ideology is part of that plan!

You getting pissed off enough to dox someone online or harass someone or prevent them from speaking at a college event is part of that plan.

Because they really want to convince angry, scared, and vulnerable people that they are being persecuted…and the more that you can give evidence of that, the better for their recruitment agenda.

But I also get that some of this extreme response to extremism stems from a very legitimate place of fear.

Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery writes about how revenge fantasies are not uncommon in response to trauma because they offer the illusion of rebalancing the trauma. People desire resolution, and sometimes the idea of becoming the big bad aggressor who makes the oppressor afraid the way they have been afraid seems like the only or the best way to go about resolving the trauma and regaining a sense of safety.

It doesn’t work though.

Perpetuating violence against others can actually compound trauma. That’s part of the reason why soldiers can get PTSD—it’s not just the threat to their own lives; it’s the memories of what they’ve done to others that can haunt them, even if that “other” was an “enemy.” (Edit to add: based on feedback from others, I’d like to clarify that I’m not condemning self-defense or protecting others and that those can be healthy responses to physical threat–they can also result in trauma, but not necessarily).

But we’re feeling helpless, and we need somewhere to turn, something to do.

So here’s a list of five ways that you can resist extremism and white supremacy that I think have a better chance of being effective than lashing out.

  1. Self-care. No seriously! Self-care is super important right now. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (basically becoming traumatized from witnessing or hearing about trauma) are major risks, especially when there is very graphic footage that is being virally shared from last weekend.The symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma can compound the unhelpful aspects of this situation and interfere with your ability to think about and do things to help you and your communities heal.

    So, make sure you take breaks, get rest, meet your physical and emotional needs, do things that are pleasant, comforting, and hopeful.

    And if you notice yourself having nightmares, being hypervigilant, having intrusive thoughts or memories (or flashbacks), experiencing extreme mood swings, or other symptoms of trauma, consider seeing a professional and getting some extra support.

    You can read more about self-care after tragedies at this post. There are also some great resources on the Orlando Grief Care Project website for dealing with grief and stress that I would recommend you check out.

  2. Donate to Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or some other group that is working to counter the violence, racism, and extremism of our current times. I mention these groups specifically because they specifically focus on resistance without oppression.Life After Hate reaches out to people who have become embroiled in the cult of the alt-right. They are working specifically to help people leave these ideologies…which is way more effective than trying to silence the ideologies.

    It might seem like a slower approach, but every person that chooses to walk away from that movement is one less person at those rallies and one more person with connections to others and the ability to influence others who might be going to those rallies.

    The SPLC has released a handbook outlining how people can effectively counter white supremacists coming to campus without damaging the right to speech. I get that free speech doesn’t seem as valuable to many right now in the face of neo-Nazis, but if we are really up against a group that wants to implement fascism and we already have someone sympathetic to their cause in office, we definitely don’t need to help break down the protections of citizens. Once we start dismantling free speech for others, it’s only a matter of time before that gets used against us (see my post about Pussy Riot for a deeper discussion here).

  3. Learn some ways that you yourself can engage with cults and totalistic forces that are likely to be more productive than force.It’s important to understand why people get involved in cultic groups. They often don’t start out as radical as they seem after they join. Many join because they’re scared and angry and confused. Transitional/stressful times make people more vulnerable to cultic influence because cults promise to solve people’s problems and provide a simple worldview that clarifies all of the complexity that makes life scary.

    Cults offer certainty in a world of seeming chaos, and they subtly manipulate people’s emotions and beliefs in ways that most don’t recognize at first, sometimes leading to actions that baffle the rest of the world with their violence—the Manson murders and Jonestown being very prominent examples.

    But the good news is that there are ways of reaching people even while they are in a cult. Megan Phelps-Roper has a lovely Ted Talk about how she was able to break out of Westboro Baptist Church due to the compassionate but worldview-challenging dialogue that others offered her, and she offers some great tips on how individuals can engage with others in some of those difficult conversations. Her Ted Talk often reminds me that dialogue is the first line of defense against extremism.

    I also recommend reading the following for a better understanding of what we may be facing right now. These inform much of my own approach. Having the knowledge of how extremism and totalism work can go a long way in knowing how to reach out to those influenced by it.

    Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
    On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
    by Timothy Snyder
    Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
    Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
    The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo

  4. Do healing activities with your own communities and connections.It is healing to get together to sing and dance. It is healing to spend time with loved ones. It is healing to engage in comforting touch like hugs and hand-holding. While organizing or participating in events that involve art or music or dance or other touchy-feely activities may seem so far removed from the issues at hand, it can be just as important as self-care.

    Healing trauma for an individual often involves a dance between dealing with the painful issues and doing comforting or pleasurable things. And healing as a society from collective trauma, societal trauma, and historic trauma needs the same thing. Peter Levine calls it the healing vortex and describes how it can counter the vortex of trauma that tries to pull you into a repetitive, unhealthy cycle of avoidance, re-enactment, and re-traumatization.

    If you’re involved in activism, give attention to community healing. It doesn’t have to wait until racism seems to be conquered—it can’t wait until then!

    At a social justice conference I attended this year, I was struck by an observation made from someone who was an activist originally from a different culture. They said that Americans are too serious about our activism. We don’t learn how to laugh and have fun even while we are fighting oppression. This person had come from a war-torn region and talked about how dancing and laughing were essential in keeping the work going, essential to not being overwhelmed with despair.

    That message stuck with me, especially because my training in helping people with trauma as individuals also highlights that need for pleasure, comfort, and joy. In fact, it’s the foundation. Every trauma model I have studied begins with a foundation of creating a sense of internal safety and strengths through connecting to happy memories or doing positive activities.

    Activism that is, at heart, dealing with collective trauma from injustice needs to be grounded in a trauma model, which means we need to have opportunities for our communities, divided though they may be, to come together in these ways.

  5. Explore your own relationship to and feelings about racial issues. I’m assuming that most of the people reading this would identify as people sensitive to social justice issues, but I also think that everyone’s journey is different. SO…It’s okay to need space to explore these issues even if you feel you strongly disagree with “SJWs” or if you have negative feelings towards the left. You don’t have to be wholly aligned with the most liberal stance in order to explore these issues.

    It’s okay to have questions or make mistakes in your attempt to talk about these issues. Be willing to make mistakes because that’s part of growth, but also be willing to own up to and apologize if you make a mistake because that’s also part of growth.

    It’s okay to want to feel safe and respected while you struggle with examining your worldview, and I understand that those qualities tend to be lacking in many spaces. Call-out culture has become pretty scary and toxic, but that’s not how everyone operates. There are many lovely activists, advocates, and social justice ambassadors (my new term for differentiating from the more antagonistic ilk) who don’t resort to shame and aggression to control.

    Of course, also be willing to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not the same as lacking safety…and it’s good to know how to differentiate between those. Talking about racial issues is uncomfortable. Challenging your worldview is uncomfortable. You shouldn’t expect yourself to tolerate feeling completely unsafe, but if you aren’t at least tolerating a little discomfort, you are probably not anywhere close to the growth edge.

    If you have a supportive group where you can feel safe to explore but still be challenged around racial issues, great! In person connections with people you know are always better for these tough conversations.

    You might be able to create a community yourself if you don’t know of one—but make sure it includes people who are respectful and compassionate as well as willing to challenge your thinking and allow you to challenge theirs. I’m currently in love with the deliberate dialogue movements that have sprung up and the idea that it is in the spot with the most tension that the solution ultimately lives.

    Just…don’t create yet another echo chamber. Make sure you’re not just talking to people who agree with you and validate your feelings (and for those who identify as more liberal, this might mean challenging yourself to talk with and explore a more conservative viewpoint. You help no one by insulating entirely.)

    Therapists are also a great place to go if you need a space that is confidential and non-judgmental but hella challenging. Therapists can help you explore your own assumptions and beliefs in a warm, compassionate way, supporting you towards the changes you want to make in your thinking. Generally, they also don’t let you off the hook of doing hard work (or they shouldn’t).

    There are also online groups, though I hesitate to recommend them because the Internet tends to be one of the more vitriolic spaces one can go right now. However, Authentic Allyship is an online group that seeks to provide a space specifically for white people to explore the emotions that come up around being white, including anger and the trauma of being part of oppression.

    It’s designed to be a safe space for “white emotions,” and from what I can tell, the person who runs it (who is, incidentally, a therapist) seems genuinely compassionate and highly principled about the work they’re trying to do. What I’ve read aligns a lot with the mindfulness-based, compassion-based, and non-violent activism towards which I tend to gravitate.

Bonus (because there’s never just five): Get to know the local groups already active in your area. This is something I am challenging myself on more as well. Online activity has always been where I most engage with difficult conversations because it brings me in contact with so many people all over the place. It’s also where I found my greatest supports in exploring my sexual orientation and exiting and recovering from cult life. But online has become more and more toxic lately, and I’ve started wondering if social media is exacerbating the problems we face. I want to give a social media detox a go, get to know more ways to be active “in real life” (which isn’t to say online isn’t important or real, just virtual), and test out other ways of staying informed that don’t involve being bombarded with catastrophic images and articles ALL THE TIME! So, I encourage you to do the same. As always, if you get involved in any group (online or otherwise) that starts to exhibit red flags for cultic or totalistic practices, it’s probably healthiest if you leave, even if you really like the cause they espouse.

 

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Finding the People Who Fuel my Passion

I’ve spent the past week at a couple of conferences. One of the conferences is still underway, so I’m going to keep my post short this week. Both conferences have been wonderfully stimulating, spurring me to rekindle my love for the work (not just professional) I try to do in the world. One of the recurrent themes has been around finding one’s “people” and building strong support networks.

It’s true that it’s important to surround yourself with people who help to keep you fueled and passionate, and at these conferences I certainly felt and feel surrounded by those kinds of people.

But the interesting thing to me is that the people who feel like “my people” aren’t just those who would agree with my values. Rather, the people who make me feel truly stimulated, excited to do my work, and engaged with myself and the world around me are the ones who prompt me to think more deeply about an issue than I had previously thought.

Sometimes that comes through agreement that prefaces a deeper exploration (I call this the “yes, and” response), but sometimes it comes through a disagreement that invites curiosity.

Those are the kinds of people I want to surround myself with.

Not the ones who will pat me on the back about how right I am or stomp their feet in the solidarity of groupthink but the ones who lean into controversy and doubt with the faith that it’s worthwhile to struggle and question and who don’t see disagreement as the end of the discussion but as the beginning of a mutual exploration.

“My people” don’t necessarily think like me; they help me think. It’s an important distinction for me.

Stop Throwing Trans People Under the Activism Bus!

I’m thrilled that people are taking a stand against North Carolina’s anti-trans law.

Really, I’m thrilled.

But I want to ask those who are supporting the rights of trans people, please stop throwing trans people under the bus in the process.

At least once a day, I see some sort of meme go by asking: “Do you want this person in the ladie’s/men’s restroom?”

I sort of get why it might seem appealing to use those memes. It’s the whole “get them with their own prejudice” idea…and it probably seems super ironic.

But please stop.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of attractive men and women are essentially saying, “Do you really want to risk this trans person stealing your partner?” It sexualizes and objectifies trans people even further, which is hugely problematic since trans people face tremendous risk of sexual violence, more risk than the ciswomen that conservatives are suddenly (and ironically) interested in protecting from sexual violence.

The memes that ask that question with pictures of burly dudes are even worse. They are essentially capitalizing on the fear of sexual violence, implicating that it’s not safe for a trans man whose birth certificate says “female” to be in the same bathroom as another woman. In other words, it’s implying that what the law is trying to prevent will happen by virtue of the law being in place.

Just…stop! That’s not helping!

But the biggest reason why those memes are more destructive than helpful is because they continue to support the binary myth that there are men and then there are women. End of story.

The most discriminated people in the trans community are erased as much by this pathetic excuse for activism as by the law itself because they are essentially told that they have to fit into one category or another, no exceptions.

The truth is, unless a security guard is checking birth certificates on the way in, if someone looks strictly feminine or strictly masculine, regardless of whether they’re trans or cis, they’re probably not going to be barred from using the bathroom that matches their gender.

That doesn’t mean the law is okay by any means. The intent to discriminate is abhorrent regardless of whether it’s easily enforced.

However, the ones at highest risk for this discriminatory law aren’t going to be the beefy guy or the sexy lady. They’re going to be the people who are still in transition, the ones who don’t fit into the binary (e.g. genderfluid, bigender, agender), the ones who are unable to adjust their appearance due to lack of access, safety, or money, or the ones who reject traditional masculinity and femininity for various reasons.

And the memes don’t even begin to help those people. The very opposite actually.

If activism perpetuates transphobia and prejudice or objectifies and erases vulnerable people, that’s terrible activism!

So if you want to show support for trans people and protest legalized bigotry, find another way.

EDIT: Someone pointed out that this post doesn’t offer any alternatives. I chose not to list my thoughts on how to be an ally because I didn’t feel it my place to define that for a community to which I do not belong. However, I am all for providing constructive alternatives when pointing out problematic areas. Therefore, I recommend GLAAD’s page on Tips for Allies of Trangender People.

 

Kali: Tears of Anger, Dance of Grief

A year and a half ago I made my unexpected acquaintance with Artemis and wrote a post about how intimidating, wild, and chaotic she was as a teacher. I laugh this week at how scary it felt to encounter her. She seems like a pussy cat compared to the new Goddess who came dancing into my spiritual practice—Kali.

19th Century lithograph of Kali by R. Varma. Public Domain.

19th Century lithograph of Kali by R. Varma. Public Domain.

Kali is most often depicted in her warrior stance. As far as chaos goes, Artemis might thrive in it, but I’m pretty sure Kali is the mother of it.

I’ve always admired Kali from a distance as a beautiful archetype of anger and destruction, but to actually work with her is not something I would have put on my bucket list.

Had she entered my life in all of her wrathful glory, I might have made like a Yip Yip and said “Nope!”

Instead, it was I who was lost in wrath. My inner activist was all riled up with righteous indignation over something this past week. I was in a royal rage, blindly throwing out shards of anger at anyone who happened to get in the way, which happened to be none of the people who actually deserved those shards.

Rather than joining in my anger, Kali came capering up in this goofy dance, tongue lolling out.

I thought, “Oh good. I need a Goddess of destruction right now”…as if she were a guard dog that I would send to chase down and maul my enemies.

Instead, what I got were hot tears swirling up in my eyes.

Tears did not fit with my anger! I fought them off vehemently, but they were determined to come. When they finally escaped, Kali was there, wrapping her arms around me to comfort me with all the tenderness of the most nurturing mother.

In a way, it felt like she was scolding me for my indiscriminate hostility.

She’s not the type of deity that requests the suppression of emotion. She recognizes that anger and destruction are vital energies, especially to the oppressed and wronged. But there is a difference between righteous wrath leading to the dismantling of that which harms and the blind frenzy of bloodthirsty rage.

Kali knows well how heroic anger can transform into villainy.

In her legend, she is the savior who comes to defeat the undefeatable demons, devouring them and drinking their blood. But at one point, she loses sight of her purpose and gets lost in the exhilaration of her destruction, requiring Shiva to step in to recall her to herself.

Accounts vary about how Shiva stopped her.

In the most common one, as her husband, he lays down at her feet. When she steps on him, she comes to her senses and stops her rampage.

In another, he comes as a baby. His cries break through her bloody trance, again ending the rampage as she stops to comfort and nurse the baby.

Both times, it’s her connection, love, and relationship to another that prevents her anger from destroying the whole world, which is a striking analogy of the importance of relationship within activism.

The activism conversation came after though. What was primary was Kali demonstrating her maternal side. Kali needed to remind me that anger is always accompanied by grief, and it’s the denial of that pain and grief that makes anger so monstrous.

Although the infant was technically Shiva, I secretly think that the infant was an aspect of Kali herself.

I believe that beneath the terrible Goddess of destruction is a small child scared, hurt, and longing for comfort.

Like Kali, I was blinded by my anger this week, pushing away the pain that was beneath it and losing my sense of connection and relationship both to myself and to those around me. She came to guide me to my own tears—tears that softened my frenzied heart so I could take the time to nurture myself.

Kali, though as uninvited as Artemis, came into my life at an opportune time. As I continue to explore the meaning of power (especially the reclamation of it) and become more comfortable with my own anger, she seems like an excellent guide to have along.

For more readings on Kali:

http://sites.lafayette.edu/rel101-sp12/2012/03/02/a-discussion-of-hindu-myths-or-why-kali-is-the-coolest-mythical-character-ever/

http://www.ancient.eu/Kali/

And for a gorgeous belly dance about Kali, check out this YouTube clip:

Remaking Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day can be a nauseating holiday. Those who are alone are reminded that society finds no value in being single. Those who are in relationships find a day celebrating “love” to really be about spending money on cheap gifts, flowers, and chocolates likely made by underpaid workers.

Sometimes it seems like you’ve basically got two choices: jump on the ridiculous band wagon or hide in your bed all day trying to ignore the outside world.

Or…potentially there’s another use for this overblown holiday: activism.

Below are some of my favorite posts over the last few weeks showing how others, both past and present have been remaking Valentine’s Day.

Buzzfeed’s List of Vintage Valentines Fighting for the Right to Vote:

What a brilliant way to capitalize on a holiday than by sending Valentine’s Day cards to politicians. One was even created by using a politician’s name as an acronym. Awesome use of Valentines. Awesome way to link a holiday to a political movement. I say we reclaim that and send Valentines about a woman’s right to her body to today’s Congressmen.

 

 

Veronica Varlow’s Awesome Survival Guide for Valentine’s Day: 

Veronica has a little bit of everything in this guide, from altruism to self-care to designing dates with your honey.

“Single and 17, I was pissed when Valentine’s Day rolled around. I thought it was an evil reminder that I wasn’t one of the hand-holding couples walking down the halls of school. But instead of sulking the day away, I bought these cute Snow White Valentines’ and wrote: ‘Valentine’s Day is Dumb, but You’re Awesome’ on every single one and then I picked 16 random lockers and stuffed the Valentine’s through the vents. I somehow felt more powerful doing that – rather than wallowing in my own singledom sorrow – I took the day back.” -Veronica Varlow

Ms. Magazine’s List of Ways to Make Valentine’s Day Feminist

Number one on the list is, of course, to celebrate V-Day.

“Contrary to popular usage, the “V” in V-Day is not just a derivative of Valentine’s Day. V-Day is actually a global activist movement fighting to end violence against women.” –Emily Mae Czachor

Bonus: 

Spring-boarding off of Emily’s awesome list, another alternative is to turn Valentine’s Day into a day to celebrate (or fight for) the right for people to love whomever they love. We’re up to 37 states (I think?) that have legalized same-sex marriages, and the number is ever growing. What an exciting political time to be witnessing!

Get involved.

Be part of history.

 

The Different Shades of Rebellion

Who is more rebellious? The girl wearing makeup, a skirt, and high heels? Or the girl with baggy pants, a shaved head, and a dozen piercings?

Stereotype would say the latter is far more rebellious, and not too long ago, I would have agreed.

Not anymore.

I’ve been reading Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, and it’s completely shaken my assumptions of what makes up a rebel. (Yes, it’s the same book that I was reading when I wrote this post, and yes, it’s my first reading still. I’m slow with nonfiction books. Don’t judge me!)

I never considered my sexual orientation as an asset to rebellion. As a bisexual female married to a guy, I often feel like I’m the most benign version of “queer” out there. There’s no way to avoid passing as straight unless I stand up and wave a flag in people’s faces (which I’ve enjoyed doing at Pride parades). However, Eisner has helped me see that it’s that very facet of my identity that makes it so much more subversive because it challenges what people think about relationships, sexuality, and identity in general.

Whether I fit into or challenge the stereotypes about bisexuality, either way I challenge stereotypes about what it means to be straight or queer. My very existence undermines the invisible certainty of monosexuality.

In other words, me being a bisexual woman can be seen as an act of rebellion. Yay me!

It was a subtle shift in perspective that had enormous consequences on the way I viewed the rest of the world and my place in the world. Suddenly even mundane activities seemed potentially radical. With the example given at the beginning of the post, both girls could potentially be making a radical feminist statement . . . or a statement about gender . . . or a statement about freedom . . . or a statement about sexual orientation.

I guess it really comes down to two basic ways of rebelling. The first is by abstaining from certain looks, behaviors, or associations. The second is by embracing them.

I’d been taught to view the abstemious method as rebellion, but only because I saw embracing such behavior or associations the same as embracing the norms that society attached to them. How could that be rebellious?

I was faced with that question when I found out about Abercrombie and Fitch’s ridiculous status obsession, from not wanting the homeless to wear their brand to refusing to supply clothes to women larger than they deemed attractive.

I never actually purchased anything from Abercrombie, but I did have a shirt with their brand on it that my partner had found in a thrift store. Normally I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about brands, but I did get a small thrill whenever I wore Abercrombie. It was the only brand that was outright forbidden in the IFB because, as the Bob Jones University student handbook from 2011 states, “Abercrombie & Fitch and its subsidiary Hollister have shown an unusual degree of antagonism to biblical morality (page 32).”

I was more than a little miffed when the CEO turned into the king of snobs. Most of the people I knew wanted to boycott the company (abstinence rebellion). For a while, I felt pressured to stop wearing my thrift-store purchased shirt in solidarity.

Then this guy starts a movement of giving Abercrombie shirts to the homeless to “taint” the brand’s “pristine” reputation. An exploitative move on the part of privilege by using the homeless in status wars? Perhaps. Charitable activist choosing to make a political statement while helping those in need? Perhaps.

Regardless of whether his move was particularly wise or not, the larger idea—claiming something “forbidden”—is a valid though often overlooked form of rebellion. He wasn’t the only one doing the whole “you can’t stop me” act with Abercrombie, but he was the only one I saw that actually got attention. Such a form of rebellion raises a valid question. Would a rebellion be more successful by people boycotting Abercrombie (fiscal punishment) or by “unacceptable” people wearing their brand (reclamation of the forbidden)?

Several years ago, I saw rebellion as an action against an authority or a system of rule. It was a choice akin to standing up when you’ve already been sitting down. It was the radical, in-your-face moments of movies and books. And I’ve had my fair share of those and am proud of them.

But that’s not where rebellion has to end.

Now I’m starting to see that rebellion can be more “passive” than that. It can be as simple as refusing to submit to a false dilemma—refusing to box in your identity.

In this way, my agnostic spiritual life becomes a form of rebellion against fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists alike who want the world to be a choice between each other. My nudity-affirming feminism becomes a form of rebellion against both modesty culture and objectification culture that wants women’s bodies to be all about male arousal.

There is a time and place for marches, protests, petitions, and attention-grabbing speech. By all means we should be making use of those to effect change in society. But in the times when those are not appropriate or simply not feasible, it’s the quiet rebellion, the passive rebellion, that erodes the lines of societal norms. It’s the every-day, mundane kind of rebellion that shifts paradigms.

So, join me this week by going out there and living a rebellious life—a life that says that you can challenge or embrace stereotypes and still be kicking ass and taking names.

 

Killing the Messenger: A Closer Look at Anger

Last week in talking about forgiveness, anger and violence frequently came up. Even though I normally would do something lighter after such a heavy topic, I feel I need to cover my position on anger to try to clear up the misunderstandings. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of this is original to me or to another psychotherapist because it’s a topic that we’ve covered in depth several times. Then again, how much of an idea is ever original to anyone? All ideas are formed based on our interactions with others. Therefore, here is my spin on what I’ve come to understand about anger through the exchange of ideas with very wise others.

I suppose if you weren’t shocked about my previous post, you won’t be shocked to learn that I’ve come to see anger as healthy. I lost count of how many times I said that last week. Anger really is the most demonized shadow emotion, and it’s unfortunate because anger can be such a powerful tool.

I think the aversion to anger lies in this myth that anger is the same as malice, violence, and abuse.

It’s not.

First, malice is an intent—wishing someone harm. While I could argue a relativistic approach about the neutrality of a “wish,” I do not believe that intending someone harm is either good or healthy. But anger doesn’t have to come accompanied with intent. I can be (and am) angry at my abusers without wanting to see them harmed.

Second, violence and abuse are behaviors—a certain way of expressing various attitudes and emotions. Anger can be part of that mix, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes violence and abuse can be about control, entitlement, sadistic pleasure or prejudice without anger ever entering the picture. Even if anger were always part of violence and abuse, it would be fallacious to assume that one is equal to the other. In order for anger to become violence, there must also be a script.

And by “script” I mean exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he likened the world to a stage. Life is filled with little scripts that tell us what to do and say in various situations. Think about the majority of your interactions and how rote they can be in the beginning and end. There might be some variation, but for the most part we all follow a basic model of interaction.

Scripts aren’t instinctual from birth. They’re conditioned and taught through culture and, as a result, often vary from culture to culture. If someone tried to kiss me in greeting, I might duck and run, but if I grew up in Europe, that would not be an awkward way of saying hello.

Whereas our scripts are conditioned, emotions are universal across humanity—the one language that can be understood across cultures—and shared with other species. We tend to downplay the importance of emotion in science, but the fact is emotions serve a pretty significant evolutionary function. Our species could not survive without them. They’re one of the oldest surviving aspects of the mind because they are essential to group interaction.

As an emotion, anger has a purpose. It’s the warning light that goes off when something is wrong. By itself, that warning is neither good nor bad . . . actually, I could argue that it’s good because without that warning light we’d have a hard time knowing when something crossed an important boundary. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it neutral.

We are taught how we’re supposed to react to that warning, and that is where we get into problems. When we think of anger, the scripts that most often come to mind are suppression or rage—neither of which are healthy. In many ways, I also see them as the same response. Anger out of control is anger that can no longer be suppressed. And suppressed anger will eventually become out of control.

Let’s use the analogy of urination. It’s not something we consider all that pleasant, but it is a natural bodily function that we all have. If you can’t pee, there’s something wrong with your body. If you try to suppress your body’s need for too long, sooner or later you’re going to pee uncontrollably all over yourself. If you suppress your body’s need consistently over time, you’ll cause permanent damage.

Similarly, when anger is considered something we need to suppress or drive away from ourselves, the only time it ever finds its way out is when we get to the point that we can’t suppress it any longer. Then, yes, we’re going to get unhealthy and unwanted expressions.

If we consistently fail to give ourselves a healthy outlet for our natural emotions, it will also cause all of those nasty little health problems that everyone associates with “negative emotions.” And if the pee analogy isn’t enough to convince you that the health problems are a result of an unhealthy expression of anger, consider adrenaline. It’s common knowledge by now that too much adrenaline in the body can cause pretty significant damage, especially if adrenaline levels are kept elevated over time (aka stress). But no doctor would argue from that knowledge that we shouldn’t have an adrenaline response. We’re advanced enough in our understanding to recognize that adrenaline serves an important function in the fight/flight response. It gets our body ready to deal with an emergency. We need that ability. But if our adrenaline response is repeatedly triggered and our body isn’t given the proper outlet for releasing that energy, it causes problems.

Why should anger be any different? Go ahead and make note of the unhealthy approaches to anger, but don’t kill the messenger because you don’t know how to make use of the message! Instead, find the positive approaches to anger.

It’s an arousing emotion, meaning it creates energy. Like most people, I used to associate that energy with destruction, in a bad way. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but as a part of creation, destruction can actually be healthy. Sometimes it’s better to end a relationship because it’s toxic. Sometimes it’s better to cut some ties, pull down some walls, demolish some beliefs, and tear up some letters. Anger as a destructive force gives us the energy to bring to an end something that no longer contributes to our health and/or growth.

Kali--goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My "goddess" of anger.

Kali–goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My “goddess” of anger.

But, I’ve discovered that anger can also be constructive. Some of my best art has been created during a period of intense anger. It’s been the force behind much of my healing and the impetus that prompted me to create a better life for myself. And I wouldn’t be learning how to build relational boundaries without the anger that tells me when someone has done something that violates my person.

Putting the destruction and construction together, I see anger as the catalyst for change, inspiring activism, social justice, and protests. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws—all of it involved some sort of anger at the injustice of the situation and a desire to see that change. Hell, the U.S. wouldn’t even be here without anger. Anger is a valuable stressor that pushes a system to make adjustments. Otherwise, the system has no reason to change.

Sometimes anger can just be an extra boost of energy. Some of my best workouts have been fueled by anger. I absolutely love running when I’m pissed. Yoga, with angry girl music blasting, is pure exhilaration. And let’s not forget that rumor about angry sex. I’ve been doing my own little experiments on that. I can’t reveal my results, but the gist of my post could probably tip you off. 😉

I’ve even come to see anger as an expression of love! By allowing myself to experience anger over my abuse, I am showing love to myself. By allowing myself to get angry over the injustice that I see against another, I am loving them enough to get upset at the way they are being treated. And I really can’t bring this point out enough—even Jesus (you know, the love your neighbor as yourself guy) got angry enough to build a freaking whip and overturn the tables of a bunch of swindlers.

So, to wrap up my exhausted ramblings, yes, anger can have significant problems associated with it–as can any emotion or natural function that has been demonized and pushed into the recesses of our psyche. And it’s true that living in a constant state of anger can be problematic . . . but to be fair, no emotion is healthy to experience as a constant state of being (not even happiness). So really, the constant state thing is a moot point.

When we no longer try to dictate to ourselves which emotions we’re allowed to feel, the body has its own way of finding balance. Our job is to listen to it (yes I said that last week, but I think it’s important) and sit with the process. We start by questioning the scripts we’ve been taught about our emotions and giving our emotions space to simply be–without judgment, without expectation. Just be.