July 29, 2015

Anger: A Powerful Force for Empathy and Change

Among Good People dedicated to social justice, progressive causes and personal growth, there is often a high value placed on self-awareness and authentic expression.  Being fully present, having feelings and being transparent about one’s experience and perspective are encouraged – at least that’s the intent.  However, I often find that the value of authentic expression and feelings extends only throughout the territory of “positive emotions” like love, joy, connection, harmony, compassion, and even grief.  “Negative” emotions – shame, envy, contempt, anger – aren’t as welcome.  Especially anger.

Anger seems to especially unnerve and threaten good-hearted, progressive people.  It’s often treated as an emotion that’s unsuitable for “evolved” people, who should transcend such “inferior” feelings.  Maybe it’s because anger typically occurs in the belly and deep torso – long considered an inferior part of the body – instead of the chest or head.  Maybe it’s because racial, cultural, class, and gender dynamics (White, middle-to-upper class, female) and these groups’ corresponding aversion to anger pervades many social justice, progressive, and personal growth communities.  Maybe it’s just plain old fear. 

This aversion to anger is not serving us, because anger serves us.  Anger is not an inferior, or even “negative” emotion.  Like all emotions, it gives us valuable information about our experience; about our interpretation of what’s going on around us.  Anger lets us know we’re experiencing disrespect or the violation of a boundary.  As a highly social species, expressed anger has helped humans keep each other in check for tens of thousands of years by showing displeasure with those who violate social norms essential to our survival.  It’s helped us maintain cohesive communities and survive multiple threats to our existence as a species.

Anger is power.  It’s red.  It’s heat.  Anger is movement and sound.  Anger is a force for change, a force of strength.  It’s a “catalyst for necessary destruction, making way for rebirth and renewal.”

Anger is power.

This might be why Good People fear anger.  We fear power.

Good People often eschew power.  We’ve seen individuals with power abuse and violate other individuals in the home and in the streets.  We’ve witnessed people with power disrespecting and belittling other people at work.  We’ve experienced institutions and companies with power cheating and decimating entire groups of people in society.  We’ve witnessed nations and ethnic groups with power invade and murder other nations and ethnic groups.

So we reject power as harmful, even evil.  This is a mistake.  Power isn’t the problem, it’s one form of power that’s the problem: Power Over.   While there’s evidence that merely possessing Power Over – even temporarily and in laboratory settings – triggers bad behavior in humans I maintain that the real problem is abuse of Power Over, intentional or not.  Power is merely a tool or resource.

Also, other forms of power exist, which aren’t only useful, they’re essential to creating change and a world that works better for everyone.  In his enlightening work with The Co-Intelligence Institute, Tom Atlee explores three other types of power besides Power Over: Power With, Power From Within, and Power As.  He also talks quite a bit about Wholesome Power.  This is the kind of expansive thinking Good People should adopt and embody.  Thinking of power in limited terms as only one form – which is inherently evil – deprives Good People of one of the engines of much-needed (capital C) Change.

I define power as “the ability to create a result.”  Results are desperately needed.  Good People who are trapped in Overheartedness aren’t moving us forward.  Those who live only in peace, love and kindness aren’t moving us forward.  In his excellent book Power and Love, Adam Kahane describes the importance of both Power and Love to move change – that to wield only one is to walk with only one leg.  Drawing on Paul Tillich, Kahane defines power as “the drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity” and love as “the drive toward the unity of the separated”.  He writes:

“love is what makes power generative instead of degenerative.  Power is what makes love generative instead of degenerative.”  

He reminds us that Martin Luther King said “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic….this collision of immoral power with powerless morality constitutes the major crisis of our time.” Kahane adds:

“love without attention to or transformation of power can be, not merely sentimental and anemic, but reinforcing of the capacity of the already powerful to act recklessly and abusively.”

We must exercise our power.  Of course anger isn’t the only source of power, but it is a high-octane fuel for Change.  Think about moments in history, and moments in your own life, where anger moved stuckness and led to beneficial change.  Think about where we’d be in the USA without mass protests and sustained, disobedient resistance to oppression: women probably wouldn’t have the vote, African Americans might still be slaves, laborers would be more abused, and LGBT people might still live in the closet.  Righteous anger fueled many of these movements.  In my own life, once I realized I was angry, realized it was OK to be angry, began to honor and respect my anger then choose new behaviors, I became more fulfilled, more successful – and less depressed.

In fact, to NOT be angry in the world today may be a sign of insanity.  Despite our myriad triumphs and all the progress we have to celebrate, most of us live with a crippling amount of unnecessary oppression, injustice, invasions of privacy, and dishonoring of our sacred personhood.  I believe that our numbing to this, and increasing apathy as we drown in a sea of irrelevant information, is something to be deeply concerned about.  Many of us become paralyzed by anxiety or depression, which is arguably a reasonable and healthy response to the state of the world, but doesn’t move us to do anything about it.  Anger is an appropriate response to oppression, injustice, disrespect and dishonoring.  I recently wrote a friend that had I been in Sandra Bland’s shoes during that fateful traffic stop in Texas two weeks ago, I’d probably have been just as “combative”, and rightly so.

To not be angry may also be a sign of denial or privilege.  I was shocked by those who claimed after 9/11 there was nothing they believed, cherished or experienced – nothing – that would ever cause them to fly a plane full of people into a skyscraper full of people. I’m troubled by those who can’t fathom why African Americans set their community ablaze after an unjust trial verdict or yet another incidence of police violence against them with no meaningful consequences for those responsible.  I don’t understand either of these views.  I can imagine a dozen scenarios that would cause me to commit horrific acts of violence in the name of justice, survival, blind rage, terror, staggering grief or sheer desperation.  How fortunate, or how numb, are those who can’t (or won’t) imagine such possibilities.  How fortunate or numb they must be to be unable to identify a single incident in their lives deserving of outrage.  How separate they must feel from the rest of us who, as I outline in my poem corajuda, have “excellent reasons and outstanding references” for our anger.

Being in touch with anger and what I’m capable of doesn’t mean I would commit horrific acts. Feelings don’t have to lead to action.  Feelings aren’t a statement about a person’s character or worth – behavior is.  Deciding mindfully, with our “upstairs” executive function brain, what to do with our anger is where we truly own our power.  Owning our anger allows us to use our precious energy making effective choices instead of suppressing our feelings with shame. Being in touch with our anger allows us to empathize with other humans, and become curious about why someone might fly a plane full of people into a skyscraper full of people or burn down their community.

Such empathy and curiosity can lead to real change and sustainable solutions. It’s a new way to approach our problems.  Eckhart Tolle said “Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.”  Marshall Rosenberg said  “Violence in any form is a tragic expression of unmet needs.”  Pain must be heard, felt, respected, then healed.  Unmet needs must be met somehow. This is how to diffuse anger – not denial in ourselves or others.

Yet sometimes anger doesn’t need to be diffused, it needs to be transmuted – into action.  Or anger needs to transmute another emotion, like fear.  I recently saw a Facebook post from a younger female acquaintance who was understandably upset by (yet another) man groping her at a busstop.  She expressed her profound fear and devastation at this repeated behavior in men around her.  I was struck not only by her lack of anger, but the lack of anger of almost everyone who responded (only offering empathy and concern).  It makes me super angry to witness one more young woman so programmed to see herself as powerless that her response to a man grabbing her in public is fear and running away instead of baring her teeth, fiercely snarling NO in his face and kneeing him several times in the groin until he falls down.  It makes me super angry that none of the Facebook bystanders (except me) urged her to conquer her fear, learn to defend herself, and kick the shit out of the next a-hole who dares to invade her space.

Fear comes when we see ourselves as less powerful than the other.  This is often an illusion of our powerlessness, or our limited read of where we stand in the Power Over paradigm.  Having, feeling, and expressing anger is a result of taking a stand for our worth; of owning our power.  Anger is a sign of awakening self-love.  It’s a remembering of self-respect.

We need the self-loving force of anger to drive change not just in our individual lives, but as a collective.  Writer Courtney Martin recently said  “one of the things I feel like my parents really entrusted me with was this idea that you should trust your own outrage.  And being able to honor that anger, to me, is one of the most important muscles of a rebel.”  We can be a rebel in our own lives, or a rebel in the world.  Or both. The value of anger is its power as a righteous catalyst for individual and collective Change.  Let’s not dishonor it.

So what are you angry about? And what are you going to do about it?

8 Comments on “Anger: A Powerful Force for Empathy and Change

Susana Rinderle
March 30, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Update — an excellent article on anger, forgiveness and maturity (reflections by poet and philosopher David Whyte):

Tom Atlee
September 26, 2017 at 8:55 pm

Hi Susana,

I’ve added a link to this article to the resource section of the Working Through Feelings pattern in my Wise Democracy Pattern Language The pattern’s 3-part dynamic might interest you (along with the whole pattern language!

I’ve also added “Strong expression of pure emotions like anger and grief” to the “Power from Within” section of the “Modes of Power” essay in the WD-PL theory section (which also expands on your reference to my theory of power)..



Susana Rinderle
January 25, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Fantastic, thank you so much Tom!

Susana Rinderle
January 25, 2018 at 3:39 pm

A new resource: The following article is like a string of poems that go straight to the heart of my life. I’ve carried so much anger for many decades, and as I age I find it’s increasingly just below the surface. What adds to the anger is being made to feel like anger is a bad emotion, unevolved, or unbecoming in some way. What bullshit! Anger and rage are completely appropriate responses to out-rage, and anger is energy that fuels change and action. Stuffed anger comes out in so many other ways in our lives — depression, weird diseases, addictions, unhelpful behaviors. I think more of us need to get really pissed! What do you think?

“You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”~Desmond Tutu


[…] we’re experiencing a threat to our physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual well-being.  Anger is an emotion that says: “I’m being disrespected!” Anger lets us know we’re experiencing a violation of a boundary […]

October 2, 2018 at 12:26 pm

Amazing. What truth you speak, Susana. So poignantly and pertinently expressed. Clear as the clearest waters! Spoken at a time that saved me. Saved me from believing, finally, that the problem was with me and not my twisted relationships. I find refuge in your words; and your poem, resonates with such clarity. Thank you. I am strong,

Susana Rinderle
October 4, 2018 at 8:04 pm

Thank you Louise! I don’t know you, but I have no doubt you are strong. I’m glad the piece resonated with you, thank you for writing!

Susana Rinderle
October 5, 2018 at 12:01 am

Seems more folks are angry and talking about it, especially women! Check out this interview and new book! “The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Receive Susana's Monthly Newsletter

Receive Susana's Monthly Newsletter

Subscribe to receive tips, resources and news, and connect to a community of like minded people!  You'll also receive the free guide, 5 Proven Strategies to Guarantee Your Diversity Initiative Produces Results (That Matter!).

Success! Thank you, and keep an eye on your email inbox for goodies!

Get Susana's free guide:

5 Proven Strategies to Guarantee Your Diversity Initiative Produces Results (That Matter!), and receive our monthly newsletter!

Success! Thank you, and keep an eye on your email inbox for goodies!

Subscribe To Susana's Coaching Newsletter

Subscribe To Susana's Coaching Newsletter

Join a community of like minded people! Receive monthly news, tips and resources to get unstuck, navigate change and overcome your biggest challenges.

Success! Thank you, and keep an eye on your email inbox for inspiration and tools!