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It was the summer of 1996 and hotter than normal in the California Central Valley. My two fellow mediators and I were sweating, and not just because of the feeble air conditioning in the modest non-profit where we volunteered. We were mediating a case of informal child custody for a couple whose relationship was dissolving, and it was tense.

I’d been included on the panel because, even at 26, I’d built a reputation for being skilled with interracial conflicts. The father in this case was a lanky black man in his late thirties with a sharply intelligent gaze. The mother was a scruffy white woman who was younger than her ex, but exuded exhaustion that made her seem older.

I was the “baby” of the panel, both in age and experience, but eager to learn and practice my skills. An opportunity presented itself when dad expressed frustration with his partner’s chronic lateness picking up their kids. I jumped in to offer empathy the way I’d been trained.

“So, you were frustrated that she was late again,” I said.

Dad paused for a moment, leaned forward, then nearly rose out of his chair.

“I wasn’t frustrated! I was PISSED OFF!” He slapped his large palm on the table for emphasis.

“Ah! You were pissed off!” I countered immediately.

“Damn right!” he said, leaning back in his chair. “And then ….”

I don’t remember what he said next. I was too surprised by how quickly he de-escalated, and by my own calm. I’d listened and offered the man some compassion, and it didn’t land. He corrected my word choice, I acknowledged it, and we all moved on.

I learned some important lessons about anger that day. I learned I didn’t always have to fear it. I learned that hearing and acknowledging someone’s anger can diffuse it. And I learned I can be unshaken by another person’s expression of anger, and effective despite it.

Twenty-eight years later, I’m still learning those lessons, along with new ones. I’ve since discovered that empathy doesn’t always diffuse anger, and some anger should be feared. I’ve learned that being shaken by anger — mine or someone else’s — isn’t always a sign of failure.

One thing that hasn’t changed is my discomfort with our culture’s core belief that anger is bad. In the left-leaning, social justice oriented, environmentally concerned, spiritually oriented circles I travel, anger is generally viewed as “low vibration” or a “negative” emotion. It’s seen as violent or fear-based. All these things are also considered “bad”. In such circles we’re taught that good, mature, spiritual people should heal their anger, transcend their anger, transform their anger. In short, anger should be hidden away and changed.

This never sat well, but I thought it was because something was wrong with me. I thought maybe I was fearful, violent, negative, or low vibration — because dammit, I was angry! In fact, I’d been angry most of my life, but I didn’t realize it until adulthood when my nervous system started thawing and I gained access to all my feelings.

The truth about emotions

When the Twin Towers fell, one of my first emotional responses was reflexive empathy for the hijackers. I realized that expressing this compassion out loud would expose me to rejection, disdain, and righteous rage so I kept it to myself. But in the weeks and months that followed, I tested the waters a few times by asking someone, “Is there anything that would make you want to fly an airplane full of people into a building?” The answer was always an immediate, vehement, “NO! Nothing! I would never do such a thing!”

I thought to myself how fortunate those people were. I had nothing like the hijackers’ reasons; I’d grown up white, Christian, straight, and middle class in the United States, in a neighborhood with affordable housing, low crime, trees, grass, and plenty of jobs. And yet I could name several events that would motivate me to comparable rage and destruction.

I don’t know if those “no!” sayers had suppressed their anger so much they couldn’t feel it, or if their lives had been so privileged they didn’t have it. But it took me years of self-discovery to understand I had many excellent reasons to be angry. It took years of therapy and trauma healing to realize I’d suffered as much damage from not heeding and expressing my own anger as I had from others’ anger and abuse directed at me.

It took years of therapy and trauma healing to realize I’d suffered as much damage from not heeding and expressing my own anger as I had from others’ anger and abuse directed at me.

Along the way, I began to deprogram what I’d been taught about emotions being inferior, base aspects of human experience. I learned that emotions provide valuable information. Like an honest, loyal friend, they always tell the indisputable truth about our experience. They are therefore always real, reasonable, and valid, and not subject to others’ approval or validation.

However, emotions don’t necessarily tell the truth about others’ intentions, goals, or experience. Our experience is never wrong, but it’s always incomplete. It’s only one part of “reality” which includes myriad other valid, real experiences, beliefs, values, and speculations.

In learning about emotions, I learned what anger is. It’s not fear. It’s not always grief in disguise. It’s an internal alert that lets us know a boundary, or something sacred, has been violated. Anger alerts us to disrespect. Like other emotions, anger is a loyal friend and fierce ally. As such, shaming, hiding, or suppressing our anger cuts us off from an invaluable source of individual and collective wisdom, and generative power.

Anger isn’t fear. It’s not always grief in disguise. It’s an internal alert that lets us know a boundary, or something sacred, has been violated. Anger alerts us to disrespect.

Humans are arguably the most domesticated species on the planet. And in taming (repressing) our wild nature, we’ve lost much of the wisdom we once had, and that other species retain. Other species know to growl, hiss, bark, show teeth, puff up, change color, bite, or sting when a boundary is violated or something precious is threatened. It’s only highly social mammals, including humans, that attempt to appease a threat under stress. We only do this with members of our own species who have more power than us, because fighting the aggressor or fleeing the group usually leads to death. Today, our “modern” human families, workplaces, schools, and communities are rife with appeasement.

Anger alerts us to injustice, to desecration. Suppressing and denying our anger is thus a form of appeasement in which we tolerate injustice and conform to our assigned place in the hierarchy. We reinforce an unjust status quo by shaming, hiding, or suppressing our intelligent anger. We collude with oppression by quashing our internal protest and resistance, however righteous.

Four reasons liberals get confused about anger

As champions of justice, equity, and dignity for the oppressed, the Left should logically be champions of anger too. However, we get squeamish and confused about anger for four reasons. Read the rest on Medium!

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