The Roots of Anger—and Using Its Force for Good
There are two sides to anger. LA-based psychotherapists Dr. Phil Stutz and Barry Michels see anger as essential to our development, and even our ability to love: “Anger is like a fuel that propels you through different life stages,” Stutz says. On the other hand, the two often find that anger in clients is a way of masking vulnerability, and while it’s not wrong to feel angry, we often (impulsively) express it in dysfunctional ways that serve no one. Here, they share a tool for working with anger internally that can help you channel the emotion more productively, as well as advice for working with anyone in your life who may have anger issues of their own.
(If you’re not familiar with Stutz and Michels’ work, see their first book The Tools, and get their brand-new read Coming Alive: 4 Tools to Defeat Your Inner Enemy, Ignite Creative Expression & Unleash Your Soul’s Potential. Frequent contributors to goop, you can read more of our interviews on their method here.)
A Q&A with Barry Michels & Phil Stutz
When does anger become unhealthy?
MICHELS: Anger is unhealthy when it’s used as a defense against vulnerability. Vulnerability is a universal human condition; it manifests as anxiety, triggered by the sense that you are alone in a universe that could hurt you at any time. Or, it can manifest as hurt feelings—the experience of defenselessness in a universe that refuses to give me the respect or validation I deserve.
For most human beings, these raw emotions are humiliating. We’d rather get angry than admit our deep feelings of vulnerability. As a therapist, I see this all the time. I’ll have a patient who’s a muscle-bound, tatted-up biker who looks like he wants to beat the crap out of you, yet within ten minutes he’s crying because he’s so scared and so sensitive.
Is getting angry the same thing as venting?
MICHELS: It’s really important to distinguish between anger as an emotion you feel inside, versus what you express and how you express it. Most people collapse the distinction between these two, and when they feel anger, they just express it in some way, automatically. But a lot of anger has to actually be worked with inside yourself.
Think of anger as an independent energy inside you that you want to work with and transform first. Then you can make a decision about whether or not you’re going to express something. Essentially that’s what the Active Love tool does—it helps you work with the anger before you decide to express it or not. [Learn more about Active Love and how to use the tool here.]
“It’s really important to distinguish between anger as an emotion you feel inside, versus what you express and how you express it.”
STUTZ: Our thesis is that anything and everything can be a creative act, but you have to use the tools to transmute what you’re working with. Trying to control your anger by gritting your teeth or holding it down becomes a habit that can make you ill over time, and it’s a waste of the anger.
What’s a good way to express anger?
MICHELS: There are three things you need to give up before you express your anger. First, you have to admit to yourself, before you say anything to the other person, that you’re still going to be vulnerable, you’re still going to get hurt, and that bad things could still happen to you.
The second is to realize that you’re not expressing your anger to get a result, like an apology or an admission. Our fantasy is that the other person will have a light bulb go off and suddenly say, “Oh, my God! You’re so right!” That’s unrealistic.
The third thing to give up is the idea that you have a monopoly on the truth. When I get angry, I feel self-righteous. I feel like I know, for sure, how things are or how they should be. And so what I try to do is say to myself, “You know what? I feel like I’m right, but I could very easily be wrong, completely wrong.”
If you give these things up, expressing your anger becomes about giving the other person information about the impact they’ve had on you, and offering them a chance to respond, even if their response is, “You’re full of sh*t.”
How can we use anger more productively? Which tool is helpful if anger is undermining your life?
MICHELS: Impulsive anger undermines you because you have no control over it. With impulsiveness you don’t even have time to think. The tool we recommend most often for impulses is the Black Sun. Using the tool, if nothing else, forces you take 10 seconds to slow down before acting. The tool is designed to be used in any situation where you’re tempted to go for immediate gratification: food, alcohol, spending, etc. Anger is another form of self-gratification that the tool will help control.
Here’s how it works:
1. Deprivation: Hold back your rage and feel deprived of the gratification you desire. Then let go of the desire for gratification altogether and as you do let the outside world disappear.
2. Look inside yourself: The sense of deprivation has now become an endless void. Face this void calmly.
3. Fullness: From the depths of the void, imagine a Black Sun ascending and expanding inside until you become one with its warm, limitless energy.
4. Giving: Look out to the outside world once more. The Black Sun energy will overflow, surging out of you. As it enters the world, it becomes a pure, white light of infinite giving.
How does “Part X” use anger against us?
STUTZ: Part X is a part of you—an internal force—that acts against your evolution. It wants nothing more than to keep you from reaching your potential. We’re all born with it, we all have it, and “The Tools,” in this case especially the Black Sun, help us fight back against Part X with an equal and opposite counterforce. [See this new goop interview for more on overcoming Part X.]
Part X loves anger. It causes us to focus on the person or situation that is triggering us when the real enemy is Part X whipping up the anger and indignation in the background. While you focus on revenge, retribution, or even just getting an apology, life goes on without you. You remain stuck and uncreative.
If you let these desires drop down in importance, you’ll see the real culprit: Part X. From that perspective, X is an agent of the devil, so to speak. It makes you feel much more important than you are and gets you to assert your superiority through rage. This only makes everything worse and destroys your freedom.
A good place to see this playing out right now is in politics. So many politicians—and others—are being controlled by Part X. When they make a mistake or there is vociferous opposition to their agenda, they are blinded by their own rage, leading to more mistakes.
The mark of a true leader is that they can take a hit. They can make a mistake or people can disagree with them and they aren’t taken over by anger. They may feel angry, but they don’t act it out.
How do you deal with someone in your life who has unresolved anger?
STUTZ: If you’re sticking around an “angry person,” the first step is to be open to the fact that there’s a benefit for you that has nothing to do with the other person. The first battle is within yourself. Just shifting from, “This person is a problem and I have to make them change,” to “What can I get out of this?” is very helpful. If you’re repeatedly around someone who is angry, the only way you’ll have the stamina and courage to deal with it properly is to think there’s a reward in it for you.
MICHELS: People who are chronically angry live in an adversarial universe. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing—driving a car, standing in line, dining out at a restaurant—they’re looking for people to provoke them. They’ve come to rely on anger as a way to feel alive and excited.
“Being subjected to anger is a disorienting experience; it gets you to over-focus on the person who’s angry.”
For me, when I encounter chronically angry people, I think of each encounter as an opportunity to get closer to my Shadow. (The Shadow is a term used by Carl Jung to refer to the part of you that receives the brunt of your criticism and negativity. It’s like an alter ego.) Being subjected to anger is a disorienting experience; it gets you to over-focus on the person who’s angry. You become mesmerized by them and lose awareness of yourself. To regain that awareness, you need to find higher meaning in your interaction with the other person. Ask yourself what you can learn from dealing with them.
I prepare by seeing an image of my Shadow and saying to it, “The purpose of encountering this person is so that I learn to remember to stay very close to you [the Shadow] throughout the interaction.” I care less about what I say to the other person than that I stay bonded with my Shadow. After the encounter is over, I tell my Shadow, “That was great. Thank you. We’re going to do it again tomorrow.” Over time, the person bothering me becomes less important. Their value is as a trigger to remind me to stay connected to my Shadow. It’s in that state that I come closest to my full potential.
Phil Stutz graduated from City College in New York and received his M.D. from New York University. He worked as a prison psychiatrist on Rikers Island and then in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982. Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. Together, Stutz and Michels are the authors of Coming Alive and The Tools. You can read more of their goop articles here, and see more on their site.