I say "feels like" because though we all encounter situations in which we have no power to act constructively on our anger, these are very rare. If you often experience rage that feels impotent, you are almost certainly failing to comprehend, let alone use, the full extent of your own power. You've blocked the healthy flow of anger through your life, and the accretion of rage may well be poisoning your happiness, scarring your relationships, and stunting your career. It's time to channel your anger into the healthy course it was meant to take.
Why we feel our rage is impotent
We learn to dam up our anger when we are dependent on any social system in which our needs and our experiences are ignored. Every child encounters this in some measure, since even the most attentive parent can't fulfill all the child's desires. But there's a difference between a caretaker who can't fit a longed-for pony into a two-bedroom apartment and one who responds coldly, or fails to respond at all, to the child's basic hopes and fears. People whose childhood feelings were heard, discussed, and valued have a sense of power and possibility even if their parents could offer little in the way of material rewards.
On the other hand, if you grew up with indifferent or cruel caretakers, you may have a lifetime supply of stored anger. Worse, you may also have a core belief that expressing or acting on this anger is worse than useless, that it will never lead to positive changes and may well get you punished. You project your childhood helplessness onto situations where anger might be just the ticket.
The effect of such passive responses is to drive anger inward, where it boils your innards into a lump of despairing plasma. "How do I get rid of this anger?" my more passive clients often ask me. "How do I let it go?" But letting go of their anger is the last thing I want them to do. Anger isn't the real problem in their lives; on the contrary, it's the solution. No, the real problem is fear—fear that expressing anger will lead to the same kinds of disaster they've encountered in the past. If you're constantly trying to let go of pent-up rage, you've probably spent decades letting your fear convince you to act as if you feel no anger. It's time to let your anger persuade you to act as if you have no fear.
Giving anger a voice
The first step to being free from impotent anger is to let it tell its whole story, complete with expletives and the occasional chest-thumping roar. A therapist or laid-back friend can be a good sounding board. Because this is asking a lot, I often prefer writing about my anger. Speaking or writing, I start by describing the situation that upset me in whatever vague terms come to mind. As the words emerge, my feelings become more focused, the reason for my anger more clear.
The idea is to keep talking or writing until the whole extent and cause of the anger becomes apparent. This isn't as simple as you might think, because for people who tend to repress anger, the proximate cause often taps the hidden rage pool that's been accumulating since childhood. The segue between proximate cause and stored rage is usually a phrase such as "It reminds me of..." or "It's just like...." Let yourself go off on this tangent. Keep talking or writing until the well runs dry, until the anger is fully voiced.
Once you've identified the issue that's upsetting you, your next step should be to learn all you can about it. Anger is always a response to perceived injustice, which may dissolve with deeper understanding. Whatever the cause for your anger, you have three options for dealing with it.
Loyalty, voice or exit
According to economist Albert O. Hirschman, a luminary in the study of organizational behavior, there are three possible attitudes you can adopt toward a social system: loyalty, voice or exit.
- People who feel lots of impotent rage tend to act loyal, complying silently or cooperating without complaining. This may look virtuous, but if you're legitimately angry, it's a doomed strategy. It will wither or sour your emotional connection to others, in the name of keeping the peace.
- Voice, or expressing anger, is a more difficult but productive alternative. To do it effectively, you must not only define exactly what's bothering you but also be willing to help solve the problem. When you voice your own anger, be careful to pinpoint the issues that upset you. Always suggest a positive solution (an apology, a policy change, a salary increase) that would satisfy your sense of fairness.
- In severely dysfunctional systems, exit is the best option. People who are used to tolerating chronic rage resist this, staying far too long in toxic relationships, exploitative jobs and other horrific situations. Anger is the good friend that urges us to leave these situations, that won't let us feel comfortable enduring mistreatment. Don't wait until you're half-dead, physically or emotionally. When you see the sign that says exit, head for it. Sometimes exit entails physically leaving a person or organization. More often, though, it means detaching at a deep emotional level by acknowledging that you are on different wavelengths. Mental exit is often more powerful than physical departure. And it may be a crucial escape when you want to physically exit but can't. Try the Monte Cristo Exit, a strategy I named after the character in Dumas' famous novel who stays sane in prison by trying to tunnel out. It takes him years, but because he's working on his escape every day, he survives. The Monte Cristo approach requires you to work every day on your escape plan (finding other means of support, improving your health, saving money) while tolerating an unsavory situation just a bit longer.
Channeling anger into action
It doesn't take world revolution to rid you of rage; even small steps toward distant goals can free your heart from anger. For example, I occasionally get angry about the way society devalues and marginalizes my son, Adam, who has Down syndrome. Writing and speaking about this issue is enough to eliminate my anger, even though the changes I effect are tiny compared to the extent of the problem. I've also staged sit-downs in schools, medical offices, and public recreation facilities, sitting with Adam in a lobby or principal's office until someone is willing to give him the consideration any child deserves. As long as I continue to act by taking some action to create change, my discontent is a rare event, not a chronic condition.
A sense of impotent rage should not be part of your daily experience. If it is, listen more attentively to the voice of your friend anger. It is waiting for you to act on it intelligently and courageously, so that it can show you how powerful you really are.
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More Martha Beck Advice
- You have the right to remain silent
- How to have a positive outlook on life
- Tuning in to the voice within
From the October 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.