What do you do with bad milk?

In Spanish, mala leche can refer to anger or bad temper. Ese tío tiene muy mala leche means “that guy has a terrible temper.”  This past weekend I participated in some workshops for life coaches and in one of them in which we worked with an actor/director/clown/therapist, he asked us repeatedly, “What do you do with your mala leche?” We talked about how women tend to handle anger in unhealthy ways by expressing it indirectly. I’ve been reading more about anger this week. Women have a history of squashing our anger down because that’s what we’ve seen our mothers and grandmothers do. These women in the past often had to silence their anger to protect marriages that provided their only livelihoods. Anger was expressed indirectly in overeating, alcoholism, perfectionism, and depression, all of which, amazingly and sadly, have been considered more socially acceptable than expressing anger directly. Though now women are less dependent on a relationship to provide for us materially, the legacy of suppression of anger continues.

It’s taking a tremendous toll on our health by causing health problems that can radically shorten our lives. Studies have linked suppressed anger to cardiac problems, high blood pressure, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer. Anger can lead to rumination at night, replaying over and over again in your mind what has made you angry, which besides causing insomnia, causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, stomach acids to churn, adrenaline and other stress hormones rise, breathing rate increases, and muscles tighten. If you express your anger indirectly, it’s going to do you physical harm for sure.

How do we suppress anger? Here are four ways:

Containing  You know you’re angry, but you hold it all inside hoping it will blow over.

Internalizing  Instead of getting angry at other people or situations who have provoked you, you turn the anger around and blame yourself.

Segmenting You deny that you are angry because you think anger is unacceptable. You tend to be passive-aggressive. Your anger is disguised or rerouted.

Externalizing You contain your anger until you explode. This behavior provokes guilt and shame and reinforces the idea that anger is bad.

I have done all of the above. As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to have very strong, extreme emotions. Practicing Stoicism has gone a long way in helping me manage them, but it’s inevitable that I will sometimes still feel anger, occasionally lots. I’ve come to see that not only is anger inevitable, it’s sometimes necessary. Anger can alert us to a potentially harmful situation that needs to change and powerfully motivate us to make those changes. Anger helps us maintain healthy boundaries, protecting us from people who try to take advantage. Angry energy, properly harnessed, can provide clarity to our values and goals. But how do we deal with anger in healthy ways so as to ensure that it will work to our advantage?

This is how I do it. Some of these are practices I’ve been doing for years, and others I am just barely incorporating now.

1. Take a breather. A long walk has been my go-to anger management device for decades. For you it might be locking yourself in the bathroom, taking a short walk around your office building, sitting on a park bench, weeding the garden, or chopping wood.

2. Realize that you are angry and give yourself permission to feel angry. If you can’t even realize that you are angry, it’s hard to make that energy work for you. There is not a thing wrong with feeling angry. Own it. Embrace it. Having angry feelings does not mean that you are crazy, out of control, or irritable. Suppressing angry feelings, however, might lead to you becoming one or all of those things. Acknowledging angry feelings is the first step to dealing with those feelings in a healthy way and it shows that you are a mature and powerful person.

In the workshop with the actor/director/clown/therapist, we acted out different scenarios, some of which provoked us to anger and frustration. I was amazed at how liberating it felt to have permission to be angry. Not only have permission, but to be encouraged. After experiencing that catharsis, I felt not only relief, but better connected to my emotions, more present, and for lack of a better way of describing it, like my spirit was inhabiting my body more fully. I felt alive down to the tips of my fingers and toes.

3. Identify the true source of your anger. This can take some doing if you have a history (like most people do) of suppressing. I am especially good at redirecting my anger without realizing it. I might feel anger at someone that for whatever reason I don’t allow myself to acknowledge, so it comes out at someone else, someone “safer,” or is dispersed over several different people and situations as general annoyance.

Writing can help you explore those feelings and examine their roots. People keep gratitude journals and those are great. But an anger journal may prove just as life-changing. If you keep a record over a month or so of when you feel angry, you’ll discover the pattern.

4.  Once you understand why you are angry, make a plan. This plan may include approaching someone and calmly yet firmly telling them that something they did made you angry. It’s best to stick to the specifics of one situation rather than generalizing. For example, it’s better to say: “When we were driving to Málaga today and you were weaving in and out of cars so fast, I felt scared and angry” rather than “You drive like an effing maniac!” Depending on the response, you may further harness anger to establish boundaries. That might mean refusing to ride again in the car with someone who drives dangerously.

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. -Aristotle

I suppose being angry is an art.