I saw the movie Inside Out recently and while my family and I really enjoyed it, one thing bugged me — the treatment of anger. Anger in the movie was the dumb muscled guy, prone to blowing his top and making really bad decisions. When Anger was at the helm, things got worse and worse for the main character.
Anger is considered “negative,” and for good reason. Acting out of anger can lead to making rash and dangerous decisions; to saying words later regretted; and to damaging relationships. When people have trouble managing their anger, it can result in violence. When we go the other way and repress anger, we can become depressed and physically ill.
Anger is generally talked about as something to lessen or to get rid of it altogether as a useless and troublesome emotion. I believe that this approach is dead wrong. Part of the genius of Inside Out is that it shows that sadness is important because it helps us to empathize and connect with others. One of the movie’s main points was that when we deny any one emotion, we cut ourselves off from all emotions. What is true for sadness is also true for anger, and the conundrum seems to be this: what the heck do we do with it?
First we have to understand that anger gives us powerful information. As Karla McLaren says in her book “The Language of Emotions,” anger tells us when we’ve been hurt by someone and when others have not respected us or our boundaries. It tells us when we have been taken advantage of, or when others have abused our love and trust. We need this information to make informed decisions moving forward. If we pay close attention to it, anger shows us where things need to change, and can actually help motivate us to change. Like all emotions, anger is holy.
The key to anger is to recognize it, pause, and then channel it like holy fire to address whatever is out of whack. When we take a little time to feel our feet on the ground and to breathe deeply, we can actually feel the anger running through our bodies. We can ask ourselves, what needs to be changed? protected? restored? Anger can then teach us to honor our own needs, it can show us where our boundaries are wobbly (or non-existent). From its fiery forge, we can craft our next steps and decisions.
When I think about this kind of useful holy anger, I think of the tradition of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. This fiery goddess was seen as both a creative and destructive force and above all the protector of Ma’at, the goddess of justice and balance. Here you see lion-headed Sekhmet on the Strength tarot card. I’ve often called her the Goddess of the Holy Hell No, and I call on the energy she represents to draw my own boundaries and to love myself by recognizing those times when it’s important for me to say no to others.