What to do with a Furrowed Brow

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I recently taught a college class on Anger, to a group of social work students all learning the skills they will need to interface with others in emotional situations.

I left several colors of markers standing near the white dry erase board: black, light blue, dark blue, red, pink, yellow, purple, orange, green. On the board, I wrote simple instructions, to write out all the different synonyms of MAD they could think of.

The students started with a few easy words. Underneath MAD appeared ANGRY and FRUSTRATED and PISSED OFF. Soon the list expanded to IRATE and ENRAGED and INCENSED and INDIGNANT and IRRITATED.

I kept the class silent after the words stopped, silently encouraging them to continue, and then words related to MAD started showing up, without a direct connection. HURT and EMBARRASSED and HEARTBROKEN and RESENTFUL.

By the end, nearly 50 words showed up on the board. I then had the students write down a 1 to 10 scale on their paper, and write words under each number to demonstrate escalating anger. They looked up at the board, selecting words from the list, perhaps placing UNCOMFORTABLE under number 1, PEEVED under number 3, FURIOUS under number 6, and FOAMING AT THE MOUTH under number 10.

I asked students to remember the last time they hit a 10 level of anger, and many of them couldn’t think of one. I asked the students to list things that made them angry at a 7 level, and I asked them to describe how they handled that anger.

We talked about anger being a full body emotion, one that dwells in your ears, in your teeth, in your stomach, in your fists, in your brow, in your feet, in your fingertips, and perhaps most of all, right on your tongue. We talked about anger coming in different colors, from mild yellow to sheer red to darkest black. We talked about anger being a secondary emotion, how it generally stems from, or is directly connected to, feeling hurt or jealous or betrayed or disappointed first.

We talked about anger being a gut-level emotion, a programmed response that we learn as children to protect us from the pain of the emotions that lie underneath. We talked about anger’s connection to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to pain.

And then we talked about anger being a healthy emotion, one that is important to survival. Every human gets angry. It’s what we decide to do with our anger that matters most. We talked about recognizing anger at number 4 or 5 rather than waiting for it to boil over to 8 or 10, and we talked about how the negative consequences of anger tend to increase when the numbers climb and we, in the moment, care less about the results of our actions; at least until the anger dissipates and we are left with the wounds it has inflicted.

We talked about all of the anger in the world today. Righteous primal anger, directed inward and outward. We see it in furious Facebook posts about political parties who didn’t vote the right way, in criticism of elected leaders and in those criticizing the critics. We see it in ignored text messages, in clenched fists and tight breaths, in blaring horns on the freeway, in tear-soaked pillowcases, in consumed bags of potato chips, in unheard wails to a God who doesn’t seem to be listening.

We talked about anger being directed toward the past or toward the future, yet how anger is always an in the moment emotion, happening right now. We talked about anger being like a fire, one that can burn brightly but never maintain the flame and smoke without fuel.

And then we talked about participating with anger, deciding what to do with it. We talked about having angry, healthy workouts instead of passive aggressive social media posts. We talked about being inspired into social activism instead of ignoring the phone calls of family members with different opinions. We talked about constructive conversations with loved ones that result in compromise and change instead of furious words and unsightly sneers. We talked about listening to the pain behind the anger and charting a course forward instead of feeling helpless and despairing and retreating into the shadows.

Lastly, we talked about anger being a part of us, an unchanging and consistent emotion, something at the very essence of being human. We talked about getting healthy and fit, emotionally, and how anger will still be there, along with the other emotions we perceive as negative. We talked about anger being a primal force, something beautiful and constructive. We talked about anger’s connection to trust, and love, and family, and faith, and justice, and humanity itself.

Then we, all of us, left the class angry. And we each got to decide what to do with it.

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