Firstly, I invite you to take a moment to think about how comfortable you feel about holding space for anger? You may wish to journal around these questions, or just take a moment to quietly reflect on your own responses.
- Have you been in a group situation where anger has arisen, either as conflict between group members or as a response to external events or circumstances?
- What’s your instinctive response to someone who is angry? Do you seek to calm them down, to ‘reason’ with them, do you tend to respond with your own anger, or something else?
- Are there spaces in your organisation where anger can be held and witnessed in a way that feels healthy and safe for all concerned?
- What’s your relationship like with your own anger? Do you feel anger, and do you have practices to help you safely process it?
- What are you angry about right now?
Why anger matters
Anger is an emotion that all of us feel. It has a valid and important role to play, especially when it comes to the International Development sector, with its complex relationship to inequality and stated commitments to overturn injustice and oppression.
But many of us feel ill-equipped to deal with anger when it arises in organisations or spaces we hold.
We may worry that there will be conflict among group members who are passionate about their work, and hold different ideas about how things should move forward.
Or perhaps we sense that the injustice we seek to change is the cause of a lot of anger. We may feel that it’s important to focus on the change we want to see, rather than the oppression we’re challenging.
But we shouldn’t overlook the importance of being present to our anger as part of the process of creating justice.
In a conversation Ziada Abeid and I had with Holiday Philips last year for Change Making Women, she identified an ability to hold space for anger as being critical for white people like me who want to commit to building anti-racist practice.
“I think one of the things that non-black people can do to be allies is to be able to hold space for that rage to be processed, without taking it personally without getting defensive. Just understanding that this is something that needs to happen”. — Holiday Philips, Change Making Women Podcast
Anger can help us create change
Our anger can fuel us and be a source of energy for creating meaningful change; it can rally us around shared goals and help us express ourselves in relation to oppressive structures.
Anger is a “no” to injustice, to a lack of safety, to oppression.
It brings us clarity about what we don’t want in our lives or our world.
Expressing our anger, and enabling others to explore their own, can bring great healing.
It can help fuel our passion for change -- but only if we’re able to witness it, and understand it -- and explore how it feels in both our minds and our bodies.
So why do we often struggle to be with it?
Many of us however have learnt, at some point in our lives, perhaps when we were very young, that anger is not acceptable. And so rather than holding space for anger we push it down or avoid it.
But if you are constantly pushing away your own anger, it’s very hard to witness it or hold space for it in someone else.
That’s why in my experience, the first stage in being able to hold space for other people’s anger is to become more comfortable with your own. There are several ways you can do that without causing harm.
- Acknowledge to yourself that you feel angry. It might relate to present day events or something long in the past. You might want to journal about your anger, or speak it out loud when you’re by yourself. Or perhaps you could try writing a letter or email -- without sending it!
- Express it to a trusted other person, such as a therapist or coach, in a way that allows it to be heard and held.
- Process it physically, by stamping, punching a pillow, roaring or screaming into a cushion.
How can we practice holding space for anger within our organisations?
Within organisations and shared spaces, the simplest first step is to accept that there will be times when anger is present, and to get more comfortable with consciously allowing there to be a place for it.
How can you allow anger to be expressed and simply witnessed -- rather than trying to explain, justify, minimise or manage it?
Allow it to be. Allow there to be a problem. Allow the anger to shine a light on something that needs healing.
Our discomfort with anger is something that can hold us back when it comes to co-creating change. Learning to be present to our own anger, and to develop healthy ways to express it without harming others, is one of the most powerful ways we can begin to transform our relationship to it.
And when we are able to open up to the clarity it brings, we can, in my experience, begin to find it a critical tool in developing resilient organisations.
Creating spaces where people can individually or collectively explore anger is one of the things that I love to do!
You can get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to explore working together.