In the Shondaland series The Magic of Moving Forward, we’re bringing you forward-thinking stories that illustrate how moving on from something is a way to level up. From women finding joy by throwing themselves divorce parties to vulnerable tales about entering new friendships and relationships, to discovering pleasure in life after giving up a bad habit — there’s no one way to flip the page and find happiness all over again.

To tame one’s anger — especially if it’s sudden, strong, or enduring — can be like trying to appease a wild, powerful beast. It’s a normal emotion everyone experiences in both big and small ways in their daily lives, yet most people have received only half-baked answers on how to properly address it.

“I don’t think that we do a good job in this society,” says trauma therapist Dr. Wendy Ashley, “culturally or socially, of teaching people how to manage their anger.” Therapists like Ashley name it one of the most complicated, nuanced emotions, but it’s more than just a feeling. “At a very basic level, anger is information.”

Similar to anxiety, anger’s function is to tell you when something is wrong. Whether it’s deep-seated, a flash of intensity, or lingering resentment, it is a sign that there is a threat or danger to your needs.

“What happens is the nervous system takes off,” Ashley explains. “Anger is really informative, but it is also very reactive.”

Anger is labeled a secondary emotion. So, it is common to first respond to anger in a way that the mind and body have been conditioned to best protect themselves — like yelling, getting defensive, or shutting down, for instance. For a lot of people, what’s deeper than the initial anger, though — or the more primary, true emotion — is sadness, hurt, shame, guilt, or disappointment.

Moving past anger can be difficult because it impacts both the mind and body more deeply than many realize. “The brain is set up to help you survive,” Ashley says. “Once a moment is stored as a memory of something scary or dangerous, it stays with us.”

Ashley says that because of this, anger often gets pushed down or avoided. “We disavow it, we disconnect from it, we disengage from it.” Then when it arises later, people wonder why they can’t move forward from it.

Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and the author of How to Be Yourself, says, “When we talk about trying to ‘let anger go’ or ‘move on from it,’ within that is an unwillingness to feel it.”

Wanting to let go of the feeling and move on can be challenging, but there are ways to free yourself. No matter what your intensity of frustration or origin of anger is — whether you’ve been wronged, betrayed, neglected, or used in the past or present — here are helpful approaches to addressing anger so you can keep on keeping on.

Reclaim it

Although resurfacing emotions are something one can’t help, many tend to feel shame when they bubble back up down the road. “I see a lot of women and men, but in particular for women, anger is such a loaded topic,” Ashley says.

There is heavy messaging communicated to women in their childhood, often by society and their cultural, religious, or familial upbringing, about what is acceptable emotional expression. “Some parents don’t tolerate anger,” Ashley says, “or anger is okay, but only if it’s for boys.”

Ashley continues, “There’s a ton of stigma and stereotypes about what anger means for Black women in particular.” She explains that dealing with anger can be even more challenging for women of color due to outside perceptions rooted in racism. Relearning that it’s okay to feel angry can help in overcoming it.

Let it be

To healthily cope with and eventually move forward from anger, the answer isn’t to ignore it. It’s to identify it. “Part of the work for a lot of people,” Ashley says, “is giving themselves permission to be angry, and acknowledging and validating it.” Suppressing the emotion or convincing oneself it’s unwarranted only harms the person feeling it.

In order to let anger go, you first need to let it be. “Feelings can’t be rushed, and in our society, we want to control everything.” She adds, “It might hang out with you, but you can also turn your attention toward other things that you value more or might want to be doing at that moment.”

Remind yourself that the feeling is allowed to be there as you work through it, so long as you don’t lash out. “It might be a little pilot light,” Hendriksen says, “but if we tend less to it while still letting it be there, this is basically an acceptance technique. If we try to ignore, deny, or pretend it’s not there, that’s only going to create more suffering. We have to allow it to be there until it burns itself out.”

young african american couple talking in the living room
Sit with your feelings before trying to quickly move on in order to get to the root of the problem.
skynesher//Getty Images

Regulate it

“For a lot of people,” Ashley says, “they think they’re ready to move on because they’re done feeling that way. But they’re not done calming their nervous system.” The sympathetic nervous system is the network of nerves that increases in activity when you’re stressed, in danger, or physically active. It is responsible for fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. “The person really becomes reactive,” Ashley says, “almost in a survival state. Once that happens, they don’t have access to the rational, logical parts of the brain.”

Whether anger arises in the moment or down the road, give yourself permission to excuse yourself and soothe your nervous system for as long as you need to, whether via meditating, breath work, or doing something calming like watching TV.

“There is very little in this life that we have to handle in the moment,” Ashley says. “As a matter of fact, for most people, when they do that, that’s when problems happen.”

Peel back the top layer

Ashley compares anger to a scratchy throat. “It’s information that something’s going on.” To move past anger, it is necessary to — at some point — determine what the source of it is and what to do with it. Rather than allowing yourself to be consumed by the emotion itself, get curious about it. Ask yourself what data your anger is giving you.

“Anger gets put on top of emotions that are softer,” Hendriksen says. “What we can do there is tap into that softer emotion that’s under the anger.” The psychologist suggests giving yourself permission to feel hurt or sad. “Leaning into that hurt sometimes feels more genuine than the anger.”

Hendriksen recommends the practice of sitting with your feelings for a larger purpose. If you are upset with your partner, for example, it could be helpful to sit with your frustration to get to the root of why you are feeling slighted so you can later effectively communicate that. Are you feeling forgotten? Disappointed? Misunderstood? Unsupported?

“Sitting with it, and not lashing out or ignoring it, is actually serving your relationship,” she says.

Explore your beliefs

Sometimes when people feel like they can’t move on from their anger, it’s because they’re still carrying responsibility or a feeling of powerlessness from what happened. Understanding that what occurred isn’t always at the root of the soreness, but that the broken beliefs you have surrounding it are, can change your relationship to your anger.

“That belief or expectation, do you need to change it? Nope. Just grieve that it got broken,” Hendriksen says.

To heal, you can internally reinforce the standard you hold yourself and others to while also mourning the loss of that particular expectation. (If your partner upsets you, for example, you can grieve the belief that your relationship will always be harmonious.) “Anger is often the result of an impeded goal,” Hendriksen says. “How did we get in our own way? Or how did someone else get in our way?”

Perhaps ask yourself: How can we change our expectations or shift our perceptions of the situation?

Call in, not out

If you are angry with someone after giving yourself room to feel your feelings, evaluate whether it would be fruitful to have a conversation about them in order to heal — whether through therapy or a chat with the person you felt wronged by.

“What people need to know,” Ashley says, “is that not releasing your anger is toxic. It is toxic to you, and it is toxic to your relationships … but the ways in which we do something with it do not have to be aggressive.”

The therapist says one of the best skills we can develop in order to move forward is learning how to call people in. The respectful approach teaches people how to talk about how they were affected by an action or statement without coddling, educating, or carrying additional emotional burdens of the other party. “Calling in is magnificent,” Ashley says, “There’s something about it that allows us to inform people without any sort of emotional expectations.”

If it’s someone you are close with, whether a friend, partner, or family member, you can use this as a chance to ask for what you need. “We don’t know how to say, ‘I don’t like that you did that. I’d like you to do this instead,’” Ashley says. “Learn how to say what didn’t work, and ask for what you need, and recognize that some people are not going to be able to do it. You get the right to say, ‘Actually, no, I don’t want to do that.’”

break big problems into small ones
If a confrontation doesn’t look how you envisioned, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and find a way to move forward.
Carmen Martínez Torrón//Getty Images

Realize it’s about you

Closure or a conversation with the other party is not always feasible. “If your healing is dependent upon them acknowledging or apologizing,” Ashley says, “you’re setting yourself up. The other people’s responses cannot be part of this. Dealing with your emotions has to happen in a way that is not dependent upon them, because otherwise you’re held hostage by what they do and don’t do.”

Ask yourself what exactly closure means to you. Does that mean you are no longer carrying guilt or frustration? That you’re no longer giving them access to your life? That you’ve said it out loud to them or to someone else, or written a letter that they’ll never read? “Confrontation cannot be about the other person,” Ashley says. “It has to be about you.” It could also be helpful and important to talk the situation through with an accountability partner who is not your friend or part of your family.

Put yourself in the present

“Anger absolutely can get reignited,” Hendriksen says. “It’s not a one and done.” There is no need to feel guilty, wrong, or ashamed if you become upset about what happened later on. If emotions from a past experience bubble up in the future, remind yourself that it is natural, how the situation you’re in now is different from what happened in the past, and that you have made great progress in healing. “Let’s look at the differences and really separate our past and present.”

Whatever the present situation calls for, remind yourself that you’re in a different place now. “We can look at the differences between where those old emotions might be coming from and where we are now, and how they are valid now but might not be justified,” says Hendriksen.

The goal with anger is to not let it control your life. If the anger is impeding your relationships and your life overall, don’t be afraid to seek additional help. “Understanding doesn’t need approval,” Hendriksen says. “It doesn’t need forgiveness. Understanding is how you can get closure for yourself.”

Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.

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