I recently posted on the journey to a healthier relationship with anger.
I also shared the fact that I’d been coaching for ten years.
And earlier this month I suggested practicing saying 'no' for NOvember, which requires us to set boundaries...for which we need access to healthy anger.
So, you know, anger is on my mind.
And whilst it's one thing to say we need to transform our relationship to anger, the next inevitable question is, how? And it's a good question. To which there isn't one simple answer because, you know, humans.
So instead of sharing 'The Answer' I thought I'd share three stories of incredible women I worked with who all found their own unique way to transform their anger from limiting to liberating.
And don't get me wrong; working on our anger is not a 'one and done' job. It's a process, an on-going process. Something we will keep dancing with our whole lives. And that shouldn't sound discouraging; far from it. It's a wonderful thing; dancing is fun.
So as you read these stories, know that we're meeting these women at a particular point in the dance, and that their stories, their dances, carry on.
[For context, I worked in prisons for five years and these stories are from some of the phenomenal women I worked with. Many were angry; and rightly so. The majority of women in prison are themselves victims of crime, abuse, assault or neglect long before they inflicted their own crimes on others. All names changed to preserve client confidentiality.]
Meet the clients
Mary: anger at the other
I will always remember meeting Mary. Mary was fifty, and had been a serious drug user since the unexpected death of her mother when she was 21. Drugs had enabled her to keep kicking the grief can down the road, but had also robbed her of a life; and, more specifically, the chance to have a relationship with her own daughter and grand-daughter. She came to coaching exhausted by the life she’d been living and massively defensive about what might come next.
Her physicality was striking. She sat stiff in the chair, arms barricaded around her chest, leaning back, away from me. Her eyes were steely and direct, seeming to suggest fearlessness and provocation. During the first three sessions she wore a permanent scowl, barking terse, “I don’t knows” to every question I asked her. The anger directed at me gave me the message: do not enter. And yet, she kept turning up.
Maggie: anger at self
Maggie was masterful at holding herself tightly wound. She was gently spoken with a soft gaze that rarely met my mine. She was elegant, composed on the surface, but underneath the rage was so sticky it was gagging her. She’d suffered greatly, more than most, including the murder of a loved one, loss, betrayal, miscarriage of justice; the facts of her life all contained like a mass inside her.
On top of all that she was feeling, she was furious with herself for not being able to manage her anger, creating a breathless claustrophobia that was palpable. Spending time with her, I got the impression that she was quietly dying, from the inside out.
Mo: anger at the world
Mo was a live wire. She would cartwheel into the coaching room, all arms and legs and fury and indignation. She’d enter the room on a torrent of words, telling me who’d slighted her, who’d said the wrong thing, the guards that had done this and looked at her LIKE THAT…she raged like molten lava, easily and messily, all over the furniture.
She was undiscerning in her anger; whether it was for herself or others, she would rise up, in her chariot of rage, ready to wave her sword and herald the battle cry. The world was NOT a good place, and Jackie's anger was the means by which it would goddam sort itself out. NOW!
Their transformational moments
Mary's breakthrough came midway through our third session. I finally managed to hear what she'd been telling me along; I don't know. The ‘I don’t knows’ weren’t merely defence but a simple statement of fact. Having been high on drugs for nearly thirty years, she didn’t know…who she was, what she liked, what made her happy, how to meet her own needs. She didn’t know herself, and this disorientation manifested as anger at the world, creating a safe boundary between herself and exposure.
Like a penny dropping, we worked out we had the puzzle piece she'd been looking for, and her homework was to go away and start to really place close attention to what she did like...all and any teeny tiny clues. Jam on toast? Quiet time? Time with friends? Listening to music? Early nights? Nature?
Once she had this puzzle piece, she blossomed. All of the muscles in her body yielded to the discovery of who she was. I bumped into her once unexpectedly outside of a session and she greeted me, arms out-stretched, a wide smile on face, full of vigour and life. Her anger, now redundant, had simply melted away.
Maggie hated herself for being so full of anger. She held a picture of herself as someone who was strong, capable, strong, reliable, did I mention strong?
She was supposed to be the one that everyone else could lean on and turn to for support, and the bubbling anger didn't fit with her self-image. It made her feel unsteady, weak, like a different version of her was leaking out.
A few sessions in, I got a big piece of paper and some colour pens and invited Joan to map out everything she could think of to be angry about. She filled the sheet.
Then I showed her the Anger Iceberg, and invited to revisit each thing she'd written to see if there was one of the secondary emotions, under the tip of the iceberg, that better represented what she was actually feeling. Bit by bit, a complex web of grief and pain and hurt and rejection appeared where solid anger had been. Like ice melting, the solid mass of anger started to dissolve and she was able to meet herself with a deep, healing compassion. Over the remaining weeks, she came into relationship with her story with love; her anger had bought her home.
As for Mo, I remember drowning in the swirling eddy of her latest tirade, another stream of consciousness that had no beginning and absolutely no end and I thought, I need to throw myself a lifeline or we're both going under!
It needed something dramatic, to match Jackie's dramatic outpouring. So I literally (and uncharacteristically) yelled: “Wow – being angry is AMAZING! Look at how much of your energy you to get burn through every day without a single thing changing.”
She stopped in her tracks, started at me for an uncomfortably tense moment, then roared with laughter. She got it, immediately. Together, we were able to clarify her mission and refocus her energies. She was desperate to bring about positive change in the world; railing at it wasn't doing it. But knowing how to harness her energy for good? That was going to make her unstoppable.
What happened next?
Mary was the only client I ever bumped into after release. She's been out a couple of years and when we saw each other there was an instant joy of recognition on both parts. After we hugged, she told me her news, brimming with pride and happiness as she shared that the relationship with her daughter was fully restored and that she was allowed to look after her grand-daughter on her own. On top of this, she'd been volunteering and was in the process of looking for work. Paid work! Granny duties! It was everything. She knew who she was, what she wanted, and was walking firmly on the ground of a life she'd created, one that was full of meaning and hope.
Maggie was transferred to a different prison, but as it was one where coaching was also offered, she took on the role of Coaching Champion. As part of the role, she would share her story with other women and explain how coaching could help them face and transform their fears. By sharing her own story, she was able to play to be that positive role model to others that she so enjoyed. And each time she shared her story, she got to remind herself of her key lessons: I'm now strong because I let go of the need to be strong; I'm at peace because I stopped running from my anger and discovered what message it had for me.
Mo was always a force of nature. She was such an unforgettable presence that she made a huge impression on me. So it's no surprise that she is the only client that ever got in touch after their release. And how I celebrated her message. She'd done it. She'd been true to her word, had catalysed her anger and was turning it into a force for good. She said:
“Out of three years of being in prison, the five sessions with Teresa was the only time I got to understand that being angry does not pay, giving away my power and energy to others. I have now been out of prison for two years and am now volunteering at a women’s centre so I can help others like Teresa helped me.”
What might this mean for you?
What I love most about reflecting on their journeys is how the ripple effects of positive change extend out. Mary moved beyond anger and was able to rebuild a loving relationship with her family. Maggie was inspiring and supporting others to consider making change in their own lives. And Mo was walking her walk of supporting other women.
The ripple effects of change can go on and on.
For this reason, I deeply honour anyone who’s prepared to do the work and get into their own dance of anger.
We might not know how, or where to start, or where it's going to take us, but I hope these stories show that magic can happen when we throw ourselves in and have the willingness to explore.
That’s truly the stuff of heroes.
Because we not only change ourselves, we change the world.