All This Rage: What’s the Creative Response to Anger?

Posted on Jun 10, 2022

house on fire creative

Why are we all so angry?

Thirty years ago I spent a day in Cook County Jail in Chicago. I was there to shoot a segment for a documentary program I was producing about prisons. That day I met 25 teenage boys (most awaiting trial on murder charges) locked in a classroom with their teacher. I felt privileged to spend the day with them, and to interview a few about their experiences. Through their program with led by their teacher Charles Rankin (based on the work of Les Brown), they were learning to take responsibility for their part in what got them there.  At the end of the day, I asked Chuck a question I don’t now recall, but his answer to me was riveting: “They are so angry because they feel so powerless.” 

We live in an age of powerlessness.

Now, 30 years later, it seems it’s all gotten worse.

Our leaders don’t listen to us except to enact their power agendas. And every time we turn around there is some other horrifying event to shock us out of our complacency.

  • All the endless war(s)
  • Rolling Covid shutdowns
  • Skyrocketing prices
  • Escalating climate crises
  • Political polarization
  • The latest mass shooting
  • Another deadly incident of racial discrimination

Let’s get honest. We’re topped up… enraged about all the things we can’t control. Our systems have failed us. Nature’s giving us hell. Things haven’t worked out the way we thought they would. People done us wrong. We feel powerless. That makes us angry. And we want someone to fix it!

But our global challenges will not be solved solely by political agendas or litigious vigor. They require a change of heart… the same kind of change I witnessed in the eyes of those young men whose system had failed them. We, like they, must look at ourselves and ask, “How did we get here? And what will we do now?”

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” ― Maya Angelou

So let’s take it back to the bricks.

What is anger?

No one has to tell you what anger feels like… that rising hot flood of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility. And when you lose control of it and it turns violent, anger becomes rage.

But, I guess because we consider it negative, we don’t always own it as one of our core emotions. Yet there it is, at the top every conceivable list of human emotions. Until we own it we cannot take responsibility for what we do with it: the choices we make or don't make, the actions that ensue and the consequences of those actions.

According to a 2019 article in Psychology Today, there are four main types of anger:

  1. Justifiable anger is your moral outrage at injustice (like gun violence, racial discrimination, political polarization). It may be productive at first, when you channel its passion and energy into social action. But holding onto it over time wastes the energy you could let move through you into productive outcomes.
  2. Annoyance anger is your reaction to the frustrations of daily life (like the driver who cuts you off, the computer malfunction, the surprise bill). Those reactions unchecked can escalate an annoyance into a dangerous situation.
  3. Aggressive Anger is your attempt to dominate, intimidate, manipulate or control another (like trying to convince your X-wing cousin they're wrong). Bullying and other oppressive, violent and abusive tactics usually mask insecurity; the damage is inevitable and often irreversible. 
  4. Temper Tantrums are disproportional outbursts of anger when your selfish wants and needs are not met. If you never outgrow the terrible twos, this kind of anger develops into narcissism.

For better or worse, anger produces energy! 

It releases a burst of adrenaline that opens you up and gets things flowing. Blood flows. Muscles tighten. Your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate all increase. Suddenly you’re able to do things you couldn’t ordinarily do — like lifting a car to free a trapped child — and you’re incentivized to reach for solutions you wouldn’t ordinarily try.

So, given all that…

I have two questions:

1. How can you respond to anger creatively?

Problem. Anger activates the amygdala, the part of the brain crucial to establishing behaviors that push us toward our goals. Human beings operate with two basic motivations: the impulse toward pleasure and the impulse away from pain.

Counterintuitive though it may be, anger actually moves you closer to the situation or person that “makes you angry.” This can turn out well... or very very poorly.

Solution. Turn your reaction into a response. The saying we teach our children before they step into traffic will do. “Stop. Look. Listen.” Pause and check in with yourself to engage the discernment of the frontal cortex before you act. No question this requires practice, but if your kid can do it so can you.

To learn to turn reaction to response, ask yourself these questions:

  • What triggers you or “makes” you angry?
  • What is your usual response to anger?
  • What might you create  if you channeled anger cleanly?
  • What is your response-ability?
  • What one change could you start with this week?

2. How can you use anger to be more creative?

Problem. In the late 1940s, Alex Osborn, one of the founding partners of BBDO ad agency, wrote about the virtues of brainstorming. The most important principle, he said, was the total absence of criticism. This was the accepted wisdom of the day. And, for the most part, I've subscribed to this idea myself in the work I do.

But then came Steve Jobs. How did Steve Jobs, who famously expressed his anger toward employees who didn’t meet his standards, actually motivate them to excel? When anger comes at us or through us, we’d better learn to move it and use it.

“All innovation comes from fury.”  – Tom Peters

Solution. The energy anger produces can in fact spur creative breakthroughs. 

A 2014 study in Creativity and Innovation Management actually found that negative emotions can foster creative performance while positive emotions constrain it. 

To learn to channel this energy, try these two pathways:

  • Use your words. Set a timer and start writing. Keep the pen moving and do not stop. Let yourself be messy. Allow for nonsense. No censoring allowed. Writing engages the left hemisphere of the brain, which puts you in touch with the facts.
  • When words won’t do... turn to pictures. Doodle. Sketch. Draw. Collage. Process the emotions with shapes, arrows, boxes, squiggles or other visuals. Drawing engages the right hemisphere, which lights up neural pathways associated with reward.
“Take that rage, put it on a page, take the page to the stage, blow the roof off the place.” – The Script

The geyser within me.

I discovered the power of anger at the age of 35. I had a lot buried inside and I was afraid to turn that tap on… afraid it might destroy me or people I loved. But, after decades of unconsciously repressing my anger, I pounded the pillows, kept journals, wrote songs and poems and screenplays. 

I discovered that my anger is a geyser. What rises up on top of that geyser is not predictable, but there’s a whole lot more riding on it than what I assumed “made” me angry. My life is riding on that column of power. By learning to free that energy I gained access to a deep reservoir of other emotions, energy and creativity I didn’t know was in there.  I emerged.

Where is anger in the Wheel of Creativity?

Recently I was speaking with a psychotherapist friend recently about how change occurs in relationships. One thing she said, was that for things to change, they have to be disturbed.

There is no particular place in The Wheel of Creativity where anger lives. But there is a lot of disturbance… in the creative process as I outline it in the Wheel.

Just admitting to yourself that something’s wrong, that there’s a problem, that you want something more than what you have, is disturbing. But it launches the creative cycle that will take you from what is to what could be. To move from the status quo in your life to the possibility of something you can imagine but not touch means what you have today needs to go. 

Like anger, the creative force can be both productive and destructive. The Chaos that may show up in the middle of this process, Science tells us, is the birthplace of everything new.

But when we are disturbed, we often get angry.

When you say what you know you have to say, you may elicit an angry reaction from someone you love. But in order to be fully alive and present in that relationship, is there any other choice?

"Rage – whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us – is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.” ― Bonnie Myotai Treace

If we are to survive as a species, we have to learn to live in community with people who think and feel differently than we do. Whatever path you’ve been taught regarding your anger, it’s here to stay. We need to find the middle path, where we can meet and talk awhile with respect and appreciation. And we can only do that when we’re able to respond rather than react.

It's our creative response-ability to ourselves and each other.

If we don’t learn to take responsibility for our part in the world we’ve co-created – by our acts or our failures to act – we will continue to reenact the past. 

So, when you get angry, rather than suppressing your anger, you can learn to move into it, channel it and use it to solve our problems in ways no one’s ever tried.

That’s the process we practice in the Wheel of Creativity community.

If you're disturbed... if you want things to change... if you know there's something you're here to do that you've not completed, come explore your fiery creative power with us. Check out the Big Vision Project Incubator community here.

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