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Useful Anger


We’ve been thinking lately at how hard the summer can be for people who are struggling with sorrow or loss. Summer is all upbeat and ra ra; the advertisements are all about barbecues and beach trips; everyone seems to be going on holiday. It’s all jollity and festa. Imagine all that is going on whilst you find yourself in a painful or dark place.

This kind of mismatch can lead to anger. Rage is a fairly classic part of grief: rage at the person for dying, rage at society for not understanding, rage at the fates for being so cruel. There are other kinds of losses which are not to do with the death of a beloved: the loss of youthful dreams, the loss of relationships, the loss of limbs. We have a lot of experience of that last one, at HorseBack. A leg or arm left in the dust of Afghan needs to be mourned just as a lost comrade does. Cracking on doesn’t quite do it. In our experience, the grief has to come first, marking the loss, before the letting go and the returning to equilibrium. The anger is often because the true grieving has not been done.

And these reflections made us think about anger in general. It has such a bad reputation. It is considered one of the negative emotions. (Although we would challenge even that description. A great psychotherapist once said that there is no such thing as wrong emotions, only wrong actions.) People are sent on anger management courses. Rage, it seems, must be countered with meditation and lavender oil.

But here’s the thing: sometimes, anger is the correct response. If there is a great unfairness in the world, a terrible inequity, a cruelty or just that kind of carelessness which dooms people to trouble, you damn well should be angry. That anger can be the human conscience at work: it tells you what you care about. It tells you about right and wrong. Anger was what got the suffragettes to march in the streets because women did not have the vote; anger got Rosa Parks on the bus; anger made Martin Luther King have a dream.

And sometimes, on a hot summer’s day, when it seems that everyone is eating hot dogs and laughing, and your heart is breaking, you might feel furious, because nobody bloody gets it.

This, too, might be the right response. People with all kinds of mental health pain, from simple human anguish to post-traumatic stress, will often feel isolated and out of step with their communities. They will often feel misunderstood and overlooked. They will, sadly, often find that the care they need is not available to them. Anger may come from this and, we believe, should be felt and honoured.

As always at HorseBack, we come back to our trusty old processing tools: acknowledge it, feel it, write it down, tell a trusted friend, move it out of your body. (For anger, cussing and stomping may be involved. One member of our team does this with her horses, who join in the stomping merrily, but we generally recommend finding a nice quiet room or forest where you won’t be observed.)

In other words, suppressing an emotion because society or the zeitgeist says it is bad and wrong and negative is a recipe for disaster. Anger can be channelled and used wisely if you feel it and process it and take the valuable information from it. If you bottle it up, often because you have been taught to be ashamed of it, it will shoot out at unexpected moments. You will find yourself hollering at the people you love. (This is a classic symptom of suppressed and unprocessed emotions.) You will then feel such guilt and shame that the emotional load becomes worse, not better.

Good, sane, pure anger, directed at injustice, can change the world. Those world changers mostly did not get angry, although they may have given some fiery speeches in the public square, but they felt their righteous anger and decided to use it for a meaningful purpose. Anger is not all bad, whatever you may have been told. But kicking the dog or yelling at a loved one or turning the anger against yourself, in self-sabotage – that helps nobody. We are very careful when we talk about right and wrong here at HorseBack, because that can so quickly slip into judgement, so let us say that the kicking and the yelling are non-useful.

It’s not the emotion, which may be rational and must be felt; it’s what you do with it. And that is where human beings have the beautiful agency of choice. Choose where you put your anger. Change the world, or wreck it. Everybody can make that decision, when the fury comes.

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We do not rely on government funding so any donations will greatly assist with the running of our charity.