What Anger Taught Me About Suffering

And how this knowledge led to joy

A broken relationship

Years ago, I started conversing with my emotions.

I’d sometimes talked about my emotions, but it never occurred to me to converse directly with them. I’d never tried to understand their point of view or decode their messages.

Instead, I forced them to be as quiet, obedient, and small as I could.

But the more I suppressed my emotions, the more they built up in my body.

When I was a teenager, my emotions found their release through my skin — acne, eczema, and an occasional outbreak of hives. Nothing that medication couldn’t push back, though.

My skin conditions worsened as I grew into adulthood, but still, I managed to push the hives — and the emotions — back down.

This broken relationship with my emotions came to a head when, in my 30s, I broke out in stubborn hives that wouldn’t go away without a daily prescription steroid. But after a few months and no change, I knew I had to try something else.

I tried cooling techniques, changed my laundry detergent, and tried even the strangest online advice. Nothing worked. There seemed to be nothing to do but lie down and suffer the painful, burning, itching hives.

Until one day, when I decided to fight fire with fire.

A dangerous detox

Thinking that a good old-fashioned detox would rid me of these hives, I ran the hottest water possible in the tub and poured in a full pound of Epsom salts. I dimmed the lights, stripped off my clothing, and, not looking at my hive-ridden body, slipped inch by inch into the hot water. I stretched my legs out and leaned back, prepared to stay.

The pain from the heat blocked the pain from the hives, as if my brain could only process one kind of pain at a time.

My head thumped, my heart raced, and my face dripped with sweat. My hands began to cramp and then tighten into Edward Scissorhands–like positions. My lips and cheeks tingled and swelled, feeling like small balloons. I didn’t know that what was happening to my hands was called tetany or that the swelling in my face was known as angioedema. I just knew I had to get out quickly.

But the moment I was lying on my bed to cool down, the pain and itching returned. I curled my red, welted body into a fetal position and sobbed.

Anger’s feelings

The first emotion I decided to talk to was Anger.

I’d known for a long time that there were feelings of anger trapped inside of me nearly as old as I was, in all of its various forms — frustration, irritation, annoyance, jealousy, rage, bitterness, and more.

For our conversation, I set up two chairs in my bedroom, facing each other. I took a seat in one of them. I imagined Anger sitting down in the chair across from me. I decided that Anger was a “he” — this emotion felt masculine, fiery, and hot. In my imagination, he looked like a dragon and smelled of smoldering coals. He was responsible for the hives, I was sure.

I started to talk to him. I told him how I hated how he was always over-reacting. That I wish he could be more easy-going. I explained that having this anger inside me threatened to expose me — make me seen, vulnerable, disposable. I needed to present an image, I explained. I couldn’t be someone who had anger issues. I asked him why he couldn’t just go away and let Joy take his place.

I didn’t even know Joy back then. Like anyone, I’d had many fleeting moments of happiness in my life. But that was exactly the problem — they were fleeting.

Happiness was a transient state, conditioned on circumstances—a cloud that passes by. Joy, I sensed, was something deeper, truer, more lasting—like the sky behind the clouds.

After I expressed my feelings to Anger, I switched chairs. I took on the persona of my Anger, answering myself.

To my surprise, words and tears tumbled out of me. I cried about all the power I’d given away to others in exchange for some brief acknowledgment or praise. I raged about how often I’d cut off parts of myself to fit into a group. I ached from trying to dampen the power of my voice. I lamented that the exchange of my true gifts for a pretense that I had hoped would be more acceptable.

When Anger had nothing more to say, I returned to my original chair. I was dumbfounded.

There was a sensitive soul underneath all that fire, longing for expression in a world that didn’t tend to make room for sensitive souls.

So I didn’t push back, argue, or yell at Anger. I just said, “I’m so sorry. I want to learn from you. Can we start over?”

Anger taught me many lessons about how to reclaim my power, and how to find worth and acceptance from within.

It was Anger who first taught me that suffering has a purpose: to get our attention so it can deliver a message. And the more forcefully we refuse the message, the more resourceful our emotions will get in their mission to deliver it to us.

If the hives had not increased in intensity, I would’ve continued to live my life not as an expression and adventure for my individual soul, but from a sense of my ego’s duty and obligation. I would’ve continued to demand that my emotions remain hidden out of fear of what others might think.

Suffering, he told me, meant it was time to look deeply into my life. To clear out what doesn’t belong. To find inspiration for the person I wanted to become. To make room for all the joy a human being could possibly hold.

My hives didn’t disappear automatically after this session. But over time, as I began to honor my emotions and find space for them in my life, they faded into memories.

Emotions as messengers

We all have our own version of “hives”—side-effects that arise from suppressing our emotions too long. This isn’t happening because our emotions are punishing us; they are not the enemy. It’s because their messages are too important to ignore. Messages such as:

“You’re giving away your power.” (usually Anger)

“This person is dangerous.” (Thank you, Fear)

“This action does not align with your values.” (You’re right, Guilt)

“That person is living your life.” (I appreciate you showing me my path, Envy)

Emotions want to be our companions. Even the difficult ones like fear, guilt, shame, or envy. Over the years, I’ve talked to all of my emotions and learned from them. In fact, in my memoir, Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness, I share many of my sometimes-difficult but always rewarding conversations.

When I was young, my emotions were too powerful for me to know how to accept them, let alone speak with them. So, I tried to hide them. But I am older now, strong and wise, and I have built a kinship with my emotions that brings wisdom, levity, and humility into my daily life.

We all have to consider whether and when we’re willing to sit down and talk with our emotions. Every time an emotion arises, we decide, consciously or not, whether to “shoot the messenger” or take the message to heart.

Making space for joy

There was nothing special about the day I first felt joy.

I hadn’t gotten a new job, and it wasn’t my birthday—just a normal day.

I was out for a spring walk around the lake in my new neighborhood. My family had just moved from the suburbs to the city, and the bustling walk path was nothing like the private, solo walks I’d had in the ‘burbs.

The day was alive with life — laughing families, moms pushing strollers with sleeping babies, bikers pedaling furiously, children writing notes to the magical elf living in the ash tree, a man reading contentedly on a bench.

And that’s when the feeling bloomed like a rose within me.

The openness and lightness in my body were refreshing but unfamiliar. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I wondered if I should hide it—habits are habits, after all.

Then, a woman walked toward me and smiled. My own smile emerged spontaneously — without a thought or calculation, only a desire to share my joy.

That was it. That’s all that happened. I was just a woman on a walk, experiencing joy for no particular reason, other than that I had worked to make space for her—she is definitely a “her”—in my body so that she could show up in my life.

Today, joy visits me much more often. I’m grateful for everything she brings to my life.

But I owe it to Anger for teaching me that until I learned how to express my emotions—all of them—Joy cannot find her way to me.

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