In the Cards is a new monthly advice column by Carly Boyce, a queer and genderqueer femme witch based in Toronto. With a background in community-based sexual health, grief work, and suicide intervention, in addition to several years of tarot reading, she brings gentle advice and the wisdom of the cards to your questions about life, love, and feelings of all sorts. To submit a question, send an email to email@example.com with the subject line: Ask a Feelings-Witch. Questions will remain anonymous, and may be edited for length.
Q: How do I use my anger?
I’m a woman who has spent almost 30 years pushing down anger whenever it arose in me, because it was used in my family as a weapon, and I was afraid of it. Recently, I’m coming to realize that I need that anger, in order to fight against the many, many injustices around me. But when I “unlock” those feelings, what comes up is petty anger, annoyances and remembered slights, which I don’t want to encourage, rather than the righteous anger that could lead me. How can I let my anger out?
A: First of all, I want to say thank you for this generous and rich question. There is so much to think about here in terms of the role that anger plays in our lives. Also, I feel you! Let me share a quick story:
I see a therapist who is more than a little *woo*. She does a combination of talk therapy and bodywork. The first time I saw her, after talking for a while, she suggested we give some bodywork a try, and had me lay on a mat on the floor with a pretty quilt over me. She touched my belly gently, and her eyes got big. “Have you been eating a lot of tomatoes?” she asked me. I laughed and explained that I had an overgrown garden of tomato plants, and had been eating them at (or for) every meal for days. She nodded, and moved her hands over an inch or two. “Whoa!” she exclaimed. “Unexpressed rage!”
I didn’t feel like I was a person with a lot of anger, but by denying those feelings, they built up in my physical and emotional body. It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with feeling anger, and it’s definitely still a work in progress! I have some ideas about this question that I hope will resonate with you, and I pulled some cards for additional insight. I do this a lot when I’m puzzling through a question; we have well-worn pathways in our brains, so we can fall into patterns of thinking about things in similar ways. The cards can take us to unexpected places, and help us tread some new thought-trails.
I used a four card advice spread. The central card asks questions about the heart of the matter. The one on the left is advice about what to do, the top is what to think, and the one on the right is about things to be careful of. I use a deck called the Collective Tarot, which was made by a group of artists in the early 2000s. Those folks renamed lots of cards, and all four suits of the minor arcana, so below I’ve listed both the names of the cards as they are in this deck, and what they would be called in a more traditional deck, as a reference point.
Heart of the matter: Three of Keys/Three of Wands
This card depicts a sweet kitchen scene; you’re making a batch of jam. The Three of Keys asks what recipe you are using when you think about constructive uses of anger—what have you been taught, and by whom? We don’t get a lot of choice about the messages and lessons we inherit, from our families, from authority figures, from the world around us; but we do get to decide how we use that information, and decide what we want to pass along from those lessons to those around us.
This is a slow process. We can’t divest from harmful lessons all at once. Make one change to the recipe you inherited, one substitution, and see how the next batch comes out. Try again. Keep adjusting, keep learning. It might also be worthwhile to think about how anger has served you and your ancestors. What patterns did they (and you) fight free of? What violence did they (and you) escape? What role did anger play in those liberations?
I relate to the experience of anger being used as a weapon in your family. As a kid, I learned fast that seeing anger in the faces of my loved ones, or hearing it in their voices, was a sure sign of worse things to come. Like many, I developed hyper-vigilance around other people’s anger, and took it as a universal cue to de-escalate at any cost. This was a strategy that helped me avoid violence, and I’m not sorry I used it! Past-you needed a survival strategy, and she was clever.
The tricky bit is navigating situations now where the risk of physical or emotional violence isn’t actually present, except as a fear and a memory. In those moments where someone is angry near you, or you’re feeling something that resembles anger, before you de-escalate, before you bottle it up, think about the recipe you want to use. I find that asking myself the question “is this an emergency?” can help me dial down my own fear and stay present with whatever is going on. Do you need a flow chart? A smooth stone in your pocket? What will help you stay grounded in those moments?
In my life and my communities, it has been working class women and women of colour who have taught me about the liberatory potential of expressing anger, and I have come to see these women as part of my femme lineage from which I can draw wisdom. Angry women are dangerous, and maybe that’s a good thing. We can fight for access to other recipes. Even while being kind of squashed by the trauma we carry, we can stand on the shoulders of giants. Who do you see around you who uses anger constructively? What can you learn from them? How can you thank them for those teachings?
What to do: Oppression/the Devil
This card has questions for you about power. Firstly, it asks about how systems of power outside of yourself are pressing on you in situations where you feel (and try to control) anger. What role is misogyny playing in what behaviour is expected of you? How are race and class and ability and education impacting what sorts of feelings you’re allowed to have and display? What are the real concrete consequences that could come from you enacting your anger? What do you stand to lose? What might you destabilize?
Second, the Oppression card asks about the power you hold, and if you are using it to the best of your ability, and in ways that align with your values. Anger is a tool, and any tool can harm or heal, depending how you use it. If you were more connected to your anger, would you be more motivated to stand up for yourself and show up for others? Would you be more attuned to injustice around you? Would you want to tear things down? Maybe they need to be torn.
What to think: Liberation/Judgment
Liberation is a card that is ultimately about integration. It’s about holding the complexity of where you come from, where you are, and where you want to be all at the same time. You are always transforming, but right now there is an opportunity to make a kind of change that will have deep impacts. You don’t have to excise your trauma, to “get over it”. Everywhere you have been will always be part of where you are. But you can make different choices than you have before. You can try new things, waver, learn, falter, and try again.
You mentioned that when you let anger surface, some things that come up aren’t pleasant, and maybe don’t feel productive. I think feelings are information; those things come up because they need your attention in some way. There might be helpful knowledge in there for you. Have you been loose with your own boundaries? Giving too much? Not speaking up when you don’t feel heard? Liberation doesn’t want you to compartmentalize yourself and your feelings into ones that make sense, or ones that feel helpful and ones that don’t. It wants you to be real with yourself and the people you care about, to be messy and hopeful and not always sure. The world and your relationships are big enough to hold your messiness. So your anger is petty sometimes; you’re just a person. You’re allowed. It also might be the case that your body is protecting you from big anger feelings and testing your coping waters with smaller, less significant things. Dealing with feelings is a muscle, and your wise body might be giving you these slow pitches to practice on so you’ll have greater capacity when it’s time to enact your righteous anger.
What to be careful of: Artist of Feathers/Queen of Swords
The Artist of Feathers is about self-expression; earnestness and artistic creation and ruthless truth-telling. In the position of something to be wary about, the Artist is asking you to be intentional about how and where you express the anger that comes up for you. These petty angers, these passing furies—maybe they don’t need to be expressed immediately, or they need to be processed carefully with someone whom you trust and who won’t be negatively impacted by them. So too with righteous angers: if you’re a white person, are you raging about racism to your friends who are people of colour who are already deeply aware of the systems you’re furious about, or are you working through those things with your white folks who also need to be brought deeper into conversations about how to shift power and privilege? Are you directing your warranted and legitimate anger at the systems and people who are truly responsible for those injustices?
The Feathers suit is also largely about intellectual pursuits, and so there is a warning here too about staying mostly in a brain-place when dealing with your anger. There is incredible value in processing and talking and writing and reading about injustice, but it can’t end there. This card is also a challenge to think about how to enact those angers. Maybe it would be helpful for you to find a physical outlet for some of the rage you experience, whether that’s running or dancing or punching a heavy bag at a feminist boxing gym.
Connecting to our bodies is so maligned and dangerous for women, who are systemically seen as more animal, more connected to earth and moon and water, than people who move through the world as men. Get familiar with what anger feels like in your body when it’s building, when it feels too big to hold, and what it feels like to release it.
Planning, power, practice, trust. These are some places to look to learn more about your anger and how to express it. I wish you luck, kind inquisitor, and to the rest of us who are also wrestling with this sticky feeling.