Art Therapy and Anger



 “Seeing Red” ~ Sara Roizen



“Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”  – Aristotle

The other day one of my therapy clients asked me if I ever got angry, because she could just not imagine me ever becoming angry. 

I asked my client what she thought before answering (I know…typical therapist response!) But it was important to explore her perception of anger before jumping in with my own answer. Although she could not picture me becoming angry, she guessed that I must get angry once in a while. As the session progressed we had a very interesting dialogue about different types of anger and how it felt, what triggered anger, and ways of handling that type of emotion. And yes, I did eventually answer her question by responding, “Of course I get angry…more frequently than you might imagine. We are all works in progress, and anger in and of itself is not a “bad” emotion. It is what we do with that energy that matters.”

Graffiti Art by Banksy

Anger does not have to become a problem for us. At its core, anger is a pure emotion. So is depression, anxiety, or any other negatively labeled emotion you can think of. In fact, pure anger can be useful. It can make us aware that something is off, or doesn’t feel right at the moment. When harnessed properly, anger can motivate us to make positive changes in our lives. Sometimes things go unchanged in the world because we haven’t become angry enough to take action.

Anger may become an issue if it is not properly acknowledged and explored. Unconscious anger has the potential to harm us or those around us. 
Self – Portrait by Edith Kramer
There seem to be 2 basic ways that people deal with their anger. The most obvious way of dealing with anger is to act out: either physically, verbally, or both. The other way of dealing with anger is to turn it inwards. You may have heard of the idea that depression is actually anger turned inwards towards the self. There is a third way of handling anger, and that is the method that I will be exploring a bit here. The third way of handling anger is to transform the anger into something creative and/or productive. The art therapist pioneer Edith Kramer called the artistic transformation of unacceptable thoughts and urges sublimation.
There are countless methods for exploring and transforming anger in art therapy. Below I have listed a few art therapy experiences that some of my clients have found helpful and transformative. 
Clay Work
Clay is a powerful artistic medium and can evoke many strong feelings by itself. For this reason, using clay with a client should be thought out beforehand and never done in a haphazard way. Clay can bring up primitive feelings and can cause people to regress during a session. This can be a wonderful thing, but the art therapist needs to be mindful of the therapeutic “container” and make sure that the client feels safe. Making cleaning up and washing up into a closing session ritual can also help to contain the energy of the session within the room, so that it does not follow the client home! I have had clients pound on a ball of clay, throw it onto the table, jab holes into it, and twist it into different shapes. Once the physical need to discharge angry energy has settled a bit, the client may wish to create something from the clay (or not). The process of working with the clay can be therapeutic all by itself, even if no recognizable form is created during the session. 
Torn-up Collage
Tissue paper collage

The physical act of ripping up paper or magazines is another way of working with the energy of anger (instead of against it).Try colorful tissue paper, rice paper, newspaper, magazines, construction paper, or decorative paper. Another step that can be added is to write down all of your angry thoughts on paper and then tear up the pieces of paper. In order to transform the pieces into a new art form (sublimation) you can create a collage with the pieces. I like working with “mod podge” as my adhesive instead of glue sticks, because you can lay down many pieces of paper at once and work more quickly. 

Leaves on a Stream

There is a wonderful meditation visualization that I often use when feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and intense emotions. Imagine that you are sitting alone by a stream or river. Next, imagine that each of your thoughts is carried by a single leaf on the stream. As you sit by the stream, picture your thoughts floating by you and disappearing down the stream. This visualization can be particularly useful when strong feelings of anger emerge. If you are fortunate enough to actually live by a body of water you can actually practice this meditation with real leaves. Gather leaves from the ground and write on them, using a permanent marker. Once you have a pile of your “thoughts,” release them one at a time and watch as the river or stream carries them away. This experiential can be done without an actual stream or river as well. Using watercolor pencils, write your thoughts onto cut-outs of leaves on white paper. When your leaves are finished, submerge the leaves in a bowl of water and watch as the watercolor pencil writing blurs and then dissolves!

These art therapy ideas for working with anger are just a few possibilities. I’d love to hear from readers about any other ideas that you have explored!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *