Helena Clayton | Love and anger



Love and anger

07 Jun 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

In my sessions with groups exploring love and leadership, I often bring us away from discussions about care and empathy and compassion to a different area all together. I bring us to a conversation about anger and its relationship with love, and with leadership.

Largely, we’re an anger-averse society. It’s generally not considered acceptable for us – neither men nor women – to express our anger and so we’ve also come to think it’s not ok to feel it.

This isn’t good at any level, not least because when we learn to suppress one emotion we suppress them all. Our systems are not sophisticated enough to dial down anger without also dialling down joy and elation or grief.

But it’s also not good because anger is really useful.


Anger is a way that we know that an injustice has been done, that something has been taken away from us or that someone has deprived us of something that matters. It’s an alarm, an early warning system, and it’s telling us that something is wrong. It’s telling us that our heart has been hurt, that we or someone has been wronged, that a core value has been breached or that justice has been denied. It shows us what really matters to us. It shows us what we love.

It’s been said that ‘our capacity to change something is directly related to our capacity to love’ (a Greenpeace blog) because we only protect what we love. We need to let ourselves connect with and listen to our anger and discover what we love enough to do something or what(ever) it takes to protect it.

Grief and loss and fear

Anger is considered a secondary emotion, meaning that it’s often protecting other emotions, and ones that are maybe too painful to bear. We may resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from or cover up these other vulnerable feelings – maybe shame and embarrassment but also loss and grief and fear. These feelings are often too painful for us to let ourselves feel and so we find anger a less painful emotion instead.

So anger may simply be telling us that we love something and we don’t want to lose it – if we give it the chance and know how to sit with it. We can welcome our anger. It can put us in contact with our grief and sadness.  We can use our anger to help connect us with our true feelings about what’s happening to our world, and for many of us that means connecting with grief and sadness for what we see happening around us.

Also, everything we love we will lose. This isn’t gloom-and-doom, or nihilistic thinking but a reality of our lives, a painful truth but one we need to accept if we are to live on life’s terms. Francis Weller calls this realisation the ‘first gate of grief’. For him the links between grief and love are clear because ‘it’s the broken heart, the part that knows sorrow, that is capable of genuine love’.

So anger can tell us what we fear losing. It brings us directly in contact with what we love because it shows us all that we and the next generations have to lose. Perhaps it’s only through getting in much closer contact with our feelings of loss and grief that we will find what it take to change.


It’s entirely fitting and appropriate that we would feel angry when we contemplate (say) how minority groups are treated, when someone is disparaging or insulting, when someone’s actions harm others, when a policy or procedure discriminates, when someone whose job it is to protect us hurts us instead. Not ok. Not ok. Not ok.

We may need to connect with our righteous anger – intentionally – because it’s a powerful fuel for getting us to act. It’s a catalyst and it wakes us up. Anger in the face of abuse is a healthy, regenerative and healing response. We may need to rage and cry and scream and enable others to do the same. And yes, of course, we need to chose how we want to express that anger. But first we need to feel it.  And talk about it.  And know it’s ok to do that.

A recent Twitter thread asked if the field of Organisational Development was objective (it was a good thread). And in many fields like coaching, for example, we are encouraged to take a neutral stance and see all sides. In senior roles in organisations, those traditionally seen as leadership roles, I see people trying not to rock the boat too much, not to stand out, make a fuss, be balanced and objective. Some of that is for good reason.

But I wonder if in organisations we need to find a different kind of leadership energy now – an activist energy, a provoker, and a catalysing energy? An energy that draws on Jung’s Warrior archetype or the Goddess Kali – a fierce protector energy? Don’t we now need to speak up, and shout up and not shut up – find our voice and help others to find theirs? And to do that, don’t we need to get angry and discover what we really give a shit about? It feels time for action now, for acts of leadership.

Valarie Kaur believes that all revolutionary change has love at its heart and, if we can take love to be either a deep passion for something or a fierce protection of something, the link with what’s needed at these times is clear.

Anger is a connection to love. A form of love. A form of love that means we stand up for others and for ourselves, we shout loudly that things are not ok, we protect others, we take a stand, and we fight for what’s right.

It’s a form of love. And it belongs in leadership.

Questions for us

Sometimes when I coach and we’re working on ‘what’s my purpose’ I offer some questions – both practical and magical thinking – to help people get an insight into what it could be. I’ve adapted these for this blog. See if they’re useful to you:

• What’s happening in the world right now that you don’t like, that’s not ok?
• What breaks your heart?
• What do you love so much that you are willing to act to protect?
• What will you allow yourself to imagine losing – and will you allow yourself to feel the depth of that loss – in order to help you act?
• If you set up a charitable foundation to eradicate an intractable world problem, what issue would you fix?
• What cause would make you travel the length of the country to attend a protest march?
• What is the world calling for right now?
• What enrages you?
• When did you last feel anger and why?
• What’s your ‘personal social history’ with anger – what relationship do you have with it?
• What do you want to protect for your children/the next generation?

And as Maya Angelou says:

‘If you’re not angry then you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry.  You should be angry.  And you use that anger, yes.  You write it  You paint it. You dance it. You march it,  You vote it.  You do everything about it.  You talk it.  Never stop talking it’

Helena x

P.S ‘Don’t do anger’?

I used to be puzzled by anger.  I’d say ‘oh, I don’t do anger’ or ‘I’m not an angry person’.   Even when there was a lot to be angry about, I wouldn’t/couldn’t go there.  I thought that was a good thing.  Until I came to see that if  we deny a normal human emotion so strongly, then there’s something awry,

I had to (re)learn to feel it.  I needed help to be reconnected with it.  After my brother’s suicide when I was 18y, I had shut down completely, and I stayed that way for years.  One effect of that trauma was to cauterise all feelings. I was numb for years. And once I woke up to that, saw how much I’d disconnected and saw the full impact of that event on me, I could see the work I needed to do.  I needed to learn to feel again. It’s been quite a journey but by ‘doing my work’ in therapy and with places like The Hoffman Process and Celebration of Being, I can happily tell you I’m an angry person alongside being joyful, tender and loving 🙂 and that my anger is a welcome, useful and healthly part of who I am.

You can find my 2018 research report exploring love in leadership here.   

And enrolment for Cohort 2 of Leading with Love is now open, with the programme starting 22 January 2021.  There are only 12 places available and so please get in touch if you think you might be interested.  

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