Anger is an invaluable emotion to have. It helps subjugated people revolt, it gave women the vote, it can help you stick up for yourself when you are bullied. It can energise us. It’s a good motivator for when change is needed.
Yet many of us believe anger is a bad emotion to have, because we have seen on the news what angry people do. Or, as children we may have endured a violent, raging parent, and concluded that anger is bad. Or, perhaps our parents punished angry behaviour, so we learned to avoid expressing it.
Whatever the case, many of us avoid being angry, afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we might look foolish, or undisciplined, or lose control and do something awful. ‘Good people don’t get angry’, many of us think, so we aim to never be angry.
The trouble is, anger is a normal part of being human. We evolved to get angry. So, when we become angry and pretend to ourselves that we’re not, the anger squeezes out in other ways. For example:
1. Masked anger.
People not acknowledging their anger can end up turning their anger onto people in masked ways:
▪ slashing train seats, or
▪ picking fights, or
▪ sniping at a spouse, or
▪ being a chronic complainer, or
▪ being sarcastic, or
▪ being grumpy, or
▪ becoming defensive, and punishing a partner with silence.
Or they might turn their anger on themselves and
▪ become stressed, or
▪ resentful, bitter,
▪ they might become a doormat, living only half a life, or
▪ lose sleep,
▪ harm themselves,
▪ be anxious, or
▪ even implode into depression.
These people are concerned that if they were to allow themselves to be angry they might lose control, and that they would be letting themselves down. However, they will miss out on having their needs met, on getting to know themselves, and on feeling relaxed and good about life.
‘Every time I think of cutting myself I write “Love” where I want to cut. I can’t tell you how much it helps.’
Anonymous, from the PostSecret website.
2. Explosive anger. Some anger avoiders suppress their anger until they eventually explode at something trivial. They lash out physically or verbally, and surprise everyone including themselves. Then they feel ashamed and guilty, which reinforces their belief that anger is bad. So, they strive even harder to avoid feeling anger, bottling it up even more for the next explosive outburst.
Or, they don’t feel ashamed. Instead, they lash out, having found that it helps them get what they want. They might even enjoy the adrenaline rush. The trouble is, they and their loved ones live troubled lives.
3. Chronic anger. Anger has become a habit, and feels normal. The people suffering chronic anger are the grumps, the bigots, the unforgiving, the righteous.
‘Often with anger there are other emotions underneath that a person either hasn’t been able to face or they don’t have the permission (from others or themselves) to face or they don’t even know are there. My question comes from a sense of curiosity about why they think anger is a bad emotion in the first place. So, if a person says “I think anger is a bad emotion to have” and if I ask what is bad about it . . . I will get some information. Valuable information. If I ask them to use another word it can give an insight into the feelings underneath the anger. A person might equate anger with losing control; another might equate anger with cruelty; another might equate anger with being unfeminine, weak, scary, childish, overpowering, inadequate – these are all different and thus provide different ways in to help someone deal with their anger.’
Gay McKinley, psychotherapist.
Q. ‘Does anger come in other forms?’
Irritation. Impatience. Resentment. Frustration. All of them are forms of anger, and all are normal.
When we are not aware of our anger we are destined to remain grumpy, or stressed, or doormats. But when we can accept that anger is a normal, natural part of being human, and allow ourselves to be angry in a healthy, constructive manner, we can make choices and change what needs to be changed.
Further, we become less stressed and more relaxed than someone who doesn’t allow themselves to get angry. That’s because we aren’t afraid of our anger – we know we can handle it.
We even might decide that an incident isn’t worth being angry about, and let it go.
Or we might conclude that displaying tolerance and compassion, rather than anger, is a more appropriate response to a situation.
There’s a bonus: when we realise that anger is not such a bad emotion to have, we cope better with another person’s anger. Instead of dismissing their behaviour as bad and irrational, we can focus more on what they are saying.
The keys in this section are about allowing ourselves to feel angry, and about expressing it in a healthy constructive manner – two big steps towards resilience.
‘The anger avoider’s pledge: Beginning today, I will allow anger to be part of my family of emotions. Anger has a place in my life, along with sadness, joy, and all my other feelings. I promise to listen to my anger, to use it to help me figure out what to say or do, and to let go of my anger when the situation is better.’
From‘Letting Go of Anger’, by Ron Potter-Efron.
‘Trying not to get angry affects relationships as well. If you can’t get angry, you and those around you don’t know who you are. They don’t know how you feel, nor do they understand the limits of your tolerance. Anger gives you borders and definition.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.
Q. ‘Mark, anger causes heaps of trouble. You only have to look at the news.’
Poorly expressed anger causes problems, yes. That’s why anger has such a bad reputation. But if the people making the news could express their anger in a healthy manner they wouldn’t be in the news. They would have suffered less, been less stressed, and might even have solved their problem while earning people’s respect.
Q. ‘Anger creates conflict, and conflict creates stress. We don’t want to feel stressed.’
If you avoid necessary conflict with another person you will develop an inner conflict, and you will get stressed. That’s the last thing you want. No one likes conflict, but if you have the capacity to meet it head on in a constructive manner, problems get solved and you get over the discomfort.
Q. ‘Surely, if we practise being angry, we will become angry more often?’
If you practise being angry inappropriately, yes, that will happen. Yelling and throwing things about is unhealthy, and will probably trigger chemical reactions in your body. You don’t want that, because you will you feel stupid and guilty afterwards, and you might develop a short fuse.
Anyway, getting yourself in a rage won’t make you think clearly. You could end up saying or doing something you wish you hadn’t.
‘So, you’re suggesting . . ?’
I’m suggesting an expression of anger that aims to rectify the situation.
Q. ‘You said anger can make people doormats. How?’
Doormats let people walk over them because they’re fearful of how they might behave if they stood up for themselves; they are fearful of losing control. Or of being seen as weak, or bad. So, they put their own needs aside and spoil their relationships in the process.
And, because they are in denial about how they are treated they lose a big part of themselves. They exert no real influence in their relationships, and feel powerless. That leads to anxiety.
Q. ‘When my sister gets angry at work she cries, but instead of taking her anger seriously, the staff think she’s weak.’
I’m not surprised. Crying is another unhelpful way to express anger.
Q. ‘Ranting and raving can be enormously satisfying to an angry person. Can ranting and yelling be a healthy way to express our anger?’
It can be a release, reducing the intensity of the anger (as can swearing). The trouble begins when we come to believe that yelling is the best way to be angry. Some people work themselves into a yelling and ranting fit, believing that’s required to solve the problem. Instead of aiming to reduce the intensity of their anger by yelling or swearing, they aim to increase the intensity by yelling and swearing, and that’s counter-productive. Each time they work themselves up they get better at it, and eventually develop a short fuse. They become angry over trivial things.
So, yes, a good, brief yell can be enormously satisfying (as is swearing), but you will still need to think things through and determine the best way to deal with the incident and your anger.
’So, it’s okay to yell and rant if it’s a quick relief?’
A brief yell and cuss at no one in particular can be helpful when expressing disappointment and frustration, but when you vent at a person their reaction won’t lessen your anger, so a ‘feedback loop’ can be created. That won’t help you or your relationship. And, with your prolonged yelling, your brain will become proficient in creating the ‘anger chemicals’. You will develop a short fuse and get angry often.
‘So, venting at someone is bad?’
Not necessarily. Sometimes we can have controlled venting, with a friend as a soundboard. Sometimes we need to vent to open things up, to find out what is going on inside.
‘One problem with merely venting anger is that the raw emotion may contain memories of many violations and humiliations. You may be angry with many people and for many reasons. To vent this conglomerate of feelings in the presence of a single person is to swamp that person with all your accumulated feelings, most of which have nothing to do with him. Rage turning into violence feels impotent and accomplishes nothing, because you aren’t dealing with the real object of your anger. You are simply giving other people good reason to be angry at you.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.
Q. ‘Is there a place for yelling?’
Sure. Someone is kidnapping your sister . . .
Q. ‘What if I am really angry with someone? What should I do? Write a letter to my Member of Parliament?’
When experiencing such a strong emotion take time out. Leave quickly. When you have calmed down think about the incident thoroughly, and from all angles. When you are ready, deal with the situation.
Q. ‘What’s wrong with screaming and shouting at someone? That gets results. A squeaky wheel gets the grease.’
You might get compliance, briefly, but you haven’t truly solved the problem, so it’s a short-term victory. The respect you will lose will be far more telling. And from now on, the other person will lie to you to avoid your anger. You don’t want that.
Q. ‘I’ve heard that punching a punching bag is a good way to express anger.’
From what I gather, when you deal with your anger in that way you create chemicals in your brain. Do that often and you will become good at creating those chemicals, and develop a short fuse.
‘I feel a lot better after punching a bag.’
It’s the adrenaline and endorphins you are creating that are making you feel better. How about looking into yourself and discovering precisely why the incident angers you? What buttons have been pressed? Modify your life to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
‘If you are angry at your spouse or partner, hours of workout at the gym are not going to be nearly as effective as letting your partner know how you feel.’
Thomas Moore, from his book, ‘Dark nights of the soul’.”
Q. ‘When is it okay to get angry?’
It’s always okay to be angry. If you’re angry, you’re angry. That’s fine. You can feel any emotion you like, whenever you like. What is important is how it is expressed.
‘I mean, when is anger a good thing to have?’
When change is needed. Anger is a good motivator. It gives us the strength to stand up for what is right and make changes for the better. Anger can be the impetus for courageous acts.
This section is about using anger to make positive changes in our life. Getting that helpful skill adds to our resilience.