Anger is not just a problem to get rid of, but a message to you about who you are and what is important to you. Oftentimes, however, this important fact gets ignored because we live in a society in which anger is often considered inappropriate and uncivil.
For the most part we have learned to associate anger with destruction and aggression. We have likely felt its negative impact on our relationships or been ashamed about how our anger made us act. Maybe we have experienced the destructive impact of other people’s anger outbursts on us, or we have seen it turn violent and cause ruptures between people we love.
However, anger is not the same as aggression or loss of control. Aggression and loss of control can be the outcome of anger, but they more so indicate ways of expressing anger or reacting to anger than the feeling of anger itself.
Anger can really be said to cover a spectrum of emotions from frustration and slight annoyance on the one end to explosive rage on the other, and can be said to involve a whole range of shades in-between. Sometimes in fact, it is only when we ignore the first signs of anger, or fail to catch our anger and express it when it is still just an indicator of annoyance, that we end up bottling it up to the point where we finally explode.
Anger Can Be a Necessary and Useful Emotion:
At its core anger alerts us to threats and tells us when one of our fundamental needs has gone unmet or has been squashed. In doing so anger makes it clear to us who we are. It tells us for example if our space has been invaded, if our freedom has been squashed, if our pride has been injured, if the way we see the world has been invalidated, or if our feelings have been ignored. It alerts us to the fact that we have been wronged in some way, or that we have felt slighted, mistreated, or diminished. By doing so it gives us an opportunity to correct a wrong or to put a relationship back on the right track. It tells us what we need in order to feel healthy and good about ourselves and happy about the environment in which we live our life.
The actions and initiatives that come out of this can in the final analysis help restore or repair a situation that if left unattended would distort or destroy a relationship, lead to resentment, avoidance, or distance, or result in outright harm to our well-being.
I know of no close interpersonal relationship, for example, that will not at some point involve moments of annoyance, frustration, and anger, and it is a sign of a mature relationship that each person can express when their needs are not being met or let each other know when something does not feel good. Anger is what allows us to know when this is occurring. It alerts us to the fact that something needs to be addressed so the relationship can adapt and remain good.
When to Express and Not Express Your Anger:
Not long ago I saw a thought-provoking Facebook post that asked: How do you express anger? And provided 1 out of 6 options. Do you walk away? Become silent? Shout? Cry? Beat? Or Smile?
I thought this post was evocative because it shows that just because you don’t get loud, aggressive, or lose your temper, doesn’t mean that you are not experiencing or expressing your anger.
Anger that is not talked about is going to get expressed somehow, even if it is not being expressed outwardly. Research, for example, shows that suppressed or unexpressed anger can lead to long-term health problems and can even be one of main causes of depression.
In fact anger that remains unexpressed, and therefore boundaries or needs that are not asserted, can only happen at the expense of one’s self.
If I cannot muster the self-defense to assert that another person’s negative accusations of me are unfair or unreasonable, I have no choice but to collapse into shame, guilt, or self-doubt. By abandoning my anger, or being too afraid to express it, I am therefore in fact abandoning or hurting myself.
On the other hand, my needs, expectations, and wants can in fact be exaggerated, and the anger I feel the result of a having too big of an ego and making too little room for others. In such instances, I do need to check my anger, and examine if my anger has more to do with me than with the other person.
Perhaps I have a tendency to feel a deep shame about myself if my viewpoints are challenged, but instead of acknowledging and owning this, I angrily want the world to accommodate me and soothe my hurt ego. If the world always adapts to me, validates me, and tells me how great I am, I never have to confront my own insecurity but can maintain a sense of strength and power that prevents me from having to look at myself. Sometimes these kinds of deep vulnerabilities are what can lead to some of the worst anger outbursts, abuses of power, and attempts to control others. It reminds us that just because we are offended, doesn’t make us right, and that others are not obligated to take care of our feelings.
The trick in expressing anger is thus neither to ignore it and become a doormat, or to use it to establish the dominance of your own needs. First you must examine the angry reaction you feel to understand what lies at its source.
Questions you might need to ask yourself are:
- Does the situation justify my anger?
- What might my anger be telling me about myself rather than about the other person?
- Do I have my own vulnerabilities, or past hurts, that are being activated by what the other person said or did?
- Does my reaction appear out of proportion to what happened, or does it appear to be an accurate response to some legitimate harm or violation?
- If I let my anger sit a bit, and gain a little bit more perspective on my feeling, does the feeling subside?
- If I contemplate not standing up for myself on this issue, will I be doing harm to myself?
If after this self-examination you still feel angry, it might be a sign that a conversation needs to be had, or that assertiveness on behalf of yourself is needed.
How to Express Your Anger:
If such a conversation about your needs and demands is to go well, and if the objective is to remain in a relationship with the person who did or said something that was harmful to your well-being or your sense of self, you might want to wait to talk about it until the intensity of the feeling has subsided enough that you are not in the throes of it.
Anger has a way of empowering you with a strength and conviction that can disempower and invalidate the other person. The objective of a conversation about your needs should not be to get back at the other person by elevating yourself and devaluing the other person, but to reveal some of the values or vulnerabilities that were undermined or injured by what the other person said or did. If this can be conveyed in a way that maintains the respect and dignity of the other person, they are more likely to respond non-defensively, and genuinely hear what your anger is really about.
If maintaining the relationship is not a priority because what has happened has crossed clear boundaries, and is making you question whether or not you even want to be in a relationship, then exposing your vulnerabilities may not be the way to go. You may then instead want to use the information from your anger to set a clear boundary, to walk away, or to otherwise prevent more violations from happening. In such instances you may indeed need the power that anger fills you with in order to not lose your courage or back down when your anger tells you you should take a stance.
So Where Does this Leave Us?
Anger is not inherently bad but helps to define us and what we want or need in opposition to that which threatens us or harms us. By having access to anger we have access to a sense of self and this allows us to live a life where we are more in control of our destiny and of what happens to us in life. However, at times our anger can indeed be an exaggerated response that originates in a fragile ego or an unreasonable set of expectations we impose on the world. In such situations we may need to make more room for others rather than make more room for ourselves.
So in the end we end up in the same place as Aristotles who wrote:
“Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy”
As with so many other of our feelings we both have to be careful not to shun them and be careful not to let them carry us away. We have to exercise control at times, but not so much control that we lose touch with what our feelings are telling us about what we need and who we are.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas. I help people get to the bottom of their anger problems.