I think anger can be a good thing so I have mixed emotions about managing it. Like any part of our lives, anger needs to fit with who we are and where we are. And I don’t think that anger is necessarily bad.
I do think that when we are driven by anger we can end up doing things we regret (I have, and I don’t think I’m all that different to you). This is true of love too – I’ve done some very silly things even when motivated by love. And we don’t talk about ‘love management’.
So what about the violence and destruction that anger can wreak? Glad you asked.
Here is my take on violence. Violence is usually (in normal people’s lives) due to a feeling of powerlessness.
- We lash out when we feel we are cornered
- There usually isn’t much thinking involved when we are violent
- We usually feel that ‘there is nothing else I can do’
So remembering that we do have options will end a lot of violence.
- That we can (often) just walk away
- We can feel superior and walk away
- We can be humble and walk away
- We can state our point of view and not worry what others think about it
- We can take care of ourselves and our feelings
- We can own up to our part of a problem without taking responsibility for all of it
[This doesn't apply to when violence is being used as a 'policy' to gain what is desired – whether at the domestic, political or international level.]
Anger and Violence?
Why does anger so often lead to bad outcomes and violence? Because we aren’t educated about anger (or any of our emotions come to that). So we end up trying to control it completely or express it without thought, unchannelled by our values, in an impulsive way.
This is a losing scenario.
We try to hold something in; use more and more energy to do this; run out of energy; let it out in a rush in a way that is least likely to be helpful; regret the consequences; try to hold it in even more (look at the bad things that happened when I let it out!). Round and round it goes.
What is that alternative? That’s what I want to give you in this post. And it is based on understanding anger – the role it plays in our lives.
Anger is energy organized to defend ourselves. (This can be done by fight, flight or freezing.)
Which means that when we are angry:
- some kind of boundary has been crossed, or,
- something, or someone, we hold has been insulted, or,
- something, or someone, we value has been endangered.
We don’t get angry if we don’t care.
- If something we don’t care about is endangered we don’t get angry.
- If a person we don’t care about is insulted we don’t get angry.
Anger lets you know what you care about. And sometimes you didn’t realize that you cared so much – or even that you cared about something at all. Sometimes your anger blindsides you – and you are shocked by how enraged you are.
Your anger will tell you what you value – if you will listen. Which is where you might come up against your ‘shoulds’ and judgments. Saying that you shouldn’t be angry about something doesn’t help – it doesn’t help deal with the anger and it doesn’t help you understand yourself better. And judgments that whatever happened isn’t important enough to be angry about doesn’t help any more than they should.
Listen to Your Anger
By “listen” I mean give it the space needed to know it and consider it. The space to think and feel and speculate.
Take the time to know what it is that you are angry about. At the very least you will something about yourself.
This can take quite a while. This can involve writing speeches in your head (like I do),
- or stomping around,
- or journalling,
- or meditating,
- or lots of other things.
It may mean having some time and space to yourself – or the time and space to talk about what happened with someone else (who is a good listener).
If you feel that what happened is trivial compared to your reaction then this means what happened has hooked a bigger theme for you. The incident is a reminder or symbol of something you care a lot about.
- It is only a mild insult to my art, but creativity is sacred!
- OK, this person made an ill-informed judgment of my work; but my competence is central to who I am! (This is one of my big issues.)
- They don’t like my child’s hairdo; my child means the world to me!
When you have a big reaction to something small you can be sure that something big has been hooked. If you can take the time to listen to your anger you will learn how deeply you value:
- doing a good job
- your children
- or whatever it is for you.
Emotions Need to be Expressed
Holding in emotion doesn’t make it go away. What sometimes happens is that the holding in becomes habitual so that we are no longer aware of the holding in or the emotion. But this doesn’t mean it has gone away. With anger it may show up in indigestion or tight shoulders (and the consequent neck pain or headaches) or tight jaw muscles – and other ways too.
Usually, the expression of an emotion will involve others. Just having someone understand how angry we are can make a difference. Sometimes this is enough by itself. And sometimes it isn’t.
Expressing Anger Well
By expressing anger well I mean, as a minimum; that you express it in a way that does not harm yourself, other people, or the furniture.
You may be able to do this on your own:
- stomping around,
- throwing a tantrum on the bed (where it is soft – stay away from the walls and bed frame)
- kneeling by the bed and hitting it with a tennis racquet or rolled-up newspaper (you might need several they don’t last long once you get into the swing of it!)
Or you may need another (especially if you feel that you can only do full-on rage or total control). Which can mean things like:
- martial arts (the schools where respect is taught and machismo and showing off is avoided)
- self-defense classes (where you get to express it physically – e.g. against athletic mats)
- talking to a friend or someone who is a good listener
- talking to a ‘professional friend’ – a counselor or therapist
- there are anger management classes around
- there are also workbooks that you can use if you aren’t ready to talk to someone. (Amazon reviews provide a guide to what a book is like – this is more important than how many stars it is given.)
This minimum (expressing anger without damaging yourself, others, or the furniture) will take you a long way. You may not feel the need to go any further, or you may.
Anger is focused on energy. And you can use this energy for constructive change.
To use anger constructively means listening to your anger. Finding out what it is that you are angry about – what it is that is important to you. Then have a plan or vision of doing something differently or being different in some way. Usually, anger starts out defensively – wanting to be left alone to do what you want to do. This may be enough.
Or you may find that you are frustrated.
- You want to handle a situation differently.
- You want a different future to the one you are currently making.
- You want a relationship to benefit you as well as the other person.
- You want a social injustice to end.
And anger is energy to be used to do these things. Usually, it is the energy to get you started. Usually, you will need some kind of positive vision to keep you going.
A personal example. I once studied at an acupuncture college. One class, in particular, was dreadful. The lecturer simply read from a textbook – and I was meant to be happy to pay for this! I wasn’t!
After several of these classes getting more and more frustrated and furious I went’ home and said to myself, “This is [several expletives]; what is acupuncture really about?” The answer was three things (with various categories in each one; comprising about forty ideas you need to know to do acupuncture safely, reliably, and well).
I then checked against the standard texts. I tabulated all the points in the texts and what they were used for. My understanding fitted well with the existing texts.
All of which took many, many hours of work. And after the initial burst of activity fueled by anger was then motivated by finding a better way to teach acupuncture.
I think this is the way it usually works. Anger gets us moving in the right direction; this is then refined, a positive direction is found and constructive work begins.
For you, it will be something different. Perhaps in a relationship.
If there is something that bugs you about how someone relates to you:
- find out what it is that bugs you (quite clearly and in behavioral terms)
- consider possible changes
- could there be lots of ways for this relationship to be different? or
- is there a bottom line that you aren’t willing to compromise on anymore?
Perhaps you are unhappy with how you earn your income. There could be many reasons:
- It doesn’t make enough positive contribution to the world
- That co-worker is a right [insert your expletive of choice]
- It takes up too much of your time
- It is too tiring
Listening to your anger will help you zero in on what it is that is the problem
And there may be many solutions
- Finding different employment
- Complaining about that co-worker
- Starting a way of generating your own income that will possibly be less demanding and more lucrative
- Getting fitter or handling stress differently
Listening to your frustration and allowing yourself to plan and daydream will help you choose which option to pursue.
Anger is Good
Anger is a good thing that is very badly handled in our (western) culture.
Used well it has the potential to change our relationships, lives, and the world very much for the better.
You can begin with something as simple as noticing what makes you angry. It can take just a split second and a little attention. And it can be the beginning of a better life for you (and perhaps, eventually, even a slightly better world for all of us).
You are very welcome to tell me about your own experience of anger and how you manage it in the comments. I realize this is a big topic with lots of feelings around, but I think it is a very important one. All contributions are very welcome, I would love to hear from you.