To Be Or Not To Be… Angry

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  • September 2, 2014

Anger is a powerful emotion. Not only is anger one of the most difficult emotions to manage it is also one of the most dangerous. Anger has the power to wreak havoc in your life. It can ruin important relationships and destroy your physical health and psychological well-being.

The uncontrolled expression of anger can cause you to deeply wound those you love; it can result in physical violence and emotional abuse; and the aftermath of anger can leave you feeling ashamed, miserable, and out of control. Angry people are usually viewed by others as being unpredictable, immature, and difficult to be around. While anger expressed outwardly can get you into big trouble, bottled up anger or anger turned inward can be just as risky. Anger is energy and that energy has to go somewhere. Repressed anger can lead to increased heart rate, high blood pressure, irritability, depression, muscle tension, headaches, eating disorders, addictions, a compromised immune system, and a lethal buildup of resentment.

Many people try to control their anger by keeping it in but then they explode in rage after a period of time. They develop a cycle of angry episodes followed by periods of calm and then a gradual buildup until the next explosion. Others keep their anger in but it repeatedly leaks out in bitterness or in subtle hurtful behaviors. Examples of these behaviors include the silent treatment, physical withdrawal, frequent critical or negative comments, gossiping, forgetting to do important tasks, being late, or breaking things.

People often ask, “What do I do with my anger?” It may be the anger of the moment, it may be the anger of childhood, or it may be the accumulation of anger from a long period of unhappiness that has developed into an angry habit. There is a healthy alternative to exploding in rage or imploding in silence, but first you need to understand the anatomy of anger.

Like all of our other emotions, anger is a useful and necessary indication of your inner experience. If you want to remain healthy and happy your emotions must be acknowledged as an important part of you and incorporated into your response to the world around you. In other words, you need to understand your anger and work with that energy as a tool to improve your life instead of allowing that energy to destroy your life.

To understand anger, you must see it as a secondary and reactive emotion. Anger is an instinctive act of self-preservation. Your anger is like a shield that you hold out in front of you to protect yourself. If you look behind the barricade of your anger you will find the feelings of fear, hurt, or frustration. These are the real emotions that you have to deal with. This is the area of your vulnerability and it is very uncomfortable and scary. Let’s look at these deeper emotions one at a time.

The big fears that are usually at the core of anger include a fear of being out of control, of being alone, of being rejected and unloved, and being afraid of physical pain and death. Your anger is an attempt to regain control, to prevent someone from leaving you, to prove that you have value and are worthy of love, and to protect your emotional and physical life at all costs.

The hurt that is behind your anger is usually emotional pain but physical pain leads to anger as well. Think about young children. When one child hits another, the immediate reaction is to hit back; “You hurt me so I will hurt you”. Again, your anger in the face of emotional pain is a way of trying to block the hurt and to protect yourself by hurting back. The hurt in adult relationships can frequently be traced back to the emotional wounds of unmet needs that occurred in childhood. These wounds are triggered when others fail to meet our expectations in adulthood.

When frustration is the driving emotion behind your anger, it is usually the frustration of a lack of control. You are frustrated that other people or the world in general doesn’t do what you want them to do. You are having a temper tantrum because things are not going your way and you use your anger to try to change that circumstance.

So now that you have some idea about what might be behind your anger, how do you use this information to transform your anger into something useful? Here’s what you do.

First, feel and acknowledge your anger. Do not ignore it or repress it. Your anger is a healthy emotion and if you push one emotion down, you will have to push them all down. Not only will you end up with a pile of anger inside of you, but also you will eventually lose all of the joy, enthusiasm, and love in your life. You will become depressed, feel emotionally numb or empty, or you will become a bitter and cranky person.

Second, take responsibility for your anger. It is your emotion and it is up to you to deal with it. Other people or events don’t “make” you angry. Other people are the way they are and events happen, but you choose how you respond to the world around you. Don’t blame others or life in general for your bad behavior. Responding in anger to a situation is one of your choices; it is not your only choice.

Third, take control of your anger instead of allowing it to control you. You can feel and acknowledge your anger without hurling all of that energy outward. Decide that you will not react. Decide that you will choose your response once you have made some sense out of your feelings of anger.

Fourth, look behind your anger to see which of the underlying emotions has been triggered. Can you see that anger does not help the situation when you are feeling fear, hurt or frustration? Anger is destructive. When you direct your anger at someone else, you may get their compliance in the moment, but emotionally they will pull farther away from you because of their fear or dislike of you. In the long run, your anger will cost you everything that is important to you.

If you are feeling fear, acknowledge your fear and think of healthy and constructive ways of calming your fear. If you express your fear honestly you are far more likely to get what you need from yourself or from someone else. Remind yourself that you have everything you need to survive. You can live alone and take care of yourself in this world, you do have value and, as an adult, you can give yourself the love you need.

If you find feelings of hurt when you look behind your anger, it is usually because another person has poked at your childhood wounds or has otherwise failed to meet your expectations. If your childhood wounds are generating your anger, go into therapy and begin to heal around these issues. Instead of being angry in your relationships, you can clarify your expectations and negotiate your expectations with the important people in your life. If another person is not willing or able to meet your expectations you can change your expectations, or you can accept the relationship the way it is, or you can choose to leave the relationship. It doesn’t matter how right you think you are, the one choice that you don’t have is to change another person.

If frustration is at the root of your anger, then you must accept that you cannot control others and the world around you. You may certainly express your frustration and try to influence your outer world but the only person you really have control over is you. Try changing yourself, try different ways to get what you want, try changing your goals, and try to accept others the way they are. These techniques work far better than anger in easing your frustration. You will be surprised at how your experience with others and the world changes when you change yourself.

You will inevitably find yourself angry in the course of your life. When you feel the energy of anger building, make a conscious decision to look behind the shield of your anger to find your deeper more vulnerable feelings of fear, hurt, and frustration. This is where your true power lies, not in your anger.

When you work with your anger in the ways described above, you will learn that you can survive your tender feelings and use them to make yourself stronger from within. You will feel happier and more peaceful, your relationships will improve and you will be physically and psychologically healthier. You will discover that these feelings are an essential part of being fully alive and of being actively engaged in the world.

Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.
Consulting Psychologist
To Be Or Not To Be… Angry