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 do not 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-defence 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 tend 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, does not 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.
Continued in Part 2
Psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune Moelbak
About him: He is Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas.