So what is anger anyway? A quick Google search reveals that anger is “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.”1 Wikipedia states it this way: “Anger is an emotion related to one’s psychological interpretation of having been offended, wronged or denied, and a tendency to react through retaliation.”2 The idea of being offended, wronged or even threatened is key here. When we perceive our central value system (who we are and what is important to us) to be opposed, disregarded, challenged or ignored, chances are we will experience anger.
So is anger bad?
Anger is neither bad nor good in the normal sense. Anger is like the sensation of pain you would get if you put your hand on a hot stove. Both sensations, anger and the pain in your hand, serve a function. They tell you: “HEY, PAY ATTENTION SOMETHING IS WRONG.” Anger gets a really bad reputation in part because it feels so bad (inside your head) and in part because it usually feels pretty bad to the person you express it to. Anger feels so bad that we spend large amounts of energy avoiding it. It’s this avoidance that really creates most of the problem. Anger is a powerful and unpleasant emotion. To have effective anger management and non-abusive anger expression, we need to change some of our beliefs about anger and practice communication skills that work.
Avoiding anger and viewing it negatively is almost universally common. It’s in fact so common, that people have been avoiding it for generation after generation. This creates a problem because anger, unlike the burning sensation I compared it to earlier, does not work very well on autopilot. Anger is much more like the sensation of hunger.
Imagine a 1-year-old child learning to feed himself. Initially, he will make quite a mess, throwing food everywhere in attempts to quell the physical sensation. Through parental guidance, examples, and daily observation, the child witnesses the “rules” of eating. As the child matures, he learns to manage his hunger in a socially accepted fashion. Now imagine what eating might look like if it was never guided at all, or if it was misguided.
As you imagine this scenario, you begin to see the problem with anger management. Unfortunately, parents aren’t very good at teaching anger management, probably because they never learned the skill themselves. They are, however, often very good at teaching poor ways to express, process and respond to anger. Hence, what they teach and pass on to their children is often a very ineffective anger management skill set.
From watching those around us, most of us have learned from example how anger is dealt with in our world. If anger is expressed badly, and people are hurt, we end up with the belief that anger itself is bad. This then leads us to the inevitable conclusion that if we have anger (and everyone does), then “we are (or I am) bad.”
Why is anger management such a problem?
It often boils down to: How did my parents, my people, do anger? If screaming is okay, or if Mom or Dad get violent or make mean jokes, then that is how anger is expressed. If my parents responded to anger by becoming silent, withdrawn or by avoiding anger, then it’s likely that I will handle anger that way as well. Some readers may be thinking “but my Dad screamed and yelled and punched holes in the wall and I don’t do that.” Often children will vow not to express anger the way their parent does. Although this usually results in a change of behavior, the anger and the beliefs about anger are still present, and usually anger is still expressed in very damaging ways.
Of course, the examples above are only a few ways that anger can go wrong. Some people express anger passive-aggressively with gossip, jokes, undermining, or being angry at a third party who has a relationship with the person they are really angry at.
Others turn their anger inward and they develop physical symptoms such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, eczema, heart conditions or other physical health issues. With inwardly directed anger, emotional/mental symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or addiction can also develop.
Some angry people develop a codependence around another angrier person. As long as there is a significant person in their lives who is angry, they can point at that person and say “they are the angry one, not me.” They often find subtle ways to provoke the more visibly angry person in order to maintain the illusion that the other has an anger problem and they don’t.
When you don’t have good anger management, it either gets bottled up or released in equally unhealthy ways. Our anger damages us and the people we care about. Our poorly expressed anger also continues the cycle, as we teach our children how to express their anger.
Ineffective anger management skills almost always cause a buildup of anger in individuals, and in the people they are closest to. When a situation that stimulates anger happens, people with poor anger management skills will still be angry from last time. They will also fear expressing anger because they are afraid of getting hurt again. This combination cause anger to remain unresolved and to build. Eventually, there is an emotional explosion which only serves to reinforce the cycle. In this pattern, people end up with a lot of old anger and no resolution, and it continues to be cyclical, building more each time.
As people continue on in this cycle, often an underlying sense of shame and hopelessness can develop. The unconscious thought process looks something like this:
“If being angry equals being bad,” and “I have lots of old anger that amplifies and increases the frequency of my new anger,” and “I constantly seem to hurt the ones I love,” and “nothing I’ve tried really seems to resolve my anger or fix my relationships.” With this thinking it’s no wonder that anxiety, depression, insomnia, addictions, and other mentally and emotionally distressing conditions can develop. People with anger management issues are often deeply ashamed of themselves.
There is Hope!
Developing good anger management requires changing your self-perception, and learning a new set of communication skills. First, you need to accept that anger is a beneficial warning system. Second, you need to change the lie that you are bad because you experience anger. After that, you will need to learn to express your anger precisely and briefly at a moderate-intensity level. You will also need to take ownership of your own feelings. It is you who views the action as threatening and offensive. You might need to alter your belief of what a threat is, and realize the interpretation is your own choosing. For example, if someone you’re meeting is late, you could react with concern, or you could react with irritation or maybe you don’t even care. If you’re cut off in traffic, is it really personal or should it just be ignored? If someone seems to be ignoring you, is that about you or are they are simply preoccupied with something totally unrelated, and not even aware of the supposed slight. How you perceive what’s happening will play a significant role in determining if anger develops or not. And yes, there are times when the sensation of anger is warranted. When this is the case, you need to learn to express your anger in a way that is not abusive, and you will need to take assertive (non-abusive) actions to look after yourself.
To prevent anger from compounding, and damaging us and the ones we love, we need to unlearn bad reactions and create new ways of responding. Old and new anger can are also relieved through forgiveness and healing the way you have been hurt.
Realizing that anger is neither positive nor negative of itself, but dependent on our belief about the individual situation, we can learn to control this emotion. With good anger management skills in place, threats in our environment can be placed in proper perspective, and relationships can improve. This process almost always requires the support of people who care about you, and who have already developed good relational and anger management skills. Start the journey by selecting the contact tab below and book an appointment, or give my office a call. Let’s start the healing today.