By Dr. Melissa Kulick, PhD, RYT
Though so many of us fear it and judge it negatively, both in ourselves and in others, anger is a normal human emotion. It does, in fact, serve a purpose, as do all emotions. Our experience of anger tells us that something is wrong and needs our attention; it is a natural response to a perceived threat. It is there to protect us. Anger also helps motivate and provide the energy for change, both on individual and larger socio-cultural levels.
The truth is, that few things are inherently and absolutely good or bad; what matters more and determines an object’s or experience’s value is what we do with it. Our experiences of anger exist on a continuum from mild irritation to rage, and there is a difference between feeling angry and acting angry. We will talk here in terms of healthy versus unhealthy ways of handling anger. There are three basic categories to choose from when deciding how we will respond when feeling angry: suppression; expression and calm.
Suppressing (holding in, ignoring or denying) our anger is never healthy. Suppressing anger turns the energy of the anger inward and can lead on a more physical level to hypertension (high blood pressure) and depression. It can also result in (either conscious or unconscious) unhealthy indirect expressions of negative feeling. People who more typically use this mode of relating to anger can tend towards being critical, cynical and/or passive-aggressive. These folks are often not pleasant to be around and this can significantly impact their relationships in a negative way.
Why do we inhibit our anger?
One significant factor is our history – what we experienced and observed, especially as we were growing up, of what happened when someone “got angry.” This was powerful learning for us. If we learned that anger always lead to violence, pain and hurt – or that expression of anger resulted in abandonment – it is unlikely that we will feel safe expressing our anger. We also may have heard messages growing up that “nice people don’t get angry.” In either of these scenarios it is also likely that we never had the opportunity to have modeled for us what healthy anger expression would look like.
Issues of self-worth also contribute to the inhibition of anger expression. Simply put, if we don’t feel good about ourselves we are unlikely to see ourselves as worth standing up for. Feeling bad about ourselves can also lead to inappropriate, indirect (passive aggressive) or unhealthy aggressive (see below) expressions of anger and can result in an unfortunate self-perpetuating and -reinforcing cycle of low self-esteem and even shame.
To express is to communicate, in some form or fashion. There are both healthy and unhealthy ways to express anger.
Unhealthy Anger Expression
Unhealthy anger expression comes in several shapes and sizes. When we engage in manipulation, resistance, withholding or avoidance as a way of communicating anger, we are expressing anger in an indirect and “passive-aggressive” manner. Sarcasm is also an indirect way of expressing anger veiled by humor. As mentioned above, criticism and cynicism can also be used as indirect ways of expressing anger.
Anger can also be expressed in direct ways that are unhealthy – as physical or verbal (by words chosen and/or tone and volume employed) aggression.
Why might we act aggressively?
Again, we start with history. If our models for dealing with anger were aggressive and violent, this is how we learned to do it. The value of a healthy model for anger cannot be overestimated. I must stress here that because anger expression is a learned behavior, it is still very possible to acquire that learning even as an adult (in this case you really can teach an old dog new tricks.)
Anger is a surface emotion; there are always other emotions underlying our anger. Very often that emotion is fear or hurt, but we may also first experience anger when, deeper down, we are feeling sadness, loneliness, powerlessness, hopelessness, grief/loss, shame or other emotions. While many of us feel inhibited in expressing anger, anger can also be used as a defensive, safer response to feeling or expressing these other emotions. In this way, anger can be more about pushing people away and saying we don’t need them – an expression of invulnerability, whereas these other “softer” emotions are more about acknowledging a desire for comfort or support, which may feel too risky and vulnerable to do. If the underlying emotion becomes overwhelming (and especially if we never learned healthy ways of coping with the underlying feelings) or the perceived threat of vulnerability becomes that large (and the need for protection that strong), the anger may erupt aggressively.
Low self esteem and shame can be particularly susceptible to triggering aggressive defensive responses in us. Shame, by its very nature, is motivated to keep itself hidden, and it is very easy to fall into what is known as a shame-rage cycle that looks like: 1) we’ve made a mistake and we react internally to judge ourselves as bad and unworthy because of it, 2)we believe we need to protect ourselves both from completely acknowledging what we believe to be the truth of our unworthiness and especially from others finding this out, 3)so we act defensively and aggressively in order to establish the other person(s) as the bad one(s), 4) but on some deeper level we know what we are doing and are now only compounding and reinforcing the truth of our badness (as evidenced by our attacking behavior), 5) leading us back to shame and its need to keep itself hidden and protected, and the cycle continues.
Healthy Anger Expression
When we express anger in a healthy way we are communicating our experience to another person in such a way that we are “owning” the experience as our own and still leaving room for others to have their own experiences. It is an honest and direct communication of our concerns in a way that is not intended to exert control over or make others feel bad. This is what is known as being assertive. Using I-statements (e.g., “I felt hurt when you didn’t call me back when I expected you to”) is a key aspect of assertive communication. When we are passive, we are essentially saying that “you are more important than me.” When we are aggressive, we saying that “I am more important than you.” When we are assertive, we are saying that “we are both important and deserve respect.”
The third approach to dealing with anger within us is to start by seeking to calm the mental and physical energy that accompanies anger, allowing us the opportunity to make a more conscious and intentional choice in responding to the situation. By doing this, we increase the likelihood that we will be able to express our anger in a more healthy, assertive way. It provides us with an increased sense of internal control which then offers us the ability to take the time to further assess the situation and decide, not out of fear and avoidance but from a more detached perspective, if something still needs to be expressed. We can then also be intentional in how we choose to communicate the issue to others.
The strategies employed in calming this angry energy are often referred to as anger management, and include techniques for addressing both the way we are responding inside our heads (our thinking) and the level of arousal in our bodies.
Cognitive Anger Management
This means exploring and changing how we think. So much of our anger can be brought on by assumptions and interpretations that we make about others’ actions and, particularly, the intentions and motivations of others’ actions. Being willing to acknowledge these assumptions and then being willing to challenge them within your head (asking yourself if there are other possible reasonable explanations for the other person’s behavior) or even clarify your interpretation with the other person, is an incredible tool in managing our anger reactions.
Exploring and learning to identify the feelings that underlie our anger (and then learning how and being willing to express those) is another. You can also assess your current stressors: are you tired, hungry or under significant stress in your life? Any of these factors can make us more susceptible and sensitive to irritability and quick-temperedness.
At times we carry leftover hurts and angers around with us, unable to let them go, and these “triggers” amplify our anger reactions to present situations. Forgiveness is something that is incredibly difficult for many people, mostly because it is often very misunderstood. When we forgive someone, we are not saying that what that person did was okay; it simply means that you are refusing to continue to carry the weight and pain of that grudge around with you anymore. Letting go of resentment isn’t about letting others off the hook, it’s about giving ourselves relief from our own pain, on our own terms, and refusing to continue to create more unnecessary pain.
Other cognitive approaches to anger management include moving from being stuck fuming in our anger to using the energy of the anger to fuel us toward problem-solving. Creating a plan of action can defuse built-up mental tension. Humor, especially silly and creative humor, can also be an effective way to reduce excessive anger. When we get really angry, we can tread onto the ground of moral/righteous indignation, adamantly assured of our supreme rightness. Creating an image of taking this to an extreme by picturing ourselves in crown and robes as ruler of the universe can be a humorous way of helping us gain a little perspective. Using humor to de-escalate our anger does not, however, mean using sarcasm, which is actually an indirect, passive-aggressive way of expressing anger.
Physical Anger Management
These techniques are primarily designed to reduce the physiological arousal – the rush and build-up of physical energy – in our bodies. There are many practices that can be used to either soothe or release this energy. Taking a simple deep breath and hesitating before we speak allows us to slow down our process and gives us the chance to be more choiceful in our response. Slow, deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing through our nostrils can help lower our heart rate and soothe our nervous system. (Breathing done through the mouth and only into our chest is more likely to excite our system and can lead to hyperventilation.) Slowly repeating a calming word or phrase (e.g., “relax”, “stay calm”), while breathing can increase the calming benefit. Using imagery and visualization of peaceful scenes also reduces our agitation level. Yoga is a form of physical exercise that can be used both to slow down and calm ourselves and to more vigorously move energy through our bodies, depending on the specifics of your yoga practice that day. Any form of physical exercise or exertion can potentially help us blow off some steam and put us in a space where we are more able to approach issues that concern us in a less reactive, more reasoned way. Running (or a brisk walk), jumping rope, hitting a punching bag, even rearranging the furniture, are all forms of this kind of activity.
Again, keep in mind that “managing your anger” really means managing your level of felt disturbance so you can then better assess what your anger is trying to tell you –what needs to be addressed – and then to do so in a healthy, direct manner that is respectful to all persons involved.
Overcoming Anger: How to Identify It, Stop It, and Live a Healthier Life by Carol D. Jones, Ph.D.
Facing the Fire by John Lee