Anger, a feeling like any other, is a part of each of us. We all experience some level of anger at some moment in our lives, ranging from the mildest irritation to the darkest rage. When we think of anger issues it is often the more volcanic end of the spectrum we think of; it’s more disruptive, destructive qualities. But, like all things, anger has a flipside, and it can be important to remind ourselves of anger’s positive qualities in learning how to channel it more constructively.
A natural emotion, anger is an integral part of our evolutionary make up, which, in less civilised periods in our history, helped us detect and respond to threatening situations. In more modern times, anger remains an ally, telling us what we will or will not tolerate, and where our boundaries lie as we fumble our way through life.
There will be many times in our lives too when anger is an appropriate response; a natural response to being unfairly hurt, criticised, or violated. Anger can also motivate us, pushing us onwards to achieve the things we want in life, giving us impetus to change those aspects of our lives that we’re not happy with.
If only anger were to remain within these constructive confines, it needn’t ever be something that would concern us. However, at times anger does get out of control, turning into destructive or even violent behaviour, causing problems for those around us, at home or at work, and eventually affecting our health and overall happiness.
Often anger has an irrational quality, for example when small things that don’t appear to warrant strong anger can cause intense feelings or explosive outbursts. This can make anger seem absurd. Rather than admit this absurdity, to ourselves or others, we instead take solace in the nobility of our cause and we feel righteous and justified in taking our anger out on others.
Another irrational quality of anger is how often we use it to hurt ourselves. Perhaps we meet someone, a friend or a stranger, and they say something intended to insult us. They only intended to insult us once but we take and repeat it in our minds, perhaps ten times, perhaps a hundred times. Some insults we carry for the rest of our lives. The person only intended to insult us once and use this insult to injure ourselves multiples times over. This is the irrationality of anger.
Perhaps some small thing has made us so angry we’ve wanted to lash out, shout or throw something. Or perhaps a partner or a colleague has inflicted what may seem to others a petty injury yet which to us is a substantial wound. We may find ourselves so enraged we feel like shouting at them or wanting to hurt them. This sort of angry outburst, repeated often enough, can have a devastating impact on our relationships, both professionally and personally, causing even more misery.
Another irrational quality of anger is that a surge of anger like this often escalates rather than solves problems. And in some cases, its counter-productivity is matched by its dangerousness. In extreme cases, this kind of outburst, if it leads to some sort of violent confrontation, can put ourselves and those close to us in danger.
As Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations, ‘How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.’
If we find ourselves too often experiencing this level of anger in our lives, it may be time to sit back, take stock, and consider the causes and the effects such rage has on both us and our environment.
As often as anger is projected outwards, it too can find inward expression; in the form of suppressed or repressed anger. In cases like these, we find that anger has turned back on ourselves.
Often we repress our anger when we’ve been given the message that it is not ok to feel angry and so we develop ways of squashing it down, keeping it out of sight and mind, quite often unaware of how angry we truly are. Perhaps as children we’ve been taught that it isn’t very nice to be angry. Perhaps as adults we feel guilty at we harbour malevolent feelings or that we secretly plot revenge, especially towards our loved ones. Rather than admit to this ugly side of ourselves, we hide such feelings away. At times these unruly emotions may threaten our self-image. We see ourselves as kindly or sympathetic and rather than admit an uncomfortable truth to ourselves we keep our anger hidden in the shadows.
Suppressed anger can manifest non-verbally, as when a partner or colleague is subject to the silent treatment because conversation has become too difficult for us. Passive-aggressive communication is another way suppressed anger finds expression, for example via sarcasm or ‘humour’. While these modes of communication may seem beneficial in the short-term, at the very least as a punishment for our persecutors, ultimately they are unhelpful. They don’t really get at the things that truly bother us. How can the world give us what we want when we haven’t really learned to express our needs?
This type of anger, when it doesn’t find outward expression, often has the unfortunate effect of turning back in on us. It eats us up, leading to symptoms such as depression, self-harm, or low self-esteem. Some of us can end up turning to substance abuse to help cope with these feelings, or we end up engaging in other self-destructive behaviours.
The Buddha said something to the effect of holding on to anger is like holding a hot coal. We intend to throw it at someone else, but, not letting it go, we end up burning ourselves.
How do we find the balance between expressing our anger, and not expressing it in a way that hurts others? The first thing to remember is that anger management counselling is not about getting ‘rid’ of our anger but understanding it and helping us to find a healthier way to express such feelings what it is.
We can’t control the external situations that might provoke our anger, but we can learn to manage our internal attitude to them through counselling. One of the first things is learning to recognise the triggers which ignite anger. In doing so we learn how better to manage them. In the safety of the therapy room we learn which triggers precipitate your anger so you can begin to develop the skills you need to handle them more effectively.
Other skills include developing coping strategies to better manage anger-provoking situations, discovering which physically de-escalate intense anger to prevent you from losing control. We also learn to replace old habits which contribute to escalation and replace these habits with strategies which give more positive results.
We work to uncover any other emotions that might be entangled within the anger – such as fear, shame, guilt, or embarrassment – which may be having an impact on you leading to angry confrontation or self-harm.
In cases of repressed anger, we try to uncover why you find it difficult to express such emotions, recognise the ways this has been harmful to you, and slowly begin to find a way to express these feelings in a way that is healthy and more productive.
We also learn to take responsibility for our angry feelings, to own those feelings, we can manage them better and not act them out in destructive ways. We learn also to communicate less aggressively and turn destructive behaviours into more constructive responses as you learn to understand the causes of your anger and set it in context.
Ultimately, learning to manage our anger constructively and channel it properly we can improve our self-confidence, bring harmony to our relationships, and contribute to success in our work-lives.
About the author:
Declan Gernon is one of our team at The Therapy Centre. He’s an experienced and compassionate counsellor and works with anger management and other issues. To read more of his writing visit his website.