Anger is like a wild animal trying to deliver an urgent message. The better our ability to control that animal and interpret its message, the better we make our lives, and the lives of those around us.
Because of its volatile nature and reputation for violence, anger is typically considered a negative emotion, but it can be used to positive effect. Anger, in giving us a strong surge of feelings, can motivate us to change our behavior, stand against injustice, and protect our interests.
But often this force proves to be more than we can handle. According to Dr. Kate Balestrieri, a clinical and forensic psychologist working in Los Angeles, anger is one of the least understood and most feared emotions, because many of us recall bad examples of how to handle it.
“Anger is really scary for a lot of people because they haven’t had good models for how to use anger productively,” Balestrieri said.
At its best, anger pushes us toward good communication. It helps us identify a problem we couldn’t quite detect before, and express it in a way that can bring about a desired change.
However, transforming our primal fury into a convincing call to action is notoriously tough.
“Anybody can become angry—that is easy,” said the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. “But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
We can try to deny our anger, but we can never escape it because the animal will just find more covert ways to bite back. Balestrieri says people who ignore their frustrated feelings often end up acting them out in a passive-aggressive manner. When they’re questioned about their behavior, they may still insist there is nothing wrong.
“It’s especially damaging to our loved ones when we deny our own anger, because that kind of gaslighting really separates people from their intuition,” she said.
One reason for why we deny our anger is that it can give us a sense of power and conviction that we may not be ready to own. Anger is often rooted in conflict, which most of us seek to avoid.
Another reason is cultural baggage. Anger is a human emotion, but it has a masculine edge. So women may hold back for fear of being labeled a nag, or worse.
Whatever the reason for why you struggle to admit your anger, Balestrieri suggests approaching it in steps.
“People will say, ‘I’m not angry, I’m irritated.’ Guess what, you’re still angry, it’s just a smaller dose,” Balestrieri said. “Irritated, frustrated, annoyed—those are all in the anger family. If people can get in touch with the fact that they’re irritated, then they can get in touch with the fact that they’re angry.”
After we can admit to ourselves that we’re angry, the next step is sharing it with others when it’s relevant. Take a moment before saying it out loud to consider how best to express it, but don’t let it linger. The longer we wait, the worse it can get.
Laura MacLeod is a consultant, therapist and creator of the Inside Out Project— a non-profit dedicated to making the work environment more harmonious. MacLeod has seen several employees carry long grudges over conflicts that could have been resolved in moments. She mentions one staff meeting in which a worker confessed to anger because a coworker hadn’t accepted his apology three months before.
“The coworker had no idea this was a problem. She barely remembered the incident, but was verbally attacked for her lack of empathy,” MacLeod said. “Group members began to take sides or try to calm the mess, but it was too late.”
What is MacLeod’s advice? Don’t let anger fester.
“Do your best to get right to the source of it,” she said. “Waiting allows it to build unreasonably, and by holding on and not saying anything, you are denying the other person the opportunity to straighten it out with you.”
While some try to hide from their anger, others seem to approach everything from an angry angle. Particularly for those desperate for a sense of authority and confidence, anger is more than a temporary reaction—it can become a way of life.
According to Dr. Thomas Harbin, a clinical psychologist in North Carolina specializing in the treatment of male anger, a lot of chronically angry men suffer from deep doubts about their worth. To keep their doubts at bay, they’re always on the defensive.
“They feel inferior and will react strongly to anything that looks, sounds, or feels like a threat or an insult,” Harbin said.
For anger to be constructive, it requires some self-control and the desire for resolution. If you find yourself losing it over trivial things, holding bitterness, or erupting regularly into violent meltdowns when you don’t get your way, your expression has become destructive.
“Anger is an appropriate emotion in certain circumstances, but if it becomes habitual, if it becomes an automatic way of responding to the world, that is what I call rage,” Harbin said.
Although rage is considered an extreme form of anger, to Balestrieri, it is primarily about panic.
“There might have been some anger along the way, but when we’re acting out of rage, it’s usually a fear-based response,” she said. “That’s why it feels so disproportionately intense to whatever triggers the rage.”
Giving Anger a Voice
Destructive and unexpressed anger can have big consequences for our relationships and our health. Researchers have linked the extremes of anger (both full-blown and repressed rage) with heart disease and cancer. One study found that our risk for a heart attack is eight-and-a-half times more than normal in the two hours following an intense outburst of anger.
In traditional Chinese medicine, in which each of our organs is believed to embody a different emotion, anger resides in the liver and gallbladder. Healthy expression of this emotion contributes to the free flow of qi and a strong will. However, Chinese doctors say under-expressing or overindulging in anger can harm the liver, resulting in symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, and digestive distress.
One way or another, any anger we hold will get out. The challenge is giving it an appropriate voice. Find a way to deliver its message, but don’t let its brute force run the show.
According to Rev. Sheri Heller, a New York City-based psychotherapist and interfaith minister who specializes in severe trauma, anger is an instinct we’re born with, but learning how to handle it properly is an acquired skill.
Anger can be “destructive craziness,” said Heller, but can also be a source of power.
Heller’s first step in handling anger is “know thyself.” Explore what sets you off, and why, so it doesn’t take you by surprise when sensitive topics emerge.
Next, realize that anger is a signal that something is not right. While it may seem noble or enlightened to never get upset, Heller says this is neither realistic nor healthy. It’s good to let the small things go, but even Jesus got angry when he saw money changers in the temple, and when his apostles abandoned him.
“Part of our spiritual evolution is grappling with all facets of who we are,” Heller said. “You can deny your own humanity, but it won’t allow you to confront whatever shame you may have about our foibles and difficulties as human beings.”
Although it’s tempting to air your grievances when you’re riled up, try talking about them after you’ve calmed down. It’s a relief to get something off your chest, but doing so when you’re fighting mad may sabotage your ultimate goal. Unbridled fury communicates that we’re upset, but it often pushes us further away from a resolution. That’s because it obscures the points we wish to convey and typically results in doing or saying things we later regret.
It can be tough to pull back on such strong feelings—especially if you’re accustomed to boiling over. But learning to keep your rage on a short leash is critical for constructive dialogue.
“Humility is such a powerful strength, because it allows us to not take things so personally,” Heller said.
Finally, remember that finding the right expression for your anger takes practice. Balestrieri says we need to acknowledge when we fumble, and work to make it right.
“No one is perfect with any emotion,” she said. “It’s important to be compassionate with ourselves, but when we make a mess, we need to clean it up as quickly as we can.”