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The Upside of Anger

Anger is not a 'bad' emotion. There are no bad emotions. Our feelings give us valuable information. Let us for a moment compare anger to a physical sensation you might feel in your body. If you put your hand down on a boiling radiator the negative sensation in your body would inform you that you need to remove your hand, thus keeping you safe. Anger works in much the same way. It gives us information about our world and about our interactions with others. If you are left short in your paycheck at work you might feel angry. As a result, you might contact the HR department to get your wages sorted out. If your friend borrows an item of clothing from you and doesn't return it, you might start to feel annoyed and ask for it back. If you are always the one who has to put on the washing, your anger might lead you into a confrontation with your partner about shared responsibilities. Anger tells us when our boundaries have been crossed, it informs us when something is wrong and it drives us to fix the problem. This is the upside of anger. As an emotional response anger is never wrong, it is simply information. What can be more destructive and problematic is how we chose to deal with anger. From this point of view, it might be more healthy to use the terms 'action management' rather than 'anger management' as it is our actions that might need work rather than anger itself. There are a number of ways in which anger can be responded to and these can be healthy responses or unhealthy response. Identifying and evaluating your responses can be the first step in addressing unhealthy behaviours.

Problem Responses to Anger

Not identifying underlying emotions

Often anger is a secondary emotion. It may be preceded by another emotion such as hurt, shame, embarrassment or fear. For some people, anger can be seen as a safer or 'stronger' emotion than the more vulnerable ones listed above. However, if the underlying feeling is ignored or left unidentified then communication can break down. For example, imagine a parent waiting to cross a traffic light with their child. The child runs across the road before the lights have changed. The parent may feel a surge of anger and lash out at the child. The parent is then left feeling bad for losing control and the child is upset and confused. In this situation, fear for the child's safety led to the emotion of anger. Communicating this fear to the child puts perspective on the angry emotion and allows the child to understand the danger without feeling scared. The parent gets to address their feelings and communicate them their child without losing control.

Aggressive Anger

Aggressive expressions of anger could be anything from making angry threats to doing serious physical harm to another. At any point on the aggressive spectrum, this expression of anger is destructive. There is no healthy communication with the other person and therefore no way to resolve the conflict in a reasonable way. There can be serious consequences for both people; the aggressive individual could face legal action while the recipient could be left psychologically or physically harmed.

Passive-aggressive anger

When anger is expressed passive-aggressively, this can cause a lot of pain for both the person themselves and the recipient. In passive-aggressive displays of anger, the anger is indirectly expressed. Examples include being generally hostile, being uncooperative, moodiness, stonewalling or giving someone the silent treatment, making smart remarks etc. This kind of behaviour can be very confusing and unnerving for the recipient. While feeling that there is something wrong, they will not know exactly what it is as the reason has not been communicated. The person behaving passive-aggressively often feels trapped in a cycle of unhelpful behaviour from which they cannot escape. In this type of expression, anger tends to fester, generating bad feeling and breaking down relationships.

Anger turned inward

In this case, the person cannot express anger outwardly at all. Bad feelings are held on to and internalised. Negative rumination and self-criticism are common. Often physical aches and pains or illnesses crop up as feelings are left unprocessed. Anger may express as depression or apathy.

Healthy Expressions of Anger

Assertive Anger

Assertive expressions of anger are healthy and constructive. When anger is expressed assertively the person takes responsibility for their own emotions. They communicate their anger with words and in language which expresses their responsibility for their feelings ("I am feeling angry because..." rather than "you made me angry..."). Rather than being about telling the other person off, the purpose is to open a channel of communication in which the problem can be solved. Feedback from the other person is respected and used to further that conversation.

Important points to remember:

  • Anger is a normal emotion and all emotions are okay.

  • Our emotions give us important information, anger tells us when our boundaries have been crossed or an injustice had been done.

  • It is our behaviour in response to anger that can cause trouble.

  • Negative expressions of anger create problems for ourselves and others.

  • Anger is best expressed constructively and assertively.

Think about how you respond to anger. Can you identify with any of the responses mentioned above? Do you have any unhealthy responses to anger? Can you see the benefits of expressing your anger more assertively? If you feel you would like help in dealing with your anger responses, therapy can be a good place to start. It can help you to examine and evaluate your behaviours and establish a plan for change if change is needed.

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