Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a substantial amount of censoring of anger. People (especially in the self-help industry) often promote tips and tricks to erase this emotion. They see anger as something bad… something to avoid. But believe it or not, anger isn’t inherently negative. It is a biological emotion, which means that it exists for a reason – our system evolved over the eons and anger is part of the operating system. So anesthetizing or demonizing anger isn’t actually helpful. These tricks only make it fester under the surface.
Here’s the thing… anger is not the problem. It’s what we do when we’re angry that becomes the issue and causes suffering. This is usually due to the lack of coping skills we have to effectively express and direct the anger.
The Purpose of Anger
We experience anger because there is something in our environment that we need to be aware of. It actually serves as an alarm system, warning us about danger. Our biology evolved our emotional system to protect us. So we can look at anger as a protective mechanism, not as something bad. Anger is often responsible for letting us know when our boundaries have been crossed, when our values are at risk, or when we are not being true to ourselves. This warning signal also gives us motivation to change what isn’t working. Pay attention to signals. Rather than disavowing anger, take time to sit with it (but don’t take action) until you really understand what is making you angry.
When we get really angry, we go immediately into “fight or flight” mode. The cortisol and other neurotransmitters get revved up and we’re flooded with emotion. We tend to become reactive and aren’t often consciously thinking about what we say or do. That’s when our automatic reactions take over and we start acting on impulse.
The challenge is to strengthen your basic coping skills so that you can intentionally response to your anger, rather than blindly giving in to your knee-jerk reaction.
Getting to Know Your Anger
Before you take action on your anger, it’s helpful to explore what the anger is trying to tell you – then you can more effectively express and direct it to a helpful outcome. Journaling can help you express your anger. The many benefits of journaling, as a catharsis of stressful events, have been widely researched by several scientists, notably James Pennebaker.
According to Pennebaker’s research, writing about upsetting feelings or events in our lives can help us mentally and physically. There are also some specific approaches to journaling that his lab has found to be helpful.
Some tips for journaling include the following:
- Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed, such as at the end of the workday or before going to sleep.
- Write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 consecutive days.
- Once you begin journaling, write continuously. Release the urge to censor anything, just keep writing for 15 minutes.
- If unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.
- Afterwards, you can do whatever you want to with the written material, for example, rip it up and toss it in the garbage can.
Another way to explore your anger is by centering and grounding yourself. By grounding yourself, you can detach from the emotional triggers of the situation and look at your anger more objectively. This will help you formulate an effective way to respond to the situation.
Some tips for grounding include:
- Take 10 slow, deep breaths
- Go for a 5-minute walk
- Find a place where you can release the intensity of the anger – scream into a pillow, throw some rocks into a ravine, blast music in your car…
A Healthy Expression of Anger
Once you’ve explored your anger and understand what’s going on underneath the surface, you can figure out how you want to use it in a healthy, impactful way. You can use your anger to communicate what isn’t working for you. By communicating in an assertive (not aggressive) manner, people are usually more receptive to what you are saying. This can help facilitate very productive conversations about the situation and lead to changes that are respectful of your boundaries.
Some tips for healthy expressions of anger include:
- Notice what the specific behavior is that you would like changed, for example, “when you __________________________.”
o EXAMPLE: When you leave dirty clothes on the ground….
- Make I statements “I feel __________.”
o EXAMPLE: I feel angry.
- Then explore what would you like changed?
o EXAMPLE: I would like you to pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper.
This is a starting point to get you thinking about how anger can be your ally and not your enemy. And remember that building these coping skills is a lot like building new muscles – the more you use them, the stronger they get!