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Why We Need to Treat Anger as an Emotion, Not a Behavior

With practice you can learn how to make anger your ally and get the life you really want.

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A man suppressing his anger

When it comes to anger, we confuse emotion with behavior. They are not one in the same. Emotion and behavior are two very different things.

Emotion is something that happens inside us, it’s a wired in response, a flow of energy that we feel in our bodies. We feel the warmth of love and happiness inside of us, the tingle of excitement, the ache of sadness. All of this happens internally. Behavior, on the other hand, is something we do; an action we may take sometimes in response to our feelings. For instance, we feel love and so we might reach out to a loved one, we get excited and then pursue a goal we’re interested in, we feel sad, and we slow down and seek comfort and support. We can respond to our feelings with action if we choose or we can have our feelings without doing anything.

But, many of us don’t understand this distinction. We mistakenly equate anger with unhealthy, destructive behaviors, the kind of violence we see on television, hear about in the news, or even experience in our own lives. Anger itself is not these behaviors; it’s a feeling that occurs internally. Its energy may prompt us to take action but action is not inevitable, whether we take action and what kind of action we take is of our choosing.

When we’re able to manage our anger, when we’re able to tolerate it inside of us, it moves through us and eventually dissipates, and then we can decide how best to respond. Anger in and of itself is not violent or destructive, harmful or shameful. It can be communicated in a healthy, respectful way and be used for positive and effective change. It all depends on how we respond to it.

In general, our feelings are there to be helpful to us. Emotions are actually a part of our neurobiological make-up—they’re signals sent from our brain in direct response to some sort of stimuli—something in our environment or inside us. Anger is a natural, biological response to a threat of some kind and it gives us important information. It tells us that that a boundary has been crossed, that we’re under attack or are being thwarted in our efforts to reach an important goal. It tells us that something is wrong.

Our emotions are part of an innate process that was designed with our best interests in mind. Think about it from an evolutionary perspective. Emotions played a key role in insuring our survival as a species. Prehistoric humans wouldn’t have lasted very long in the wilderness if they had had no emotional reaction to a ferocious animal charging toward them. It was the emotion of fear that got their hearts pumping faster, caused the blood to rush to their legs, and prompted them to run. And it was the emotion of anger that mobilized us to defend themselves when needed.

Quite simply, our emotions developed and endured over millions of years because they’re essential to our existence.

Think about the significant ways in which our feelings help us in our lives today. Excitement and joy encourage us to open up, get involved, or stay engaged in activities that already have our interest. Love urges us to move closer, to be nearer to a loved one, to open up and share more deeply. Disgust prompts us to pull back, turn away, and avoid something that may be potentially harmful. Grief and sadness alike prompt us to slow down, to take the time to address whatever is making us sad—losses, disappointments, hurts—to cry and talk about our pain, to seek solace from others, to do what we need to do to take care of ourselves, let go, and move on. And anger motivates us to protect or defend ourselves, set boundaries or limits when necessary, raise our voices and be heard. Aren’t these all healthy things?

In this very basic way, our emotions mobilize and guide us to deal with life and the different situations that come our way in a positive, life-enhancing manner. And they help us communicate what is going on inside us and adaptively connect with others.

Anger, when dealt with in a healthy way, can be our friend. But, when we avoid it, when we don’t work with it but work against it, we’re robbed of the inherent benefits of being in touch with our feelings.

Previously in my Befriending Anger blog series, we looked at our problem with anger. As we continue to explore anger, I’ll share strategies, based on cutting-edge research, that will fundamentally change the way your brain works. With practice you can learn how to make anger your ally and get the life you really want. If you’d like to receive an audio recording of this Befriending Anger series, you can get your free copy here.

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