Do you have a healthy relationship with anger? Like other so-called negative feelings, it’s one of the more stigmatised emotions we experience and, if you’re like most people (including me), your relationship with anger might best be described as “it’s complicated”… So let’s start by acknowledging we all experience this emotion from time to time and talk about how we can cultivate a healthy relationship with anger.
Anger is a healthy response to having boundaries crossed.
It’s not the same as rage, aggression or acting out. It’s possible to be angry with someone and still have a reasonable conversation with them sans raised voices or venting.
The problem is that most of us don’t have a template for this healthy version of anger. Depending on how you saw other people express anger and what you were told and taught about your own anger, you might have learned that anger isn’t acceptable or if you express anger, people will reject you. You might be someone who says “I don’t get angry,” even feeling a little pride you don’t experience such a base emotion.
But whatever your relationship with anger, it exists. If we refuse to accept it or provide a healthy outlet for it, it becomes channeled into something else beyond our control. Sometimes this might be explosive: where we bottle things until we can’t hold back any longer, or until something seemingly innocuous makes us hit the roof (what Brené Brown calls “chandeliering”). Sometimes unacknowledged anger can manifest as anxiety or depression. Sometimes bottled anger can manifest under the guise of “being honest” and allowing a tirade of pent-up feeling and frustration to pour out in someone’s direction.
Many of us are raised to believe anger is “bad.” But anger isn’t the problem, behaviour is. It’s how we deal with our anger that makes or breaks not only our experience of this emotion, but other people’s experience of us too.
So what does healthy anger look like? Healthy anger is noticed, acknowledged, felt and accepted for what it is. It’s greeted with a questioning process: what is really behind this? Often anger masks other more vulnerable feelings like hurt and shame. As Peter Breggin writes in his book Guilt, Shame and Anxiety, healthy anger always walks hand in hand with vulnerability:
“When we express anger without additionally expressing the underlying vulnerability, this will only build barriers. It is one thing to tell friends or loved ones that we feel angry with them; it is another to express anger toward them in a way that is frightening or threatening. We will accomplish more if we express anger in a way that emphasizes that we feel hurt. That can invite the other person to listen to us and to remedy the situation.”
He points out that anger is never a solo emotion: something else always exists below it. Usually this is a sense of vulnerability or feeling threatened. Sometimes it’s also what he describes as “negative legacy emotions” like guilt, shame and anxiety (you can read more about these here). As part of exploring my own relationship with anger, I noticed I often resorted to sarcasm or barbed comments rather than expressing anger (and the underlying feelings) openly. Doing this not only felt safer but also gave me a sense of power or one-upmanship over the other person when I felt at my most vulnerable.
When we have a healthy relationship with anger, we acknowledge these underlying emotions and experiences just as much as we acknowledge the anger itself.
This is easier said than done: in the moment, our anger usually feels justified (and sometimes it is). But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes someone might say or do something innocent, but their behaviour pushes our internal shame buttons or stirs up past experiences. They become the immediate focus of our anger, even though we’re responding to wounds from years, if not decades, ago.
We need to cultivate self-awareness around our anger and detach from these internal justifications to see the situation in its true light. Once we can do this, identify the true source of our anger, and name the feelings underneath, we can then decide how we want to show up in the interaction. We can by-pass our knee-jerk response, skip lashing out and respond with a rational, loving approach towards ourselves and others.
How to cultivate a healthy relationship with anger
1. Start by recognising its masks.
Anger doesn’t always manifest as anger. Sometimes it’s resentment, sometimes it’s anxiety, sometimes it’s depression. These masks often develop because they feel “safer” than anger.
2. Explore the messages you received around anger.
Good girls don’t get angry. Anger equals aggressiveness. When you express anger, people will leave you. Your anger is unjustified and unreasonable. If we’ve internalised these kinds of messages, then it’s not surprising we’re trying to channel our anger in to something that feels more acceptable. Recognise that anger is a valid and acceptable emotion, just as much as joy, sadness, grief, or anything else on the emotional spectrum.
3. Redefine your relationship with anger:
- Remember anger isn’t the problem, behaviour is. Anger might not feel comfortable, but it’s a rational response to feeling wronged, and can lead to constructive outcomes when processed and responded to appropriately.
- Remember anger isn’t the same as venting. Studies have shown that punching a pillow or venting only makes us angrier, it doesn’t help us process the anger.
- Look for the feelings underneath the anger: usually these are a combination of hurt, shame, guilt, anxiety or similar. These are the root of our anger and we need to acknowledge them to relate to and express our anger in a healthy way.
4. Practice conscious expression of anger.
This might look like noticing you feel angry and taking time out to process your feelings, get to the root of your anger, and decide how you want to respond. Even if someone has genuinely wronged us, we will only raise more barriers in that relationship if we express our anger without expressing the emotions that lie beneath it. When we can share the spectrum of our experiences, however, we give the other person a chance to empathise with us and make amends.
Have you worked on cultivating a healthy relationship with anger? What has helped you do this in your life? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.