I believe that anger is a very important emotion and one that is given a bad name. Anger itself isn’t bad or wrong although it’s fair to say it may lead people to doing something that is. Sometimes anger is entirely justified, if someone has deliberately hurt you or someone you care about, you have a right to feel angry and I simply don’t believe people who tell me they don’t ever feel angry. Getting to know our anger is a useful process and this is the first in a series of posts about anger and how we deal with it.
There’s a very big difference between noticing that you feel very angry about something and acknowledging this, and acting out your anger in a destructive way. The former allows your anger a place to be heard whilst the latter hurts everyone, yourself included and, often, your anger isn’t heard either! No-one wants to listen to an angry person, they just feel attacked, even if they are in the wrong.
When people suppress their anger and pretend it isn’t there, it often emerges as ‘passive aggression’ which can feel very uncomfortable to be around. We have all experienced this – it’s the person that always says the right thing but somehow it just doesn’t feel genuine although you can’t put your finger on why, or it’s the person who makes things difficult for everyone by insisting on having something relatively unimportant their own way in a group situation, they might refuse to do things or constantly arrive late. There is an edge to a person with suppressed anger, you might feel as if they are just difficult or overly critical of others or as if they are never willing to admit they are wrong.
When anger is uncontrolled, it can be terrifying and destructive. Uncontrolled anger has led to some terrible crimes and ruined lives as well as a whole range of lesser difficulties and transgressions.
If we don’t express our anger in a useful way, it can turn in on itself, it might make us believe that we are bad, we may begin to speak to ourselves in an overly critical way or adopt self-harming behaviours – anything from overeating to over exercising to cutting ourselves or being very promiscuous and having unsafe or abusive sexual relationships.
How we deal with our anger often has much to do with our upbringing. If we grow up in a family where anger is discouraged or seen as something negative, we might learn to hide our anger or let it build up inside us until it turns to depression or react inappropriately to something. We might also become passive aggressive as described above.
Alternatively, if there was a great deal of anger in our upbringing, violence or shouting, we might become that way ourselves, thinking that it’s OK to act aggressively whenever we feel upset. Another way this might manifest is in finding our own or others’ anger terrifying so that we are utterly unable to face the fact that we, too, feel angry sometimes. Again, this might manifest in anger being turned inwards or being expressed as passive aggression as this feels like the only safe way to let others know that something is wrong.
However we experience it, anger has something important to tell us about ourselves. The things that make me feel angry may not be the same things that make you feel angry and in that difference lies important information about who we are and our differences as individuals. For example, whilst one person might get very angry when criticised, another might simply shrug it off or decide that the opinion of the critical person simply doesn’t matter to them. The reaction is likely to tell us something about how the person feels about themselves. A confident person is able to examine the statement, decide if they believe there is any truth in it and either ignore it, or perhaps use it to make changes in themselves. A person who lacks confidence may simply react angrily without even thinking through what has happened. They are unable to see anything but how bad they feel about what has been said.
Anger can also be a strong motivating force – it can galvanise us into taking action against things we perceive as unfair or unjust. It can help us demand that things are made better or initiate change in the world. We see this in action in the wider world, the Poll Tax riots in the early 90s, eventually led to the Poll Tax being abandoned in favour of something perceived as ‘fairer’ whilst, more recently, it could be argued that Brexit is the result of anger from voters who believed that the influence of Europe on British life was unfair.
Understanding our own personal relationship with anger can give us a really helpful tool in negotiating our way in the world. If we can understand it, we can work with it rather than allowing it to overwhelm us. Here are some questions that might help to explore a personal relationship with anger.
- What makes me angry?
- What have I done in the past when I have felt angry? Was that helpful or unhelpful?
- How do I feel about others’ anger? Does it scare me or perhaps make me angry too?
- How do I feel about anger generally? Do I think of it as a ‘bad’ or a ‘good’ thing?
- What world situations make me feel angry? How do I express that?
- How was anger treated in my own family? What happened when my parents got angry? How did my parents react when I got angry?
If any of these questions bring up feelings that are difficult to cope with or feel very uncomfortable, finding a counsellor and working with them to explore the issue may be a safer option as a good counsellor can help you to manage the process of exploring your anger.
It is OK to be angry and sometimes anger is necessary and justified. It becomes a problem though when we are angry all the time or our behaviour is affecting us or those around us. Again, if this is the case, seeking counselling can help to sort through this and resolve some of the issues.
Watch out for the next post in this series – about the complex relationship between anger and sadness.