Anger is a loaded topic. Depending on your upbringing and personal experience, you may view anger as empowering or dangerous; righteous or toxic; regressive or motivating.
I sometimes get mad at my kids (for being kids). One of two things happen: I either act on it and raise my voice, later feeling guilty and powerless. Or, I notice my irritation early on and realize I’ve lost control– my boundaries have been crossed. I use this observation to make positive changes. In the latter situation, I don’t get mad, I get control.
So you see, anger is neither good nor bad. It’s just an innate response to perceived danger, and a protective impulse. Feeling angry is not the problem—it’s what you do with it that makes the difference.
Anger becomes destructive when it’s acted on in ways that harm you or others. But it can be used to gain insight and make positive changes in your life.
Let’s look at what anger really is, and how it can benefit you.
Facts about Anger:
- Anger is an evolutionary physical impulse. When we perceive a threat (to our lives or our egos), our amygdala stimulates adrenaline to cause a fight reaction for self-defense. Blood flows to our hands, our heart pumps faster, we breathe harder. From a survival standpoint, we want to dominate. In this state, it can be hard to control aggressive impulses.
- Anger feeds on itself. It’s a myth that angry outbursts will help you “get it out.” Instead, the effect is cumulative: each angry episode builds on the hormonal momentum of the time before.
- Anger is not aggression. Aggression is an action we take when angry. It can be insults, threats, sarcasm, or physical assault.
- Chronic anger leads to hostility. Hostility leads not only to aggression but negatively impacts a person’s health, causing physical illness.
Anger serves a purpose. The purpose is survival and self-preservation. So while anger feels bad and can cause aggression, its origin is positive. When we honor the impulse without letting it run astray, we harness a powerful source of energy for personal transformation.
Coping with Anger: How Anger Benefits You
Even though anger can pave the way to impulsive behavior, it can actually be used for positive changes in your life.
Used properly, anger will:
- Provide motivation. Is there something in your dynamic with your partner that you are not ok with? Is there something that needs to change? Pay attention to your anger. It is a map pointing you in the direction you need to go. Let your anger motivate you to create something better for your relationship.
- Heal and empower. Anger is a healthy reaction to violations of our boundaries. If you have accepted mistreatment or been wounded, getting angry is part of healing. It moves you out of “acceptance of the unacceptable,” and into a sense of power. It can be a revelation, like “Hey, wait a minute, this is NOT ok.”
- Initiate boundary setting. Once you feel empowered by anger, you can begin the process of drawing the line for yourself, and holding your boundaries. Anger will help remind you when your lines are being crossed.
- Make you more optimistic. Angry people tend to be more optimistic. A study done on the fear of terrorism after 911 found that those who got angry expected fewer attacks in the future, whereas those who were afraid were more pessimistic and expected further attacks. This indicates that anger reflects higher expectations of life. Those who believe the world is a good place–and that they deserve to be treated well–get mad at injustice. Those who don’t expect much are far less outraged.
- Improve your relationship. Expressing anger appropriately helps your partner know you better, and assist with problem-solving. When you can see beneath the anger and share more vulnerable feelings with your partner (fear, embarrassment etc), you are creating greater emotional intimacy. Also, crazy as this sounds, expressing anger can reduce violence. This is because it prevents buildup of frustration and promotes resolving things before they get out of hand.
Coping with Anger: When it feels out of control
Now these benefits are all well and good. But what do you do when anger gets the best of you? Getting angry is a sign of losing control, even though it can be used as an attempt to again control.
1) Figure out how to walk away. Take a time out. Go into a room by yourself, take a walk, whatever it takes. It helps if you decide on this ahead of time, and let your partner know you will take a break if needed.
2) Explore what’s behind it. Anger is a secondary emotion. Usually what is underneath is embarrassment, insecurity, hurt, shame, fear, grief, sadness, or vulnerability.
3) Be aware of your physical warning signs. There are always physical warning signs prior to angry outbursts. Becoming aware of your own personal signs helps you manage your anger before it gets out of control. Common signs are: clenched hands or jaws, rapid breathing, pacing, trouble concentrating, pounding heart, or tense shoulders. (My husband can tell when I’m angry when I start moving objects around my desk in a rapid, mindless manner.) Notice what your signs are.
4) Admit your thinking errors. Our beliefs directly inform our physiological responses. Here are some common thinking patterns that contribute to anger:
- Overgeneralizing. “You always interrupt me. You NEVER consider my needs. EVERYONE disrespects me. I NEVER get the credit I deserve.”
- “Shoulds and musts.” Do you have a rigid view of the way things should be and get angry when reality doesn’t match your vision? A great antidote for this is accepting what is real without judgment. Then you can problem solve with a clear mind.
- Mind reading/jumping to conclusions. This is when you assume you “know” what someone else is thinking or feeling, or believe that they intentionally upset you, ignored your wishes, or disrespected you. Remember, you could be wrong.
- Blaming. When anything bad happens or something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. This creates anger because it places responsibility outside of yourself. Keep in mind: Dis-empowerment breeds anger.
5) Change your beliefs. If you are using any of the above thinking errors, replace these with more balanced and affirming thoughts. Use my 7 step-process to change beliefs at the subconscious level using my free video if you haven’t already (to the upper right on this page).
If you get angry easily, you may have experienced some trauma or invalidating environment growing up. Anger was something you learned to survive and it means you are a fighter. Be compassionate towards yourself first and then be willing to learn new ways of coping with anger.
Remember: Don’t get mad. Get control. 🙂
Let me know how you deal with anger in the comments below!