Anger is a companion with history. As children we are introduced to anger, usually at a fairly young age. We reach for something and it is taken away. We cry, maybe scream, sometimes beat our tiny fists in the air. We are usually taught very early on, how acceptable our anger is to our caregivers.
For some, our anger will be ignored, for others it will be punished so severely, either with an angry response from someone at least twice our size, or with a threat, implicit or explicit that love will be revoked if we express anger.
Some have their anger mocked, this may transform the anger into rage, that boils, sometimes for years, before it erupts. A few are given space to express anger, with limits on the amount of destruction, both physical and emotional that it is allowed to create.
As adults, many of us fear our anger. We are used to avoiding it, hiding it away and then when it gets out, it feels too big to handle and causes damage in our lives. When we live this way, with anger, we might wish that it was no longer a part of our lives. We might wonder what the point of anger is.
There are very few spaces in society for anger. Those that exist tend to be narrow and reserved for a select few, i.e. sports fans, politicians, boss’s… We might wonder what good our anger is, what is the point?
So what can we do with anger? What can it teach us about ourselves?
Anger serves us best when it becomes an alert button for us. An alert that something is wrong and needs attending.
Here are 5 things that anger can alert us to:
When we feel that an injustice has been done towards ourselves or another person, we may feel anger.
Before responding, you will need to check that your feelings match the reality of the situation. If you feel you’ve been wronged, you may need to check to see that you’ve not inadvertently distorted a situation in your mind. Things like overgeneralizing, “they never listen to me, they don’t respect me” will fuel feelings of injustice but may not be accurate. Challenge Cognitive Distortions by examining the evidence, defining your terms, checking in with the other person about what they actually meant.
Sometimes we respond much more strongly to a situation than what it warrants.This often happens when we have experienced another injustice, at another time of life that has not been addressed appropriately.
We may need to help of someone we trust to help us to sort out how appropriate our response is to a situation.
You may need to do some research on a situation, if you feel that someone else is experiencing injustice. What’s the context, what actually happened? Just because your friend, or someone you identify with is angry about something, doesn’t mean there aren’t two sides to the issue.
Check and see where your anger is coming from. Is it about the injustice towards another person? Are they angry about the situation? Or could it be that you are upset about something else, maybe something similar that happened to you and are more comfortable expressing anger in defence of someone else and not yourself? If you are more angry about a situation involving someone else than they are then you will need to consider what is an appropriate response which respects the other person and their experience. If you find that you are maybe, actually angry about something else that needs to be addressed in some way.
IF you find that your anger is justified, you will need to determine what the best course of action is, direct confrontation, some kind of action or some other approach. See Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider and When You’ve Been Accused and 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People.
2. Areas that require healing
Children can trigger anger responses in some of the most seemingly peaceful of people. Children are wired to provoke a response. This is for their own survival. Studies have shown that an infant’s cries are pitched to be impossible to ignore. In this way, they ensure being fe and cared for. Theories have been written about infant and children’s body’s being proportioned for maximum ‘cuteness factor’ so that it is much more difficult for adult to want to harm a child when they look at them, even when the child is being very difficult.
Frustration with children’s behavior, is normal, especially when sleep deprived. But when anger towards children is disproportionate to their behaviour and when no joy or interest is found in children’s behaviour, then something else might be going on. It may be, that information about child development is needed. We adults, have notoriously bad memories about what we were like at specific ages, especially before the age of 10. Understanding normal childhood development can put children’s behaviour into context.
If we were not shown patience as a child, we may not have much for the children around us.
This is something that may need to be addressed in a counselling setting.
When we do not understand our responsibility towards children. We may believe that they are there to serve us, to be robotically obedient to us or to be our clones. These are beliefs that need to be challenged for us to be able to care for them properly. For more on children see Are the Kids Okay? – Children & Mental Health; TEENAGERS!!! ; The 3 Parts of Parenting Teens.
When we are easily angered by situations that others don’t feel warrant the level of anger we are displaying, it may be indicating areas that we are highly sensitive to, based on our own insecurities and/or past experiences.
Pay attention to the way others respond to your anger to get clues about when it may be misplaced. You may need a counsellor to help with this, or a trusted friend or family member who has known you for a long time, to help you sort this out.
3. The need for better communication skills
Like children, intimate partners can trigger some of the most intense anger that we may not have even known we were capable of. The ways we observed conflict being resolved within our families of origin, will influence our own conflict style. Prior to becoming a partner and/or spouse, we may have thought we dealt well with conflict. We may not have noticed conflict in our lives. This can change dramatically when someone enters our emotional space. We may avoid conflict fearing the outbursts that we believe will happen if it is addressed. This is particularly true if this is what we observed in our parents.
We may avoid conflict believing that all conflict is destructive, and any level of anger or frustration means that the relationship is in big trouble..
We may look for ways to point out issues without taking responsibility for our own needs and wants, for fear of rejection. This often looks like passive aggressive communication, sarcasm, guilt trips, etc.
We may blame the other for the situation, ignoring our own roles and responsibilities in the situation. Sometimes this is due to our feeling that if we are not perfect then no one will love us or we will have failed as an adult. Sometimes this is due to the fact that we already feel like a failure and can’t handle taking on one more thing.
In these situation we may neglect to notice the impact our anger is having on others an may be putting our relationships at risk.
In all of these situations, there may be very good reasons for our anger but it needs to be directed in the right place and we may need tools to better utilize it. Communication tools which show us how to be assertive about our needs and wants instead of aggressive, passive or passive/aggressive. See How to Start a Good Fight;and Responding to Passive Aggressive Communication; and 8 Steps to Communicating with your Partner about Big Life Issues.
4. The need to attend to your own needs
Identifying your feelings is the place to begin. Anger is a broad emotion with many variables. Check out some of the sub-feelings that may be hidden within your anger:
Hurt= Embarrassed or Devastated
Threatened= Jealous or Insecure
Hateful= Violated or Resentfull
Mad= Enraged or Furious
Aggressive= Provoked or Hostile
Frustrated= Infuriated or Irritated
Distant= Withdrawn or Suspicious
Critical= Skeptical or Sarcastic
Notice the physical sensations that come with anger. Find ways to calm these so that anger is not zapping all the energy needed to respond appropriately to a situation. Adrenalin, which often accompanies anger, is most useful in survival situations. IF this is not a survival situation, adrenalin will make it difficult to think straight, to form coherent sentences and to hear clearly.
IF you have been denying your own physical, emotional or mental health needs, you may find yourself becoming angry at others who ask anything of you. It is time to learn the word, ‘No” and to take time for yourself.
5. Underlying issues/ conditions
Anger sometimes points to an underlying physical or mental health condition which needs attention and potentially, treatment.
- Low iron can create havoc with our emotions. If your are feeling emotionally unstable and extra tired, particularly if you are a woman with a heavy monthly period, you might want to get your blood tested.
- Vitamin B deficiency can contribute to mood swings, similar to low iron. Check with your Dr if you suspect this may be a concern.
- Chronic irritatibilty can be linked to depression. If you’ve experienced changes in sleep patterns, appetite, motivation, difficulty in concentration, memory and/or have been isolating yourself and no longer finding enjoyment in things you used to enjoy, you may want to see a counsellor and/or talk to your doctor about this. See also Depression Vs Grief – When You’re Down.
- Sometimes anger shows up as an expression of anxiety, particularly if you’ve had a trauma history. Check out Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – The New Hysteria.
- Increased vigilance, paranoia, may be signs of something more serious, such as schizophrenia (usually evident by the age of 25). You will need to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing this.
- Drug or alcohol addiction can impact mood and increase anger levels. If you are questioning if either or both of these things are a problem for you, talk to a counsellor or to your doctor. See Addiction, Your Best Frenemy?
Anger is an opportunity and a powerful tool. It does not need to be destructive. Use the signs it gives you to make it work for you.