Many of us struggle with anger. We express it in destructive ways. We might be afraid of it. We may avoid it or ignore it. We let it control us. And more.
There is a great deal of stigma surrounding anger. Many of us default to equating anger with violence. Ironically, anger is most often incited by an injustice, real or perceived, but a person who expresses anger runs the risk of being the one labeled a problem or receiving blame for tension. So, we stifle our anger to avoid disapproval, rejection, and embarrassment. This keeps us safe but only in the immediate. Like paying on credit, the bill will come due. The cost may be our physical health, mental health, or, with so much anger bottled up, an even bigger mess than we were hoping to avoid. Suppressing anger is not a winning long-term solution. It can lead to depression (anger directed inwards) and disconnection (when we suppress emotions, we suppress a part of ourselves).
If not pushing it down or pushing it away, what can be done about anger? Here are a few suggestions …
Anger can be overwhelming. Many of us are taught to flee from conflict, even when it’s internal. Turning in the direction of our anger and seeking to understand what it’s about is a great step toward managing it. If we ask our anger what it’s trying to tell us, if we look for specifics, we can orient ourselves toward understanding the problem and formulating possible solutions. Generally, we experience anger in reaction to an injustice done to us by another or to an injustice done to us by ourselves.
Anger can really take the air out of the room. But often there is hurt, sadness, confusion, embarrassment, or any number of other feelings intertwined with our anger. Taking a moment to recognize what else is going on inside helps us have better self-understanding, which in turn helps us communicate our needs to others calmly and effectively. It also helps us communicate with ourselves more graciously, in the event that our anger is directed inward.
In order to manage anger, and not be managed by it, we are well served by regularly reminding ourselves anger is an alarm bell, not an intruder. Too often we react to anger as though it were a burglar. Rather, our anger is actually there to alert us to a burglar’s presence.
Sometimes we need to dial down the alarm, especially when blaring, before we can go inspecting our situation. Dealing with the immediate impact of our anger with physical exertion, lots of deep breaths, or seeking a laugh can put the alarm system back to calm. Then we can more effectively assess what’s wrong.
In the end, learning to manage and use anger for the better is a skill that, like any skill, takes time to learn. Therapy is a great, safe place to learn such a skill. With a good therapist, one can freely express anger and frustration, learn to be curious about it, take it in stride, and use it to communicate with oneself and others about what’s really going on.