Have you ever heard people say anger is bad and that you should try to “let it go”? Anger has a bit of a bad reputation, but I believe there’s no such thing as a bad emotion. They all have a purpose, and anger is no exception. As with all emotions, it can be used in productive ways, or in unproductive ways.
What can we learn from anger?
Notice what kinds of things make you angry. As one example, I’m 100% guaranteed to get angry when people hurt children and animals. This tells me that I value children and animals and that I need to do what I can to protect them.
If those things didn’t make me angry, I think that would mean something has gone wrong with my emotions. There are a lot of really awful things happening in the world, most of which are entirely preventable. Anger is a perfectly valid response to that. It’s a natural way to feel, not something to worry about as if it’s a bad thing. I’m more worried about people who don’t get angry about stuff like child abuse, animal cruelty, racism, homophobia, etc.
So we could say that the purpose of anger is to help you identify what you care about, and to help you set boundaries to protect yourself.
Karla McLaren says that anger is her favourite emotion. She describes it as the Honourable Sentry. She says:
“The questions for anger are: What do I value? and What must be protected and restored? Both protection and restoration can occur quickly when you ask these questions. This gives you something immediate and honorable to do with your anger, and with its help, you can easily reset your boundaries and restore your sense of self.”
“Anger’s job is to help you set and maintain effective interpersonal boundaries around the things and ideas you value. At its most subtle level, anger helps you uphold mutual respect and keep open the lines of communication in your relationships.”
Anger does this by letting you know when someone crosses a boundary. If you’ve been taught to be ashamed of your anger, you might let people cross your boundaries a lot, and in fact you might not even know you have boundaries at all. I was like this. I could tolerate high levels of bullshit and I actually thought that was a good thing. It was not.
What did you feel right before you got angry?
Steve Hein refers to anger as a secondary emotion: “A primary feeling is what is felt immediately before we feel angry. We always feel something else first before we get angry. We might first feel afraid, attacked, offended, disrespected, forced, trapped, or pressured. If any of these feelings are intense enough, we think of the emotion as anger.”
In my example above, when I get angry about people hurting children and animals, what I’m really feeling right before I notice the anger is something else. I feel appalled, disgusted, horrified. That then makes me angry.
As another example, if someone invalidates your feelings, you might feel invalidated, misunderstood, and then angry. What you could do as a response (assuming that it’s safe to do so) could be to stand up to the person and tell them how they misunderstood you. If they’re a decent person they should hopefully listen and try to do better in the future. If the person invalidates you repeatedly and doesn’t seem to care how you feel, then your anger might be trying to tell you to get away from this person and avoid them in the future.
Allowing myself to feel anger and learn from it has helped me come to this conclusion about my parents. They invalidated my feelings all the time when I was little, and I also feel trapped, confused and afraid when I’m with them as an adult. I’ve been visiting them out of obligation for years, and didn’t question whether or not I even wanted to. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that I had preferences about this. This is a boundary that took me a long time± to discover, because I was so out of touch with my emotions, anger in particular. Before I started working on healing my trauma, I hadn’t felt properly angry in years. I would repress that anger and turn it into other things, like anxiety, or just dissociate it all away and distract myself with happy thoughts.
What to do when you get angry?
First identify the primary emotion that caused you to feel angry. Then figure out if it’s useful to you or not. Feeling appalled and horrified about someone abusing children and animals, for example, makes me feel motivated to do something about it. What I can do depends on the situation, like if I’m physically there perhaps I can stop the abuser. Or if not, then maybe I can help in some other way, offer some support to the victim, donate to an animal rescue group or volunteer there, etc.
If your anger makes you want to yell and scream at someone, or physically hurt them, that’s generally a sign that you should take a time-out and first figure out what the primary emotion is. My dad, for example, would catastrophize the worst possible scenarios about various things, and would ruminate on that, and then get angry. Then he’d try to get people around him to prepare for his worst possible scenario he just made up, and yell at them if they don’t comply. This is a very unproductive use for anger. In his case it was based on him feeling afraid of various things that weren’t actually real.
I think that figuring out the primary emotion (the cause of the anger) is a very important step in deciding what to do with it.
Feeling horrified about an injustice? That’s a good anger, use it to do something about the injustice if you can.
Feeling anger based on feeling rejected because your partner smiled at another person? That’s an anger you might want to take a longer time-out for and do some journaling and figure out why that made you feel that way.
For most things that make you angry, there’s usually something that happened in your past that makes you more prone to getting angry about those specific things.
Child abuse and bullying make me more enraged than just about anything else because I was abused and bullied. Someone who experienced prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, etc, might be more prone to being particularly angry about those things.
Anger isn’t a bad emotion, it’s there for a good reason – some things are too fucked up to not be angry about.