If anger is just an emotion – why does it seem to cause so much distress? And why are we so afraid of it?

Firstly – it is an emotion and can be a very positive emotion at that. Just as such things as feelings of joy, sadness, elation, excitement, disappointment etc, are emotions, so too is anger. So what goes wrong? We do not generally attribute the same intake of breath to these other emotions.

Unfortunately, most of us were taught, at a very young age, by our parents, carers, teachers etc, that anger was bad. That we needed to learn to ‘control’ our anger. This was usually because those who cared for us were unable to cope with their own feelings and therefore did not have the skills and capacity to teach us how to use anger constructively. So, not only did we get the message that anger was bad; we also learned to be fearful of it because were often corrected in any angry manner! So we learn that a) it is wrong to be angry b) anger is to be feared. We therefore learn to suppress it.

But as times goes by, we become like little bubbling pressure cookers – mostly in control of our anger, but with occasional ‘spurts’ of uncontrolled and non-proportional expressions of anger, and, according to our early experiences, and on-going life experiences, the degree of anger will vary in intensity – both in terms of the amount of energy used up in trying to contain it, and also the extent and frequency of our outbursts.

Make no mistake, the energy and effort involved in keeping in control of our anger is huge. Ultimately, if we don’t learn to deal with it constrictively, I believe we become unwell and less and less able to cope, leading to problems including depression, phobias, obsessions, panic attacks, addictions, and sometimes violence.  And because we have got so good at suppressing angry feelings most of the time, we often don’t even know the root cause of our anger – we only know that we feel pain, and so it becomes misdirected.

One thing we all need to know – and this is a surprise to many people – No-one makes another person angry. How often do we hear someone say, or indeed say ourselves “You make me so angry”, “You drive me crazy”, “It is your fault I am angry” – Not true! Someone says or does something which touches a raw nerve, and we get angry. This is not the same and we can really begin to help ourselves by understanding and acknowledging that it is our response which is our expression of anger, and not someone making us angry – we chose to respond angrily, and therefore there is something we can do about it. But in order to make that choice, we need to learn about the root cause of our anger and learn to be constructive with it.

Take a moment to consider all the things which ‘make you ‘angry. Do these things perhaps make you feel frustrated, e.g. your partner always leaves the wet towels on the bathroom floor? Do you feel a sense of injustice e.g. criticised or blamed for something you feel is unwarranted? Do you feel an attack on your self- esteem? E.g. you didn’t get that job you went for an interview for? Or, sometimes you might have experienced physical attack which leaves you feeling angry. Understanding what the feelings are behind your cloak of anger can be helpful because we can then allow ourselves to feel the emotion driving it and learn to express it in an appropriate way to the appropriate person. Sigmund Freud said “anger leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side”.   Whilst this is certainly trued, I believe also that anger itself is always a response to some degree of fear or pain:

  • Fear of getting I wrong
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of criticism
  • Fear of getting hurt
  • Fear of being late
  • Fear of exposure
  • Fear of confrontation
  • Etc

A person’s anger triggers will naturally be affected by their environment, culture, emotional state, physical health, and this will be different for everyone. But also it will vary according to individual perception, which links back to upbringing and life experiences.

Unfortunately because anger is often released as an immediate response to a trigger, it can be very destructive and hurtful (i.e. it is often misplaced and not proportional to the event), and so often becomes a ‘blame game’ ….’you really annoy me when you…..’ ‘why can’t you just…….’, ‘you always …….’ ‘you can’t get anything right…..’ etc etc. And often past hurts which have not been expressed but stored, come out in this angry outburst. Many things are said which are hurtful and damaging, and not even directory related to current events.

Many people contact me for counselling because they ‘have anger issues’. During the sessions it soon becomes apparent that often the issues to be addressed are:

  • Understanding the root cause of the anger (past and present pain)
  • The need to learn how to express anger constructively
  • And the understanding that it is actually healthy to express anger in an assertive and constructive manner

Except where a person has mental health problems where perhaps the expression of anger needs to be carefully managed, I believe, and experience has shown me, that learning to express anger healthily can be life-transforming – both in the way a person feels about themselves, and in their relationships. Destructive ways of dealing with anger are passive/aggressive behaviour and within this label are a huge number of ways of showing anger to another, without actually dealing with the root cause. It is ok to express your anger in a constructive and non-confrontational manner and not in a manner which is designed to make another person feel bad.

I have found “Managing Anger” by Gael Lindenfield a really useful working tool. As she states “if we want to change the habits of a lifetime we need to do more than just tell ourselves how we ought to behave, we need to take active steps to reprogrammed the auto-pilot in our unconscious mind which is driving us to behave in unassertive ways”.

A simple method of learning how to express ourselves, rather than either suppresses how we feel, or ‘explode’ is as follows:

  1. When you feel the familiar response to what you perceive as an ‘attack’ begin to take hold, firstly acknowledge this is happening
  2. Take a couple of deep breaths
  3. State how you feel (e.g. upset, hurt, disappointed, irritated)
  4. State what is happening to make you feel this way
  5. State why it makes you feel this way (e.g. patronised, undermined, not listened to)
  6. State what you would like to happen (e.g. discuss it later, really listen to what I am saying)

Notice that at no point have you blamed the other person. This will only inflame the situation by promoting an angry response in the other person, and tempers flare.

Often we find it is little things which result in angry outbursts e.g. you bang your head on a door – the resulting outburst can to totally disproportionate to the event – this is because we are reacting to the event but also releasing store anger. Therefore if we learn to express our anger assertively, the storeroom will have run down!

Dean Bennett posted in the Guardian that “anger is the state of emotional and physiological arousal. You can get angry about something, but opt not to behave aggressively as a result”. (Italics mine). However, in order to achieve this, we need to take action, and we probably need help.

Admitting to having difficulty managing anger is not a weakness. It takes courage to do it and courage to learn to express it and to go through the process of understanding the root causes of our difficulties and working through them. And it takes time to unlearn the habits of a lifetime. But if we do, the pay-off is huge.

“I believe each human being has the potential to change, to transform one’s own attitude, no matter how difficult the situation” – Dalai Lama.

Mim Tait