Empowering people to live bravely and authentically

The Value of Anger

The Value of Anger

As an emotion, anger gets a bad rap in our culture. We are supposed to avoid being angry. We associate anger with aggression, violence, domination, and oppression. People who are angry are often judged as irrational or mean, and in a gender biased way, especially if they are women. In the world of therapy, we say that someone is “reactive” and their reactivity is tied to earlier, unresolved issues. We also talk about anger as a secondary or defensive emotion, covering up more vulnerable primary emotions such as sadness, fear, and shame. So, our culture develops the message that anger is a negative emotion, a morally questionable emotion, and a lesser (“secondary”) emotion compared to other emotions we might feel. We start feeling ashamed to feel anger and feel like we need to control our anger. Just go to your local bookstore and see how many books you can find in the self-help section with a title that says something like “Take Control of Your Anger.” However, this situation presents us with two problems: 1) in part by trying to overly control, deny, and at times get rid of our anger, we actually have more strong aggressive outbursts; and 2) in some circumstances, we lose the ability to recognize and use the healthy side of our anger.

I don’t want to minimize how people can become destructive when they get angry. In my clinical practice, I see a lot of people who have done significant damage to relationships, to work environments, and to their own legal rights due to what they have done with their anger. However, I do want to make an important distinction between how we experience anger and how we express anger. All too often, in clients I’ve worked with and in my own life, I’ve seen people have difficulties with angry outbursts because they have inhibited and/or ignored their experience of anger for too long. They “play nice,” overly please others, and let problems build and build until they blow up at another person, often because they have tried to control their anger instead of dealing with it directly. I’ve also seen clients, especially couples, who avoid experiencing anger and avoid conflict, which leads to disengagement from each other that drain the vitality of their relationship. In all these cases, people failed to recognize that their anger was trying to give them an important message.

Anger is a natural emotion that often serves an adaptive function: it signals us when something is problematic in our lives and energizes us for action.  Anger is one of the universal emotions experienced and expressed by mammals around the world.  In the limbic system, an emotional center of the brain, we all have a basic “fight, flight, or freeze” response to dangers in the environment, which prepare us to take immediate action in life-threatening situations. Our experience of anger can be tied to this fight response. One of the troubles we have in our modern hectic culture is being able to discern which of the dangers and problematic situations in our lives might need us to fight, and what ones might be handled in other ways.

We often experience anger when we face some behavior that feels unfair or unjust to us. We can experience unjust or unfair behaviors in very small and isolated incidents, such as when our partner criticizes us in a way that we don’t think we deserve, up to large and pervasive phenomena, such as when we experience racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination or disempowerment to a whole group of people. At many times in history, people have used anger to fight oppression and discrimination and try to create change on a broad societal scale, such as the Civil Rights movement in the United States, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to British rule, and the current protests of Tibetan monks to oppression of their beliefs and practices by the Chinese. Many people will experience anger in these situations; what becomes important then is what we choose to do in these situations, which involves how we channel or use our anger.  For example, when our partner becomes critical in a way that feels unfair, we can get defensive and dismiss what they have to say, we can attack back with a cross-complaint about them, or we can assertively say something like “I want to hear what you have to say, but I don’t like the tone and criticism of how you are saying it. Can you tone it down some?” In the last option here, we use our anger to stand up for ourselves without discounting or disrespecting our partner, which can lead to a healthier, more productive conversation.

To channel anger as in the examples above, we need to first be aware that we are angry and that our anger is our own emotional reaction to deal with. We then need to learn to take a pause to reflect on what is stimulating anger in us, what other emotions we might be experiencing, and what might be ways to effectively handle the situation. Oftentimes, we need to find ways to act that respect both the other people involved and respect ourselves to resolve the situation effectively, and the energy of anger  can help us stand up for ourselves, address uncomfortable situations directly, and set boundaries when needed at these times. So, the next time you become angry, see what you can do to bring greater awareness to your reaction and to find ways to help your anger work for you.  And if you want help using your anger more constructively, please contact me.

4809 St. Elmo Ave.
Bethesda, MD 20814

(240) 205-4677

Got Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.