In other words, as psychotherapist David Teachout, LMHCA, said, we associate anger with destruction, and avoidance is how we attempt to maintain our emotional and mental safety and health.
According to Michelle Farris, LMFT, a psychotherapist and anger management specialist, if you grew up in a home where anger turned abusive, you might think that suppressing your anger is actually a healthy thing to do. “Witnessing unhealthy anger and rage makes it tough to see its value.”
But anger has value. A lot of it.
Anger tells us that something isn’t right, and we need to make a change, said Farris, who has a private practice in San Jose, Calif., where she offers supportive counseling and online courses that focus on improving relationships, anger management and codependency.
Maybe you need to set a boundary. Maybe you need to tell someone how you really feel.
“Allowing emotions to be a part of your relationships keeps you and the relationship healthy, and the lines of communication stay open,” Farris said. After all, healthy, close connections require honesty, “and though it is a risk, telling someone why you’re upset gives them the opportunity to heal the hurt or correct their mistake.”
Teachout said anger is a neon flashing pointer to what matters most to us: our values. “We simply don’t get upset about things we don’t care about… When we ignore our anger, try to suppress it, we’re actually suppressing the care we have for what we find important.”
Anger also energizes us. It empowers us to stand up for ourselves, and for others.
Not expressing angry feelings just makes them fester (and fester and fester). “They feel like bricks on your back, always present and weighing you down emotionally,” said Farris, who offers a free email course on anger called Catching Your Anger Before It Hurts.
Over time, not expressing our anger also leads to long-term stress, because “the body stores the emotions that cannot be expressed until they can be released.” This damaging cycle, she said, has been linked to: increased risk for anxiety, heart attack and stroke; a weakened immune system; and “a tendency to overreact because stuffed emotions are harder to control.”
But even though you might have a complicated, thorny relationship with anger (and might’ve had one for years), you can change that. Below, Farris and Teachout share their helpful tips.
Catch anger early. It’s very hard to stay calm and effectively express yourself and understand your feelings when your anger becomes a tsunami. Farris advised against dismissing times you’re mildly annoyed. Instead of thinking “it’s not that bad yet,” pay attention and intervene early. Check in with yourself regularly. “The earlier you catch [anger], the more manageable it will be to contain and express in a healthy manner.”
Early warning signs of anger differ in different people, Farris said, but here are some examples: Rapid heart rate, negative thoughts, sweating, feeling irritable, minimizing upset feelings, stomachache, headache, muscle tension, using profanity and blaming the other person.
Zero in on the broken value. Anger points to “a behavior that didn’t support [one of our values] in the way we’d like or, to our perception, actively sought to undermine it,” said Teachout, who joins with individuals and partnerships on their mental health journey to encourage a life of valued living and honest communication at his practice in Des Moines, WA.
This is why he suggested when we get angry to immediately ask ourselves: What value is the upsetting behavior threatening or undermining? Maybe it’s loyalty, honesty or respect. Maybe it’s fairness, kindness or authenticity.
(Also, “notice that you still care about that value so you haven’t lost who you are or become destructive,” said Teachout, who offers therapy, coaching and groups for the whole person because you’re more than your suffering.)
Once you’ve pinpointed what you care about, consider how you’d like to support it—and act from this place, instead of from a place of defending what’s been threatened, Teachout said. “This immediately takes the focus away from being about the other person and returns it to the core of who you are, your values.”
What does this look like? According to Teachout, let’s say someone lied to you (thus undermining your value of honesty). Acting from a defensive place might look like yelling, hurling insults and internalizing the betrayal. Acting from a supportive place might look like telling the person: “That really hurt because I care about honesty” or telling yourself “My anger is letting me know I still care about truth/honesty and that it means I can support it,” Teachout said.
Take a genuine time-out. “The best tool for anger management is a time-out,” Farris said. Which means physically leaving the space (if possible), and practicing calming behaviors. “Don’t keep retelling the story of what went wrong,” which only boosts anger. Instead, she suggested taking a walk (or doing any other vigorous exercise, which “gets the negative energy out of the body and releases oxytocin which helps calm you down”). She also suggested journaling and listening to soothing music or an inspirational podcast.
Communicate effectively. Farris stressed the importance of naming your feeling, and using an “I” statement, such as: “I feel angry that you didn’t respond to my texts last night.” For some people, “I” statements can feel canned or awkward. Reversing the phrasing can help, she said: “When you didn’t return my texts last night, I was really angry.”
The other key is to name the specific behavior that bothers you, without generalizing, judging or criticizing, Farris said. “When you name what happened as fact not a criticism, the other person is less likely to get defensive.”
That is, instead of saying “I feel really angry when you attack me in front of our friends,” you’d say, “I felt really angry when you made that joke in front of our friends last night.” According to Farris, “’Attack’ is more of a judgment, and doesn’t describe what happened.”
Also, make sure that you’re communicating while you’re relatively calm or in control. Farris has a rule of thumb she uses: “If you can’t listen, you shouldn’t be talking.”
Feeling and expressing your anger when you tend to avoid it can feel foreign and deeply uncomfortable. The first, second, third or thirtieth time. But with practice and the above suggestions, you can reconnect to anger’s value, and let it support your relationships and your life.