Anger is seen as a negative emotion. It’s seen as an emotion that we definitely don’t want to feel. And if we do, then it’s seen as an emotion that we must diminish (stat!) or dismiss. It’s seen as a scary emotion—an emotion that has cruel, harmful consequences. While this is true in some cases, anger is actually vital. Even more so, anger can be a good thing. A positive thing.
“Anger gets a bad rap because at its worst, it can be incredibly destructive,” said Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in Washington, D.C. We think of window-shattering shouting, raised hands and physical fights.
We also think of hate, said Anita Avedian, LMFT, CAMS-IV, the executive director of Anger Management 818, which has 10 locations, and the author of Anger Management Essentials workbook for adults and teens.
We think of aggression. However, anger is simply the feeling; aggression is the behavior, Avedian said.
Anger resides on a continuum, said Cheryl Beatrice, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in anger management in Westlake Village, Calif. “It starts with irritated and annoyed and works its way through to rage.”
“All feelings serve a purpose,” including anger, Derhally said. The key is to use anger in healthy, productive ways (more on that below).
Why Anger Is Actually Good
Anger can spark good deeds. Anger can inspire us to take action against injustice, Derhally said. It can inspire us to donate our money, time or other resources to important causes. It can inspire us to start companies and non-profit organizations that make a difference in people’s lives. It can inspire us to work to right all sorts of wrongs.
Anger can tell us when we’re being mistreated. For instance, if you’re angry because you’re being treated unfairly at work, you channel that anger into finding a new job, Derhally said. If you’re angry because your partner is consistently treating you unfairly, you channel that anger into ending the relationship, reflecting on what you really want and searching for a different partner.
In other words, you channel your anger into making changes that make you happier, Derhally said.
Anger can reveal our personal needs. Anger tells us what we might need emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. It tells us what we might be missing. For instance, recently Beatrice was talking to a friend and found herself becoming increasingly frustrated. Her friend kept talking about what Beatrice should do, even though Beatrice was telling her the opposite. Beatrice’s anger signaled her important need to be heard and understood—which wasn’t being met. So Beatrice talked about it with her friend, who finally fully listened.
Anger can spark communication—and resolution. “When we are able to gently lean in to our anger, express our feelings clearly, identify how we would like things to go in the future, [we can effectively resolve a conflict],” Beatrice said. For instance, you and your spouse have an agreement that you cook, and they clean. But lately you’re finding that you’re doing most of the cleaning, too—and your blood is boiling. So you approach your spouse, and calmly communicate that you’re upset, remind them of the plan and ask them to clean up. You realize that people forget and can’t read your mind (no matter how obvious you think your passive-aggressive huffing and puffing is).
Healthy Ways to Approach Anger
Pinpoint what anger is trying to tell you. Derhally suggested reflecting on these questions: Has someone crossed one of my boundaries? Do I need to reevaluate something? How can I move forward or take action in a productive way motivated by this anger?
Dig beneath the anger. Anger tends to be a secondary emotion, said Derhally. Which means that other more vulnerable emotions usually lie underneath. A common emotion is sadness. “Many times, when anger has subsided we feel sadness, hurt or betrayal,” she said. Which is why Derhally suggested asking ourselves: “Am I sad or hurt about something?”
Communicate in a caring way. Beatrice stressed the importance of getting very specific about what you’re upset about. This way you can clearly communicate it to someone else.
Avedian recommended using this format, whether you’re at work or at home: “I feel ________ (feeling) when you ____________ (specific behavior). I understand ___________(state where listener may be coming from). I would like ____________ (state your specific request). This is important to me because ___________ (list one or two reasons why fulfilling this request is important). Some alternative options may be ____________ (include an alternative option).”
She shared this work example: “I feel overwhelmed when you don’t have the report in on time. I understand that you’re very busy, and that you have a lot on your plate. I would like it if you were to get the report to me on time. This is important to me because when you have your report in on time, then I could get my report completed on time as well. And I don’t want to get into trouble for not having my report in on time. Some alternative can be to notify me if you’re running behind so that I could customize my report without all of the data.”
She also shared this home example: “I feel unimportant when you come home and don’t say hi to me. I understand that you want to go to your room to change and relax. I would like it if you could say hi prior to going to your room. This is important to me since I want to make sure we stay connected living in our house. If you are rushing to the restroom and to do something else, perhaps to let me know you will be right back to say hi.”
Assess your own actions. When there’s a conflict or issue, Beatrice suggested asking ourselves these questions: What could I have done differently in that situation that would have ended up having a different result? What can I do differently next time to prevent a similar situation? What was my role in that conflict?
Anger is an emotion filled with information. The key is to listen and use it to inspire calm, thoughtful action.