Anger can be a touchy topic for many people, because it’s usually clouded with shame, fear, and hurt. A helpful step to ensuring a healthy relationship to anger is to untangle some of the confusion around it, so let’s start with some definitions.
Anger is an emotion, something we feel. Emotions are messages. If we’re happy, the message may be “do more of this”. With anger, the message is a motivator for something to change. This message is important. There is nothing wrong with it, in and of itself, and in fact is healthy, as it reflects a care for oneself.
One place anger becomes problematic is when it is directed toward someone. Blame (not to be confused with responsibility) is never useful. The purpose of blame is typically not just to hold someone responsible for their actions, but to make them feel bad for it, with some expectation that it will somehow make us feel better. Unfortunately, this rarely works, because the other person’s sense of guilt or shame does not change the hurt we feel. The other problem with blame is that the focus remains on the past, which can sometimes keep us stuck in the hurt.
Asking someone to take responsibility differs from blame, in that the focus is not on the past, but on looking forward. It can sometimes be helpful to let someone know that they’ve upset you if this awareness can prevent future offenses. Note, the responsibility here can be taken for the event that triggered your anger, but it does not mean the person is responsible for making you feel better. Sometimes, acknowledgment or apology may happen, which can ease the process of moving on from the hurt, but not always. It is important to remember responsibility may not get acknowledged, and learning to let go without recognition from the offending party is a valuable skill to a happy life.
Another useful concept to managing anger is triggers. “Lucy made me angry,” would be an incorrect statement. Lucy may have done something to trigger your anger, but she does not have the responsibility for (or power to control) your emotions! Understanding the idea of triggers can help keep from magnifying the anger to the point it gets out of hand, or moves toward blame, which usually only leads to defensiveness. Triggers are (often subtle) events that somehow remind us of a hurt we experienced in the past. This means the intensity anger we experience may not necessarily be in line with the nature of the trigger. Awareness of triggers can be a useful tool for emotional well-being. While some triggers may be nearly universal, each person has their own set of triggers based on life experiences. When a trigger occurs, we are rarely aware in the moment of what it has triggered, but if the anger is intense, there’s a good chance it has triggered something deep. You don’t need to feel bad for feeling intense anger. You may, however, want to step back from the situation and spend time with the message the anger has for you, rather than blaming the person who triggered you.
Assumptions can play a big part in how we respond to anger. Say Lucy doesn’t return your phone call. This may anger some people, but not others. Steve may assume she was busy, or maybe her phone died, and think nothing of it, while Diana may assume Lucy is being deliberately disrespectful and get quite angry. Once emotions enter the situation, it can be difficult to question our assumptions, however, doing so can help diffuse the anger.
Along with all of these concepts, of course, comes expression of anger. Anger usually comes with a fair amount of energy. This can be scary for some people, especially if it feels “out of control”. Many people have learned that, therefore, it is simply not okay to be angry. This is not true, and most likely, impossible! It is okay to be angry; it is not okay to express your anger in a way that could hurt someone. There are many healthy outlets for the energy associated with anger, such as exercise, dance, art, listening to music, breathing, journaling. Figuring out a healthy outlet that works for you creates a freedom to have your emotions without damaging relationships or property, and may even allow for greater healing of past events.
Below anger lies hurt, and it is good to seek support around hurt. You do not have to face it alone, dismiss it, or let your anger be bigger than you. Remember, anger is just a message; the more you can slow down and hear what it has to tell you, the more choice you have in how you respond.