Understanding Effective Anger
Anger is a universal emotion, meaning it comes up for all of us from time to time. We experience anger when:
- there is a goal of ours that is blocked
- when we or someone we care about is being attacked or threatened
- when we are or have lost power, respect, or status
- when we are experiencing emotional or physical pain
- when things haven’t turned out as we expected
If you have ever been around anyone (maybe even yourself!) who goes from 0 to 100 on the anger scale in a matter of seconds, you know that how you handle and express anger can have a significant impact on your relationships and overall well-being. More recently, I am hearing several folks talk about their fear of expressing anger because they fear “out-of-control anger.” So, I wanted to talk about how we can effectively feel and express anger so that we aren’t suppressing and causing more problems for ourselves in the long run!
Before we explore effective ways to deal with anger, it’s important to understand the nature of this emotion. Repeat after me: Anger is not inherently bad! It serves a purpose (as stated above). We are often conditioned throughout our lives to push away our anger and “get over it,” specifically if we identified as girls as children or grew up in an emotionally abusive household. The truth is that anger can motivate us to address problems, assert our boundaries, and protect ourselves. Sometimes, as a therapist, I prefer to see clients coming in angry because I know that means there is some movement on the horizon. The flip side of this is when anger is uncontrolled or expressed ineffectively (think 0-100 in 2 seconds), it can lead to conflicts, damaged relationships, and emotional turmoil. So where does that leave us? With some helpful skills, of course!
Mindfulness: The Foundation of Effective Anger
Being effective with our anger starts with mindfulness. You can’t change it if you don’t know what it is. So, observing and describing anger as it comes up allows us to become more aware of our anger triggers, physical sensations, and thoughts associated with anger. By staying present in the moment, we can create a space between the trigger and our response, allowing us to choose how we react.
Mindfulness of current emotion involves the intentional and non-judgmental awareness of our present emotional state. It’s about being fully present in the moment and acknowledging our emotions without attempting to change or suppress them. Instead of reacting impulsively to intense feelings, mindfulness encourages us to observe and describe our emotions with curiosity and openness. One of the ways we can practice mindfulness of current emotion with anger is to stop and notice the anger coming up, label it as anger, label where we feel it in our body, and notice how the sensations change in our body when we focus on that sensation. If we allow ourselves not to push anger away (i.e., say it isn’t important and distract) or perpetuate the emotion with our thoughts (i.e., paying attention to the angry thoughts instead of the sensations), the anger will decrease! It is also important to note that when we practice mindfulness of current emotion (or practice mindfulness in general, for that matter), our attention will wander from our focus on the sensations or anger to other things. This is completely normal. Mindfulness is about bringing your attention back to what you said you were focusing on again and again and again. You can also start getting used to mindfulness to assist with anger by watching or listening to guided mindfulness exercises like this one:
Taking Care of Our Physical Wellbeing for Effective Anger
The PLEASE skill (an acronym) encourages physical self-care to maintain emotional balance. Think of it this way; if we are having difficulty with any of the following, it makes it more likely for us to experience anger. Heard of hangry? That’s what we are talking about. PLEASE stands for:
- treating Physical ILlness (including chronic pain)
- balancing Eating
- Avoiding mood-altering substances (and taking the medication you are prescribed)
- getting enough Sleep
- getting Exercise
Taking care of our physical well-being decreases the likelihood of us getting carried away by our anger.
Effective Communication for Effective Anger
Communicating effectively can make us feel less stressed, anxious, and angry. For example, if you are angry because your boss switched your work schedule at the last minute, effectively ask your boss for an explanation (use that DEAR MAN discussed in previous blog posts). You may come to find that it was an accident and they meant to change someone else’s schedule. As stated above, anger is a valid and justified response to perceived injustice, AND we want to make sure to check all the facts before acting on that anger (for example, telling everyone you are quitting your job because of the schedule change).
Radical Acceptance of Anger
Occasionally, the things we are angry about cannot be directly changed, like getting a new supervisor or remembering a trauma that has happened in the past. Radical acceptance, in a nutshell, means fully accepting the reality of the situation at that very moment, even if it’s unpleasant or unfair. It doesn’t mean condoning or agreeing with the situation but rather acknowledging it. Radical acceptance can help us let go of anger related to situations we cannot change, freeing us to focus our energy on what we can control. Check out my two blogs on Radical Acceptance to learn more about the concept and how to practice it.
When we can handle our anger effectively, it can empower us and force positive change! Anger doesn’t have to be this out-of-control and destructive emotion that we may have been taught it is. It can help us get things done, set better boundaries, have better relationships, address societal injustices, advocate for equality, and promote mindfulness and empathy in our communities.
By practicing mindfulness, focusing on our physical well-being, improving interpersonal skills, and embracing radical acceptance, we can transform anger from a more destructive force into a catalyst for positive change in our lives and society as a whole. Remember, anger is a natural emotion, and with an effective approach, we can use it as a stepping stone towards personal growth and a more harmonious world.