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Anger gets a bad press. Considering it is one of the primal emotions that we are all born with, and essential for our survival from an evolutionary point of view, no one seems to have a good word to say about it. Of course, it’s not nice to be on the receiving end of someone else’s anger. But the feeling itself is perfectly legitimate and healthy. What matters is how you process it internally, and how you express it to the outside world.
So many of us struggle with managing our anger in a healthy way. As children (and girls, especially) we are taught to “be good” and not display our fury. Harmful expressions of anger (such as hitting or biting) are rightfully discouraged. But if nothing is suggested in their place – ways in which the child can express their anger, such as hitting a beanbag, going into another room to scream at the top of their voice, or verbalising why they feel so angry – they may come to believe that it is the emotion itself prompting this inappropriate behaviour. Suppressing anger can work temporarily. As adults, we can try and ignore it, but it tends to come out in other ways, such as through sarcasm or passive aggression. If we routinely deny our anger, it can lead to feelings of depression and, perversely, a reduced ability to feel positive emotions too. So what is “healthy anger” and how can we begin to express it?
- Go back to the beginning. As a child, you’ll have subconsciously learned how to handle anger from seeing your parents argue or interact. How did they express their anger? Did they resolve arguments, or would they sulk for days? Did they call each other names? Was the relationship imbalanced – maybe one parent was the “angry one’ and the other was submissive and compliant? Or maybe they never showed any anger at all? A telling sign is when people come to me with long-term symptoms of depression and say “I don’t know why I’ve been feeling like this for so long, I had a very happy childhood. My parents never argued.” While it’s true that some couples argue more than others, a life without conflict is nigh on impossible, unless we consciously avoid it. However your parents or other primary caregivers expressed, or didn’t express their anger, will have a strong influence on your own ability to handle the emotion.
- Look at your own patterns. What makes you angry? Who do you usually feel angry with? Where do you feel the anger? Is it in your chest, your stomach, your throat? Sometimes we can feel strong sensations in our throats when we aren’t saying the words we really mean, through fear of the possible consequences. How do you act in an argument? Do you cry, when you really feel angry? It’s a generalisation, but a larger proportion of women than men cry in arguments through frustration, because they’ve learned as they grew up that tears are somehow more “feminine” than anger.
- Learn to sit with your own anger. So often when we feel angry, we want to do something – anything – to change the situation. So we go and tell someone exactly what we think of them, we run off to the pub to forget it, we shout and stamp our feet and rage. These, however, are all actually distractions from our feelings, and don’t move us on. Paradoxically, sitting still for 20 minutes or so, and just allowing ourselves to feel the emotions in our bodies can help us really process it. It’s tricky to do and takes some practice, as our instinct is for action, but that can come later. Just sitting and really feeling your anger in the body can be incredibly transformational in itself. It also gives us a buffer of time so we can choose our reactions more consciously.
- Find a vocabulary for your anger. In the heat of an argument, we can be reduced to hurling insults, which is temporarily cathartic, but can be damaging over the long-term. Who or what do you feel angry with? Writing this down can really help – not only can you become really clear about your exact feelings, but it feels like you’re getting something out of your system without burning any bridges. You can swear and rage on paper all you like, and no harm’s done. Be as descriptive as possible – it’s for your eyes only.
- Identify your needs. What provokes our anger is often an unmet need. You are angry with your partner because they forgot your anniversary. You want to rage at your boss because they piled a new project on your plate when you’ve got a holiday coming up. Your children always leave their rooms in a tip, even though they know you spend hours running after them. Life feels unfair.
- This requires a two-pronged approach. The first part of this relates to self-care. Quite often we feel angry in response to another’s perceived thoughtlessness. Meeting our own needs can take a lot of heat out of our resentment of others for not doing what we feel is our due. Pretty much every situation in life can be improved by taking responsibility for our physical and mental wellbeing. What makes you feel good? What can you do, that doesn’t require the approval or participation of someone else? Listening to your favourite music. Going to yoga or a dance class. Reading a book. Drawing. Taking photographs. Cooking. Whatever it is, do more of it.
- The second approach is to identify your boundaries. What are you willing to put up with, and what is simply not ok? What alternative would you like to see or do? Be really clear about what you are unhappy about, and the change you want to see, in a situation or in another person’s behaviour. When you’ve identified your own boundaries, it’s funny how things can sometimes change without you feeling as though you’re actively doing anything. Something inside you has shifted, and you are clearer about what you will and won’t tolerate. What this can also mean is that you are better able to communicate your feelings, and people will always respond more comfortably when they know exactly where they stand with you.
- If you really feel you need something more, then try looking at the work of Mike Fisher: www.angermanage.co.uk This is an excellent site for information to read, courses to attend, and simple downloads for exercises to help you
- In conclusion:you may find that as you allow yourself to feel your anger more, discover ways to look after yourself, and communicate your boundaries to others, that your ability to feel other emotions is enhanced.Life is always better when we allow ourselves to experience the very things that make us human!