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Anger obviously gets lots of bad press, but it’s helpful to think of it as a ‘secondary’ feeling, wading in on top of fear, hurt or some sense of unfairness. You, therefore, need it to signal problems, your own linesman raising a flag as soon as someone crosses an internal boundary. Because it’s protective and motivates you to resolve issues, if used well, your anger can actually help you maintain healthy relationships.
Why is anger potentially such a problem?
The problems with anger come both from always reacting when you’re ‘in’ the feeling and from feeling it too often. In your own mind, anger makes you the victim and someone else the perpetrator. It dehumanises the other person, makes short-term, snap decisions, lacks empathy and prevents you from taking personal responsibility. Its aim is just to win and to force the other person to ‘bend the knee’.
When we’ve evolved to band together in social groups and your life, therefore, depends on good, connected relationships, too much anger can isolate you by rupturing relationships. Increased isolation causes more fear and, in turn, more anger. It’s the vicious cycle you can’t afford to be caught in if you want a happy life.
Anger’s also often automatic and intrusive. You obviously don’t intend to ruin your day by rehearsing arguments in your head, but you’re programmed to survive rather than to be happy and, as they come from your survival mechanism, you’ll automatically run with anger’s stories at the expense of your happiness.
Feeling angry is also very physical. It involves surges in cortisol and adrenaline as your body gets ready to fight, putting a strain on your heart and immune system. You’re only really meant to be angry to quickly deal with actual threats to survival, not all those times that your imagination, social media and the constant ‘bad news’ media might currently be triggering.
It’s worth bearing in mind too that it’s not just lots of anger directed outwards that’s a potential problem. If you’ve learned to internalise it, this can lead to depression, anxiety, addictions, even suicide, in a similar way to chronic, externalised anger.
How do you make sure anger is your ally, rather than your own worst enemy?
Get to know when you’re feeling it. This might sound obvious, but anger often pushes attention out to other people’s misdemeanours. If you try to notice when in any day you’re somewhere on the ‘anger scale’, which includes frustration, irritation, defensiveness and annoyance, you may be surprised how often you’re there without being aware of it.
Identify the ways in which you express your anger. It’s not just about arguing. Cynicism, sarcasm, silence, criticism, passive aggression, banter and humour, even doing the opposite of what you know another person might want, can all be less obvious ways of showing anger.
Once you’ve noticed it, you can use the ‘SOBER’ acronym from mindfulness-based practices:
- ‘Stop’ what you’re doing to avoid reacting in a way that’ll give you a problem to fix and mean your anger’s helpful message gets lost,
- ‘Observe’ – turn your attention inside and ask yourself why you’re angry. Try naming your secondary feelings underneath.
- ‘Breathe’ – you need to be calm to work well with anger’s message. Focusing on your breath should help you to do this, so have a look on the web for the calming breathing exercise that works best to stabilise your nervous system. I’d recommend mindfulness practice in your daily routine to balance your system and experience less anger generally in life.
- ‘Expand’ – when you’re calmer, you’ll more clearly be able to see the broader picture in any situation. You can test whether your anger’s story is actually true and have some empathy for the other person. Maybe no one’s ‘right’ and no one’s ‘wrong’.
- ‘Respond’ – although it’s a good idea to ‘pick your battles’, you might be used to letting annoyances go when you’re calm again. Nothing changes if nothing changes though and most relationships end due to a lack of communication. Where there’s a pattern of behaviour that’s a problem for you, it can be important to say so to avoid ongoing resentment. Just make sure you choose your moment, plan what you’ll say and focus on your secondary feelings. Speak ‘for’ your anger rather than ‘from’ it. If someone else is unwilling or unable to take your concerns on board over time, then it’s up to whether you continue in the relationship in the longer term.
You can see then that, although anger makes a great linesman in life, it makes a bad referee, so do try to make sure it’s working for you rather than the other way round.
John-Paul Davies is a counsellor, therapist, and coach. He is the author of Finding a Balanced Connection.
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