Anger: The Misunderstood Stepchild of Emotional Experience
As a mental health practitioner, I often encounter people with difficulty managing their emotions. Alongside a general stigma around mental health issues in society, there also seems to be a collective sense of shame and denial around the experience of anger. What I have found, however, is that people who say they don’t “get angry,” often attempt to deny their experience of it by repressing it or shifting blame onto something or someone else. Invariably, this doesn’t work out because emotions happen despite what is culturally acceptable and oftentimes in spite of what is logical. Why then – if anger cannot be avoided – are people still trying to do just that? There are many possible reasons for this. Below are some ideas about this.
Many people associate anger with emotional weakness, instability, or outright violence. This is not always without reason. People who have a tendency to become violent, also tend to be more easily triggered and/or quick to anger. Emotional weakness however, is a more common assumption with people who are not violent but tend to show their emotions, including anger/frustration, for all to see. The flip side of this is that people who are not emotionally expressive are often seen as even-keeled or ‘stoic’ and also perceived to be strong and independent. This is highly desirable in our culture and is oftentimes seen as sexually attractive as well. In fact, studies on dating and romance have shown that when people are unsure of a prospective partner’s interest in them, they typically become more attracted to that person (cite).
Basically, people enjoy mystery. This is nothing new. If people can’t read you, they can’t be sure what your position is and that also creates a sense of power, which in the realm of playing poker, gambling or winning at Game of Thrones, it most certainly is. However, in interpersonal situations where people need to work together/collaboratively, as in group projects or families and marriage, being void of emotion (including anger) impairs individuals’ ability to connect with their peers, partners, children, families, and even coworkers.
Treatment of Anger
In the mental health community, therapists often refer to anger as a “secondary emotion,” meaning that it is a culmination of, or the ‘tip of the iceberg’ for other emotions such as hurt, sadness, disappointment, etc. As a result, therapists will often focus on these other emotions rather than what is being readily expressed in front of them. While there is some merit to this approach, if it is always assumed that anger is secondary to other, more acceptable emotions, then focusing on what one assumes to be the issue can minimize a person’s experience of actually being wronged or suffering maltreatment. Sometimes, anger is the primary feeling and other emotions are simply accompanying it, as is the case with other intense emotional experiences. For example, intense joy is often felt alongside pride or gratitude. Very rarely are emotions uncomplicated by other important feelings.
The message then becomes that it is inappropriate to express anger and so people end up repressing it or acting out. When this happens, individuals often engage in self-destructive behaviors like using drugs or alcohol, over eating, excessive sexual experiences to name a few. Those who direct their anger outward often get into fights, damage property or inflict bodily harm to others. This is why it is so important to allow anger to happen, without any culturally predetermined judgement, so that it can be processed and dealt with early on and in a healthy way.
The Upside to Anger
Largely due to cultural beliefs, anger is underrated in its usefulness. Similar to anxiety, feeling angry triggers a process in the central nervous system that can be felt everywhere in the body. When angry, or anxious, the amygdala (emotional center of the brain) becomes activated and diverts energy from other parts of the brain to prepare for “fight or flight”. The degree to which this process takes over depends on the individual’s biological makeup, environmental factors and how intense the emotion is. But basically, when someone is really angry, their ability to think logically shuts down, their heart rate becomes elevated, and their body reacts - whether or not they want it to. This is not voluntary and the energy that is used in this process has to go somewhere. This is where learning the skill of managing anger (or any intense emotion) determines whether the outcome will be productive or not.
People who are really good at managing emotions often know instinctively if they need to take a break and attend to their feelings before responding to something. Once their nervous system calms down and they can think clearly again, they become highly motivated to change the thing or situation that initially made them feel bad. This is where people can channel their initial feelings of anger positively by taking action after their nervous system calms down, so those bad feelings don’t happen again.
Great things have been accomplished from the process of working through anger. For example, someone who has an awful supervisor and hates their job, decides to quit and return to school or start a new business. Or someone who has experienced systematic prejudice decides to do something about it and creates an organization that advocates for people in underserved communities. All of this motivation, strength and courage originates from the sometimes-powerless and often judged experience of being angry. So rather than avoid, judge, or repress it, why not learn to manage it and let it motivate you to create or change something that needs change.