How did you learn to think about your anger— Were you allowed to feel angry or did you learn how to stuff it down? Were you taught to express anger with your words or actions? Was it dismissed and invalidated with statements like “Calm down” or “Don’t overreact?” Or were you rewarded for getting angry with things like praise of the ability to stand up for yourself and a higher status among your friends and family for being strong or tough?
Anger gets a bad rap but we all feel angry sometimes. And many of us think it’s not acceptable to feel it or express it. So instead we either stuff it down and pretend we don’t have needs or boundaries or we erupt in unproductive ways and then feel ashamed and out of control.
Just like all of our core emotions, anger is natural and evolutionarily wired into us for a purpose. We often criticize ourselves for what we deem to be an overreaction to things if we get angry or defensive. But the truth is, we can’t control when our anger is triggered. It’s wired into us based on our personal histories and values, which are good and acceptable things about us. For example, if we really value loyalty and respect, our anger will be triggered any time we perceive a challenge to these values. We can’t control that, but we can control how we process that anger and how we react when we experience triggers.
This is the purpose of anger. Anger reveals our boundaries, gives us strength and energy, motivates us towards justice, and helps us take action to put something right. Managing your anger isn’t about fixing something in you that is broken, it’s about accepting your anger as an ally and allowing it to signal to you your needs, boundaries, and the things that matter most to you.
Many of us didn’t grow up with healthy models for anger. So what does a healthy expression of anger actually look like and how do we regulate it before it gets out of control? We have some tips for you to practice!
Observe and experience your anger and its corresponding body sensations so you’re not overwhelmed by it and react to it without thinking. When you breathe deeply and scan your body for all of the sensations connected to feeling angry you’ll be able to take a step back and get a better look at yourself and the situation. Naming the emotion and sensations as anger is a great way to start the regulating process. Notice the edges of your anger. Where does it start and stop? Where exactly did your anger get triggered? This helps us when we’re processing later what our anger tells us about our needs!
Shift your attention through distraction and self-soothing techniques to help regulate your body and release the tension in your muscles. This will slow your thoughts down and break out of the anger cycle long enough to think a little more critically about your anger. When you’re angry and about to pick a fight, you have a problem that needs a solution. High levels of physiological arousal make it hard for us to access the creative and rational part of our brain so step away if you need to so you can assess the situation before responding. The goal is to stop retriggering yourself with the “oh yeah and one more thing” routine and work a little more slowly to process one thing at a time. If you notice yourself getting defensive or critical, narrate your intentions mindfully. “I’m noticing myself getting [defensive], I need to pause before I say something I don’t mean.”
Validate your anger as acceptable and allow your anger to be an ally to help you identify what you’re really upset about and what core desires, needs, values, and boundaries currently feel threatened. Ask yourself “What’s the worst part of this? Is it the situation I’m in or is there something deeper being triggered? Is there a boundary being crossed? What needs to be protected or supported? Where am I noticing injustice or inequality? What action needs to be taken to make me feel safer?”
Stay curious and compassionate towards yourself and others even while you’re feeling angry. Try to look at the situation from a new perspective. Ask someone to help you understand what you might be missing instead of assuming there’s nothing for you to learn. Oftentimes, we’re angry because we’ve made unhelpful assumptions about others’ motivations and can clear things up a lot more easily than we think. Sometimes we’re projecting anger onto others to avoid feeling angry or disappointed with ourselves. Stay curious and keep asking questions!
Develop strategies to let go of your anger, which may include forgiving yourself and others or exploring what other emotions we’re actually feeling, like hurt, grief, or fear. When you have time alone to pause and reflect, ask yourself if there’s more underneath your anger. Like an iceberg, our anger is often just the emotion we can see on the surface and we need to take a look at what our other emotions are signaling to us about our other needs. Forgiveness is never easy, but if we can’t let go of our anger, it develops into resentment and bitterness. Once you’ve named the harm done to you, make a choice not to continue the cycle of harm through more anger and release the offender with compassion, forgiveness and hope that change is possible for them.
Assertively communicate your anger so you can connect with those around you. This ensures your needs get met and creates firm boundaries to help increase your sense of safety, fairness, and equality. Suppressing your anger to avoid confrontation will only lead to larger outbursts of anger later or neglect of our needs, loose boundaries, and higher anxiety. But when you are ready to talk, talk about your anger, rather than vent. Venting just intensifies and practices staying angry instead of processing and working to resolve it. Assertive behavior involves a genuine respect for yourself and others. It is rooted in equality where your boundaries and needs are just as important as the other person involved. The aim of assertiveness is to demonstrate that change is possible – that you’re not helpless when you run into conflict or feel neglected. This way you don’t need to act out your anger but you can verbalize it with the knowledge that you deserve to have your needs and wants met by being assertive, confident, and direct.
If you feel that anger is off limits or struggle with recognizing, containing, or controlling anger, we can help. Our therapists can help you better understand your patterns of anger and your needs to move towards healthier and more productive expressions. Contact us to get started!