The Positive Power of Anger

Anger gets such a bad rap.  When we think about anger, we think of its extreme negative expression:  of anger acted out destructively or inappropriately.  Anger is a powerful emotion, and when acknowledged, understood, and channeled correctly, can be very positive.

First of all, anger just is.  As humans, we're all going to feel angry from time to time. Avoiding it, or pretending it doesn't exist, is destructive. The best way to handle anger is to feel it, and to try to understand where it's coming from.  Anger is our way of protecting ourselves.  It's the big red light that goes off in your head when someone hurts you or violates a personal boundary. Acknowledging your feelings and trying to understand what happened allows you to decide on the best course of action (after you calm down, of course).

So what happens when anger is repressed or ignored?  

Psychologists like to say that depression is anger turned inward.  In this instance, the person may not want to or is afraid to feel angry, so they redirect the anger towards themselves.  They may say things like, "I should have known better."  "That person is clearly better than me, that's why they got the promotion."  "I'm having trouble learning this, I must be stupid."  "He rejected me for someone else, what's wrong with me?"  All of this negative self talk leads to shame and depression.  I think it's always useful to look at your contribution to a situation, to learn from your experience, but if you're angry with the other person, it's important to be truthful with yourself.

Another consequence of repressed anger is fear and anxiety.  We may project out what we don't acknowledge. For example, if I was teased or abused as a child and still have a lot of unprocessed rage about that, which is totally understandable, I may not be willing to trust others. instead, I may project my anger onto them and see them as potential bullies.  It may impact the quality of my relationships and my ability to get close to people.

Because anger is such a powerful emotion, it can come out indirectly and in destructive ways if not acknowledged.  People often use the phrase passive-aggressive to refer to statements or behavior that are indirect and undermining.  All of us have experience with this dynamic.  It's the person who is very nice on the surface, but their comments or behaviors might have an undercurrent of meanness that betrays their true feelings or intent. You really don't want to be that person.  

So what do you do with anger?

  • Acknowledge.  Tell yourself you're angry, and that it's OK to feel angry.  It's just an emotion.
  • Understanding.  Understand why you're angry.  What's happening?  
  • Self-Compassion.  Be kind to yourself.  You may want to say things like, "Of course I'm angry.  Anyone in this situation would be angry.  I feel hurt (betrayed, violated, slighted,...).  I'm trying to protect myself."
  • Calm Down.  Think about what would feel soothing.  Would it help to talk to someone, journal, take a long walk, write a letter that you don't send, listen to music?
  • Action.  What, if anything, do you want to do about it?  Often, an honest, diplomatic, but direct conversation can clear the air and make you feel heard and understood.  Sometimes that's not an option. This is where an honest, emotional letter can be very powerful.  Pour your feelings out in a letter (and it may take several), but don't mail it.   This allows you to process the experience, acknowledge the feelings, and then let them go.  

So what are the positive aspects of anger?

We already discussed how anger is a protective emotion.  It lets us know when we are not being treated well.  It also helps us see when others are not being treated well.  Anger is an energizing emotion--it calls people to action.  When channeled correctly, it is the fuel needed for change.  It fuels assertiveness, problem-solving, and activism.  It can be the energy and motivation required to change what isn't working.