A Healthy Anger Response

Expressing AngerWe all get angry sometimes. As with other emotions, we deal with it in different ways. But anger has unique potential for destruction – whether physical or emotional. So learning to experience and express anger in constructive and healthy ways is not only important but also extremely practical.

It’s useful to think of Anger as a secondary emotion. That means that it is rarely the first emotion we experience following the event that ended up making us feel angry. Anger usually arises right after some other emotion.

If we stop to think about it, we can usually fill in the blanks; “I am angry because __________ happened and I felt _________.”  That first feeling can be frustrated, scared, insulted, humiliated, hurt, saddened, victimized, etc.  An interesting thing about anger is that it doesn’t take a big event to trigger big feelings. Those feelings may be lurking just below the surface and events bring them to light. Many of us have “hot button” feelings that pop up immediately under certain circumstances.

Think about a fight or argument that you had or witnessed. If it was resolved, did it turn out that the real cause of the conflict was someone being insulted, disrespected, or seeming disloyal? These feelings (whether or not justified) often generate anger. It may be that to admit feeling disrespected or emotionally threatened, seems weak and makes us look/feel vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable is a scary feeling so instead, we respond with force: “You hurt my feelings deeply and I am going to become very loud and aggressive with you so I look strong instead of weak.” Of course that approach takes the conflict to a completely different place and whatever we end up arguing about may be completely different from what started the conflict.

So the key to more constructively expressing anger is first to figure out where it is really coming from – that first emotion. Then consider what respectful and constructive way you can channel that anger to make the bad situation better.  Anger can be a powerful energy for change and growth – when expressed in a healthy way.

Here are some tips for constructive expression of anger:

Figure out WHY you are angry

Just remembering that anger is a secondary emotion can put it in its place as the result of some primary feeling. If you can admit at least to yourself that your feelings are hurt, or that you feel threatened in some way, this can help you figure out how best to communicate and act on the problem.

Step Back

It’s human nature that we do cool off and then are better able to talk and think.  Time is your friend here. If you must write an angry email, write it but DON’T send it right away. Let it sit overnight and read it again to decide if sending it will really make things better.  In a face-to-face situation, tell him or her that you need some time to process “this” and that you’d like to discuss it later. This gives both of you the  time to cool down and think things through.

Decide what issue to address

Especially if you are angry with a loved one and have determined that your anger is secondary to another emotion, you may want to deal with the problem by being honest about your feeling. If you trust that person with your feelings, letting them know that you were hurt by their actions or words usually accomplishes more than getting angry.

Consider your priorities

What is more important, the issue or the relationship? Sometimes an issue or incident is a deal-breaker. (I can’t have a relationship with you if this goes on!) Other times, it’s just a blip on the screen of an otherwise positive existence. Each situation calls for a different approach. “Choose your battles” is a useful expression. If you are always angry about minor things, the important things don’t stand out very much. 

Choose Your Best Approach

During your cooling off period it’s good to consider what would be the best outcome for you. If you have a lot of anger about a situation but you are hoping for a happy outcome that improves your relationship, then you want to make sure that your anger itself does not add to the problem. If you want to “win” the argument, you need to remember that when there is a clear winner, there is also going to be a clear looser – and no one likes being the looser. So win/lose outcomes rarely help relationships. If the relationship is important to you, that needs to be a factor in how you approach conflict, how you resolve conflict and how you express your feelings.

Anger is part of life and is often challenging. If you or a family member find that anger is causing problems at home or work, feel free to contact Capital EAP for assistance. Sometimes just talking it through with someone else can help to sort things out. Our counselors and staff are there to support you whether your problems are large or small. Just call (518)465-3813, or contact a counselor now.