Anger gets a bad rap, but it's part of a healthy spectrum of human emotions. Just like sadness, joy or relief, anger is an emotional messenger. It gives us information about ourselves in relation to others and our environment.
Some possible messages anger might be trying to communicate are:
- I don't like this
- This isn't fair/just
- This doesn't feel right to me
- I don't want to be treated this way
Often our response to these messages is either to act out (by verbally or physically attacking someone else) or act in (with negative self-talk or self-sabotaging behaviors).
If someone is trying to hurt you, acting out is called for as a means of self protection. In many other cases however, acting out or acting in don't help the situation. They often make matters worse, especially in relationships with people we love. So then how can we relate to anger in a healthy way?
The first thing that's helpful to realize is that while anger carries a lot of energy with it, and it makes sense to want to act out/in, we don't have to act on our anger. We can sit with it, and observe it with curiosity without turning it on ourselves or others. This requires practice, but can be learned like any skill.
As we sit with the anger and observe it, we will notice that it changes. It may grow in intensity, and then subside, grow and subside many times over. It may turn into grief. It might turn into motivation to change something in our environment. It might turn into anxiety out of fear of harming our relationship with the object of our anger. Regardless of how it changes, sitting with it allows us to get to know it better. Once we know it better, we are better able to take constructive action rather than destructive action.
Being Angry is Neutral
The second thing that's critical to know is that being angry doesn't make you bad. That doesn't mean being angry makes you good either, it's just a neutral, normal part of being a human being. All emotions can serve to either help us connect with ourselves and each other, or serve to disconnect us.
Many angry people act in ways that create disconnection, but anger itself isn't the problem. Most of us haven't been taught to express anger in ways that foster greater connection. On top of that (or perhaps because of that) there is a cultural narrative that good, kind people don't get angry. This is nonsense. Everyone gets angry. If someone claims not to, their anger may be so suppressed they aren't aware of it themselves.
I used to be one of these people. I actually went so far as to believe that anger wasn't a real emotion. I thought of it as grief's big, tough body guard for people too afraid to feel the vulnerability of sadness. While this could be true in some cases, it's completely false in others. Anger and grief are equally real, equally neutral emotions.
Self-Sabotage and Anger
When there is a (conscious or unconscious) belief that displaying anger is bad and/or would harm our relationships, feeling anger can trigger self-sabotage. We can't act out, so we act in. We beat ourselves up with negative self-talk, we binge eat, we binge drink, we isolate ourselves from the people we love, etc. If you experience these behaviors, anger turned inward may be at least part of the root cause.
The younger we are, the more likely we are to turn anger in on ourselves. As infants and children, we do everything we can to protect our relationship with our parents/caregivers, because our survival is dependent on them. If it wasn't safe to express anger outwardly, acting in was our only recourse. Self-sabotage was actually a brilliant strategy in childhood to preserve our connection with our parents. Unfortunately these habitual patterns don't disappear the moment we turn 18. Left unexamined, self-sabotaging strategies we used in childhood follow us into adulthood.
Now for the good news:
Just as we learned to act in and self-sabotage in response to anger, we can unlearn these patterns of behavior. We can learn to express anger in healthy non-violent ways. We can learn to sit with our anger, and be curious about it. Best of all, we can use the energetic charge of anger as a catalyst for transformation, inspiration and motivation. It can be one of the most potent catalysts for positive change there is.
If you're ready to put self-sabotage behind you and learn use anger in a healthy way, my 7 week online program Bloom is for you. We dive deep into developmental psychology to help you understand the role anger and other emotions play in your self-sabotage behaviors. With this understanding comes greater levels of self-compassion and resilience. Click here to learn more.