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  • Writer's pictureLehandra Riley

Understanding Anger

Updated: Jun 8, 2023


Since childhood we have all been conditioned to respond to and deal with anger in a particular way. Sometimes the message around anger is that it is a negative emotion, unacceptable, unattractive and even dangerous. Or that it is one of those emotions that should be hidden and dealt with in hushed tones privately. As a result we often mask our anger or bottle it up, until our capacity for maintaining our composure reaches its end and we (for a lack of a better word) explode!


After the explosion we are left with a whole new range of emotions such as regret, shame, embarrassment and even feelings of hopelessness or despair. The good news is that anger is not a negative emotion. It is important to remember that ALL emotions are valid and should be allowed to be expressed. What can become problematic is the way we express our anger or when we do not express it at all. Even more good news: This can be addressed and improved upon.


Think of yourself as a superhero who has no control over their powers yet. The powers are not bad or negative, in fact they can be used for good. Here are some ways in which anger benefits us:

  • Anger helps us survive. Think of a mama bear protecting her cub. Anger becomes an essential tool when it comes to protecting ourselves and the ones we love. Anger essentially alerts us to danger and provides the aggression needed to overcome a stronger attacker.



  • Anger motivates us. Research shows that anger significantly activates in the left anterior cortex of the brain, which is associated with positive approach behaviours. Therefore, anger can potentially provide us with the energy that may be necessary to take action towards achieving certain goals or correct difficult or unjust situations.



  • Anger gives a sense of control and optimism. Anger propels us to use our individual power (alone or collectively) to inflict cost or withhold benefits in order to get us what we need. Individuals who experience and express anger constructively are in better positions to fulfill their needs and control their destiny than those who ignore or suppress their anger.



  • Anger increases co-operation. Anger can facilitate harmony and facilitate greater cooperation in relationships. When anger is justified, expressed constructively, and the response is appropriate, often times conflicts and misunderstandings are resolved. The constructive expression of anger in personal relationships is healthy and necessary as it allows for greater emotional intimacy and cooperation. E.g. when a parent expresses anger in a healthy way towards a child in order to protect and educate them.



  • Anger can lead to self improvement. Anger can serve as an opportunity for emotional and spiritual growth. Anger is often an indication that there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. When we are open and curious to exploring the root cause of our anger it can bring us insights into our faults and shortcomings, which leads to character development and greater self-esteem. Sometimes this can be difficult to do on our own. This is where a counsellor can come in handy. Remember we are not our anger. We are however in a position to steer and control our anger. Like Donkey in Shrek we can use our Anger Dragon to our advantage.


  • Feeling anger expands emotional intelligence. When we acknowledge our struggles with anger and have a willingness to embrace and express it (without repression or avoidance) it is a sign of emotional intelligence. People with emotional intelligence do not resist anger, but welcome it with caution and curiosity. After all, anger is a powerful emotion and needs to be handled with care. When we express and handle our anger in a healthy manner we also build emotional resilience.

In order to benefit from anger we need to understand it. There are various media that explores anger and offers various perspectives. It is important to research widely see what applies to you and your specific circumstances. The following perspective is but one of many, but it will offer some insight into how anger functions.


Anger Targets and Projection:

An anger target can be a person, place, a thing, or a group. We project all our anger onto that person, place, thing, or group. This could have originated from a person from our past that hurt us long ago (intentionally or unintentionally), but our anger towards that person resurfaces to this day when we identify them in others. It could be a trait such as “when someone is dismissive with us” or “when someone does not take responsibility for their actions”, this triggers us and takes us back to the person that hurt us in the past.


In this way we project our anger onto the anger target. The anger target is not the original source of our current anger, but a scapegoat. We can project our anger onto anger targets for years and psychologically allow ourselves to continuously get triggered by our anger targets.

We might think we have made peace or dealt with the source of our anger from our past, however it is important to notice reoccurring patterns that matches the original source of our anger. How does the past anger match what is triggering us now?


Anger targets live rent free in our heads and keep resurfacing as we get triggered. Being angry towards an anger target is not helpful as it is not the original source of our anger and therefore reconciliation is hard as we will continue to get angry at this anger target as the root of the trigger is not addressed. Therefore, the anger of the present moment can fail to resolve or be accurately addressed as the root lies in the past.


Anger can sometimes come from our desire to match our body the same way as how trauma manifests in the body. E.g., when we experience a fight or flight trauma response automatically within our bodies, anger can be a protective mechanism and manifest as a fight trauma response. Even though our anger in that moment is directed at something or someone in present our bodies are reminded of a past experience and therefore adds to feeling triggered.


Another link to anger being felt in our bodies is when our bodies lack basic needs such as food. Yes, being hangry is a thing!


“Hunger as a state actually causes a lot of shifts in hormones, brain processes and the peripheral nervous system that are comparable to what we see in anger, fear and sadness,” explains Lindquist. “The reason we have emotions in the first place is to help our bodies maintain homeostasis. Your brain is always trying to monitor the body and make sure you’re in homeostasis and if you’re not, it sends a signal to the body that we have to shift some things. That shift out of homeostasis into this state [of needing food] is experienced as negative, [triggering] cascades of hormones like cortisol, fight or flight responses, and so on. Ultimately your brain is sending a signal to your body that things are not good and need to be figured out.’” (NBCNEWS.com)


Reframing your Thoughts and Challenging your Anger Target:

It is not easy for someone who is struggling with anger to adopt a positive “don’t worry, be happy” mindset. It can even come across as triggering and condescending when others suggest this. Therefore, it is important to focus on thinking accurately. E.g. understanding that the anger target is not necessarily the source of your anger and that the source might be something or someone else.


Anger is usually also tied to other emotional states such as fear, anxiety, or sadness. Instead of feeling those emotional states we defer to anger. It also sometimes (in the moment) feels better to be angry than feel other types of emotions. However, it is important to understand and know that all emotions are valid and have their function and place. We do not always have control over these emotions, but we do have control over how we manage them.


In a state of anger our body also releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can make it difficult to make sense of why we are feeling the way we do. We then simply just feel or act (anger takes over). When this happens it is important to manage your anger or emotions in the moment. Walking away from a potentially volatile situation and taking a few minutes to manage your emotions is very important. Breathing and grounding exercises works well. Once we have calmed our body’s responses to anger down, we can start to focus on the source of our anger. This is usually done in a safe, private, and controlled environment e.g., the counselling space.


Many times (due to pain, perceived injustice or feeling wronged) we may feel entitled to react in an angry manner. This can cause our anger to take over and lead to behaviour that is unhealthy and inappropriate. This then leads to anger being in control instead of us. In this way we lose control and anger becomes the puppeteer and we become the puppets.




Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when this is the case:

  • We cannot control how we feel, but we can control how we manage our emotions. Are we in control of our emotions or are our emotions in control of us? Is the dog wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog?

  • Life is not fair and sometimes we are handed the short end of the stick. However, do you want to be right, or do you want to have peace? Being a right fighter might sometimes cost us more and lead to even more unfair and unjust behaviour. Others will not always understand our viewpoint (even if we are 100% correct in that moment). Accepting this and accepting that it is okay if they don’t understand or agree (at least you know what you know and you accept your point of view as much as you accept theirs). Remember accepting other’s right to have different opinions does not mean you agree with them or that they are appropriate or correct. It comes down to respect for human autonomy.

  • Is my anger directed at the source or the target? Am I projecting my anger or channeling my anger in a healthy manner to determine the source?

  • Is this way of responding helpful? In what other ways can I respond in this situation? What is the most healthy and helpful option for me right now?

Sans adjectives as a tool to manage anger:

Sans adjectives means without adjectives. When you are angry, and you describe the situation out loud or in your mind delete all the adjectives. This means that instead of saying e.g.: "I can’t believe this stupid, idiotic person can be so thick and not understand what the *expletive* I’m saying." Reframe without adjectives to "I can’t believe this person cannot understand what I am saying." This takes you to the heart of the trigger and shows you why you are upset. In this example the person feels misunderstood and has a need for understanding. To get understanding we should probably approach the person we want understanding from, from a different angle. Uncontrolled anger is not the best solution. Try to place yourself into the person’s shoes who is not understanding you. Are you going to try to understand someone who is responding to you in a hostile manner? Most likely not.


The above example shows how when we correctly use sans adjectives, we can identify what we need from others. Then (once calm and returned to homeostasis) we can figure out how to get from others what we need.


Keep being curious about your anger and how you manage it. Keep training your anger management skills and incorporate them with other means of self-care. When things get tough to manage on your own, reach out. A good soldier knows when to call in reinforcements.

Sources:


The concept of Anger Target and sans adjectives were taken from Dr Christian Conte’s concept as discussed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhLx8dm_2FY

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