Anger is a universal emotion—everyone feels it at different times and to varying degrees. Anger arises in many contexts and the experience ranges from mild irritation (often referred to as “frustration” by women since culture doesn’t like angry women) to all-consuming rage. Even boredom is a mild form of anger which represents dissatisfaction with whatever is currently happening.
Feeling anger is a natural part of life, but is not necessarily an emotion we are comfortable with or have been taught to manage skillfully. While anger is often seen as “bad” or “un-Christian,” it is as important to our health as a fever is. A fever is essential because it tells us that something is wrong and is also the body’s way of beginning to deal with the infection creating problems. Anger is the body’s way of signaling something is wrong and creating energy to help begin addressing the problem.
However, too many of us simply act upon our anger rather than seeing it as a symptom signaling a problem. Doing this is similar to taking an aspirin to deal with a fever while never looking for the underlying infection. When the aspirin wears off, the fever is back and often worse than it was at first because the infection has spread unaddressed.
The same is true with anger. When anger is avoided or simply acted upon, the underlying issue goes unaddressed, and the anger often reoccurs at inopportune times with increased intensity.
Anger is a secondary emotion
Typically, we experience a primary emotion like fear, loss, or sadness first. Because these emotions create feelings of vulnerability and loss of control, they make us uncomfortable. One way of attempting to deal with these feelings is by subconsciously shifting into anger.
Unlike fear and sadness, anger provides a surge of energy and makes us feel powerful and in charge rather than vulnerable and helpless. We have all seen this happen. Think about a hungry infant. The infant’s first cry is a cry of distress because the child legitimately needs to eat and has no capacity to fulfill this need unless someone helps. If this need is not addressed, the infant’s cry switches from a cry of distress to an angry cry. When the feeling of hunger, vulnerability, and powerlessness becomes too distressing, the child becomes angry to distance from these feelings and to signal there is a problem. Until the underlying issues of both hunger and vulnerability are attended to, the anger will remain.
It is easy to identify the function of anger when it plays out with infants, but we often struggle to identify its function in our own lives. When I begin to feel anger toward my spouse, it is much easier to go with my anger and say things like, “You always sit there watching TV and avoid doing any of the housework,” than to figure out what is under the anger and address the underlying issue. It’s also easier for parents to yell about how irresponsible their teenage son is when he arrives home after curfew than to own how scared their son’s lateness made them.
How to work with anger
The next time you are feeling anger—whether mild or strong—instead of “taking the aspirin” of stuffing or simply acting upon the anger, consider deciphering anger. Suspend your desire to act upon your anger. No matter how intense your experience of anger, acting upon this emotion without identifying why it is present may feel good for a moment or two, but often causes us to behave in ways we regret later and seldom helps to address the underlying issue fueling the anger.
1. Take a time out. Pause whatever it is you are doing and check to see if you can identify the primary emotion driving the anger. It is important to STOP and deliberately think this through as it is usually very difficult to identify anything other than anger initially.
2. Check what’s underneath your anger. Ask yourself the question, “If anger was like the congealed fat on the top of the roast in my refrigerator and I could skim it off, what would be underneath?” This gives you a way to begin exploring the thoughts which are fueling anger. The shift from the primary emotions of fear, sadness, or loss happens rapidly so it takes deliberate thought to identify what lies beneath the anger.
3. Think about how you can address what’s underneath. Once you have identified the underlying primary emotion, ask yourself, “What would help me address this emotion effectively?” If I am angry with my spouse for sitting on the couch while I clean, the underlying emotion might be fear…fear the relationship is always going to be off-balance in this way…fear my partner does not value me and sees me as a servant…fear my need for down-time won’t be met. By identifying the fear, I can decide how to talk about this with my partner rather than simply blowing up about not having help cleaning.
4. Give yourself space to calm down. The emotion of anger releases chemicals within the body preparing you to flee, fight, or freeze so you won’t be hurt. It takes a bit for these chemicals to dissipate and you can’t think clearly until they do. By deliberately taking time to calm down, you give your brain time to move out of the instinctual “protective” mode and into problem solving mode.
5. Work the problem. Anger tells you a problem exists. Taking time to work out a solution to the problem, eliminates the need for anger just like taking an antibiotic kills an ear infection and eliminates the need for the fever. It is easy to avoid working through issues but until the underlying issues are resolved, you will continue to find anger popping up to tell you there is a problem you need to address.
Anger is a valuable emotion that alerts you to problems in your life so you can effectively solve them and build the sort of life you desire.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.