“Get out of here!” Cassandra yelled at the top of her lungs. Finally, she’d had enough of her boyfriend’s lies and excuses.
Anger is not just any old emotion. It’s special. In fact, it’s so special that a 2017 survey by the Mental Health Foundation of 2000 people found that 28% are sometimes worried about the level of anger that they feel.
First, let’s outline what makes anger different from other emotions, and then we’ll talk about how you can use this information to become happier and healthier in your life.
5 Ways Anger is Special
- It’s Motivating: Anger’s purpose is to push you to protect yourself. Anger gives you energy. It’s activating, and it drives you to engage, not withdraw, as most other emotions do.
- It Never Stands Alone: Anger is always a result of feeling something else. You feel hurt, marginalized, overlooked, targeted, mistreated or vulnerable. Anger isn’t just an emotion, it’s a constellation of emotions. There are always layers of feelings underneath it, feeding it.
- It Seeks a Target: Other emotions can simply be. Anger cannot. Like an arrow shot from the bow, it looks for a target. This is what makes anger so easy to misdirect. It may erupt at the wrong person, in the wrong way and at the wrong time so very easily.
- It Can Be Turned Inward or Outward: Sometimes directing our anger at its true target can be acutely uncomfortable, and sometimes we aren’t aware of the true target. This is when we are at risk for turning our anger inward, directing it at ourselves.
- It’s Capable of Damaging Your Health: Research has shown that anger prone individuals and people who express their anger as rage are more at risk for heart attacks and cancer.
Anger is a powerful, protective, complex emotion. Yes, it has potential to do great damage. But used properly, it also has potential to help you mightily. If only Cassandra, referenced above, had been listening to these important messages from her body (her anger) all along, she would have asked her boyfriend to leave several months ago, in a far less explosive way. And she would have avoided several wasted months of heartache and pain.
Anger’s power means that it warrants special training in childhood. It was your parents’ job to teach you how to recognize anger when you have it, how to discern its message, and how to let it motivate and energize you in the way it’s meant to do. But far too many of us are raised by parents who do not have these skills themselves. This sets you up to ignore your own anger or over-use it, each of which can put your health at risk.
How to Start Using Your Anger in a Helpful Way
- Make an effort to become aware of the moment you feel anger. Usually, your heart rate will speed, your face may feel hot, and you will feel a surge of energy. The sooner you notice your anger, the sooner and better you can take control of it, and use it in a healthy way. The key is to know that you’re angry when it’s small instead of after it’s already intense.
- Regard your anger as a helpful message from your body, and put energy into figuring out its proper target, and what its message is. It may be saying, “Watch out for this person,” “Speak up,” “Protect yourself,” “This is an unfair situation,” “You are being hurt right now,” or an infinite number of different things. Listen to your anger, and it will inform you.
- Learn the skills of assertiveness. The skills are: being aware of your anger and why you’re feeling it (our first two bullet points); managing the anger so that it doesn’t come out excessively; and identifying the right words and tone to express the feeling to its proper target. These are the skills of assertiveness. And you can learn them!
Cassandra and her boyfriend Tim had been living together for three months. During this time, Cassandra began seeing some traits of Tim’s that she had not previously noticed. First, more and more he seemed to prefer hanging out with his friends at a bar over coming home to spend the evening with her. Second, he came home drunk many of these evenings. And third, when Cassandra tried to talk with him about her concerns, Tim became very defensive, claimed that he did not drink when he was out, and tried to turn the tables to accuse Cassandra of over-drinking.
Cassandra knew that Tim was purposely lying and trying to distract her from the real problem by obfuscating and finger-pointing. Each time she tried to talk with him, she felt hurt, rejected, mistreated and maligned. On top of all those emotions grew a wall of anger.
Even though sometimes, after one of their conversations, Tim stopped going out for a week or two, Cassandra’s anger did not go away. It kept reminding her that she should not trust him. Finally, she grew tired of feeling this way. She tuned in to her anger, listened to its message.
“Get out of this relationship,” Cassandra’s anger said to her.
By thinking on this for a few days, she developed a plan. On a Sunday morning, she told Tim she needed to talk to him. She told him she was not happy in the relationship and that she wanted to break up. Confidently and calmly, she asked Tim to move out of her apartment.
Every day in my office, I see wonderful people who did not learn emotion skills growing up, simply because their parents couldn’t teach them (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). To learn more about your anger and what happens when you miss learning vital emotion skills in childhood, visit my website and Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free!