Anger gets a bad rap in the therapy – and spirituality – community. It’s labeled a “negative” emotion, and for good reason. When anger runs us and we react to it, it can blow like a volcano and make quite a mess of our relationships.
But the truth is that anger isn’t inherently a bad emotion. In fact, anger, like all emotions, has a purpose and is a necessary part of being a human. Anger matters, and you can learn to work with it in a helpful way.
Why is Anger Important?
Anger arises in response to a problem in our environment – or at least, something we perceive as a problem. It is a sign that we’re not feeling safe and that an action needs to be taken. Anger alerts us when our boundaries have been crossed, a violation has occurred, or when we feel treated unjustly.
We need anger to alert us to situations that should be addressed in order to feel safe or respected. Anger is an energizing, mobilizing emotion. It gives us the energy, focus, and determination to take necessary action.
The Problem with Anger
The problem with anger is 1) we usually don’t recognize anger until we’re blowing our top and 2) the action our “reactive” self believes it should take is blasting someone. Most therapists would agree that the blasting option isn’t effective (or pretty).
In order to work with anger in a helpful, rather than harmful, way, we need to be aware that it’s arising, catch it, and work with it consciously. That means to respond, rather than react, to anger.
The First Essential: Presence
Learning to be more present in the moment, in your body (a technique of Mindfulness), will help you pick up on the anger as it arises, and more likely before it reaches the boiling point. Presence is bringing your awareness and attention into the present moment, as it is, with receptivity and without judgment. Simply notice and be with what you observe about your anger. This is the first essential step to transforming anger from a problem into a helpful emotion.
Make note of the sensations you have when you first start to get angry. Are you clenching your jaw? Tensing your shoulders, or making fists? Do you start to get a knot in your stomach, or furrow your eyebrows together? Write down what you notice, and pay attention as often as you can to when those sensations arise.
You may not be able to write down all those observations in the moment as you get irritated or irate, but try to become more aware of it by practicing presence as often as possible. The more you become aware of the signs of the anger arising, the more empowered you’ll be to respond rather than react to it.
If you have time, once you notice you’re angry, sit down and inquire about it. What triggered the anger? What am I fearing? What am I needing? What would I like to say right now?
It’s OK if you want to shout and say explicatives, as long as you’re not saying them to anyone else. Write everything down. Then ask yourself, what would be a helpful response to this anger? An action you can take that would help you feel more safe or comfortable and also be safe – even if a bit uncomfortable – for others. Consider a response that could improve the situation, rather than a reaction which will likely worsen the circumstances. How can you respectfully express your needs and stand in your truth?
A Quick Pause to Help You Through It
If you don’t have time to reflect, a quick and easy way to work with anger is 1) acknowledge it and 2) take 5 deep breaths. Feel the breath in your body, going in and out, slowly. A count to 5 for each inhalation and exhalation may assist you in slowing down. That might give you enough time to calm and center yourself, and sort out how to respond, even if that is just stepping away for a while. When we’re in the heat of the moment, the best action is to take a quick pause with your breath to buy you time for evaluating the situation.
Then, you can revisit the anger later and use the journaling and inquiry techniques to become clear on anger’s message for you. It’s really your inner protector, trying to stand up for you and remind you to value yourself. Anger matters – and so do you.