What's the Best Thing to Do With Your Anger?

If COVID-19 is making you angry, expressing it may not help.

Posted May 14, 2020

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“My son was supposed to be leaving for a music summer camp,” a mother of three told me as we entered week nine of the COVID-19 lockdown. “He’s incredibly talented, and this was probably going to be his entry into the professional music world. Instead, he practices a little while each day and then plays video games. I get it. It’s really hard to practice when you’re not doing anything with the music. And school is worthless right now. But I get so frustrated with him. Even though I know it’s not his fault.” And she burst into tears.

In the past few days, tempers seem to be on the rise. Numerous clients, friends, and colleagues have told me that they are feeling frustrated, irritable, and angry for no apparent reason. Parents are impatient with their children, siblings who seldom argue are fighting with one another, and happily married couples are squabbling over tiny, insignificant things.

It makes sense. Many of us have been cooped up with family members or friends for all of this time, without the normal relief of leaving home, seeing other people, and engaging in a wide range of activities. Of course we’re starting to feel irritable.

There are many tools available for managing these feelings, including getting more exercise, practicing mindfulness and meditation, finding some way to be separate from the people you’re living with, and practicing a number of behavioral techniques.

But there is another factor to consider when dealing with angry feelings: Anger is a communication from your inner self. It has some underlying meaning. Dr. Harriet Lerner puts it this way in her book The Dance of Anger: "Anger is a signal and one worth listening to," she writes.

According to Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalyst whose theory of Self Psychology was an early influence on my own thinking about anger, anger is often a reaction to feelings of hurt, helplessness, and loss of self-esteem. Leon Seltzer, who has great posts on anger and anger management on his Psychology Today blog, agrees. He writes, “even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there's always some other feeling that gave rise to it.” He tells us that anger is a way of protecting ourselves from that other feeling, either by hiding it, controlling it, or camouflaging it.

Anger makes us feel strong when we’re feeling weak or impotent. It makes us feel in control when we feel out of control. Seltzer has coined a terrific phrase that captures an extremely important reason that we get angry and stay angry: He says, “If anger helps you feel in control, no wonder you can't control your anger!”

It is, I would suggest, this very combination of feelings that is creating much of the aggression that is emerging not only in our homes but also in the streets right now. Anger, which makes us feel strong, feels like the perfect solution to these painful feelings of powerlessness, shame, humiliation, and loss of self-esteem.

But while occasionally snapping at a family member is not the worst thing in the world — especially if you are able to pull it together, apologize, and make up — bursts of angry acting out can be destructive, both at home and in society at large. 

Lerner says that blaming someone else for our anger is a problematic solution because it doesn’t get to the source of our feelings. Far too often, those others become victims or scapegoats of our frustration. She writes that we actually don’t always know the “true source” of our anger and tells us that we need to ask ourselves, “What do I think and feel?” and “What do I want to accomplish?”

The mother of the child prodigy was, in fact, feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. She was working full-time from home, and she was also trying to oversee her children’s schoolwork. “I didn’t sign on to be a teacher,” she said. “I’m really no good at it. But my husband doesn’t have time to do it either. It’s too much.”

But as she asked herself more about what she was thinking and feeling, she realized that she was also tremendously sad. “And disappointed. I’m so proud of my son. I see such potential in him. And I’m worried that this is a crucial time in his development as a musician. If he loses his momentum now, what will happen? I mean, in the end, it’s not so important whether or not he pursues music as a career. That’s a choice he needs to make as he gets older. But I want him to be able to make that choice. I don’t want it taken away from him like this.”

As she spoke about her sadness and feelings of loss, she continued to cry, but the edge of anger that had been in her voice earlier had diminished.

I’ve offered some of my own tips for exploring and managing angry feelings in another post on my blog. Feel free to check them out, as well as some of the other links to tools for managing these emotions that I’ve listed throughout this post.

But try to take some time to understand what your anger is really about and to respond to that underlying issue as well. You might be very surprised where that understanding will take you.

For example, after realizing that her anger at her son was actually a response to her feelings of sadness and disappointment about his possible future, she told me that she felt lighter, not quite so irritable.

“And you know what? My children are tremendously resilient," she added. "Well, they’ve learned that from their dad and me. We’ve dealt with some really difficult times in our lives before, although granted nothing like COVID, and we’ve come through just fine. No, we haven’t just come through them, we learned and got stronger and our lives got better each time. Who knows where we’ll go from here. Who knows what my son will do. But I bet it will be something good. We’re a resilient crew. I need to remember that.”

Understanding the source of your anger won’t make it magically go away. And even with that understanding, you’ll most likely get angry again. But looking for what your anger means can help you find other parts of yourself; and as you find those other parts, you might very well feel stronger, more competent, and better about yourself. And as a result, you might not need to get so angry.