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What Most People Don't Know About Anger

Anger is a signal—and it's one worth listening to.

Anger is not just a "bad" or destructive human emotion. Rather, it is an essential source of power and strength. It can give us the courage to speak out and take a stand, or simply to identify that something is not right.

Anger, when used constructively, is an important vehicle for personal and political change. It can encourage us to say, "This is who I am. This is what I believe. This is where I stand. These are things I will no longer do or tolerate." People who avoid and deny their anger can suffer as deeply as people who vent anger ineffectively.

Unfortunately, few of use anger productively. Instead, we do two unhealthy things with anger.

First, we may avoid anger and conflict at all costs. We are the peacemakers, the accommodators, the steadiers of rocked boats.

Or, we may do the opposite. We get angry with ease, but getting angry is getting nowhere. We get caught in endless cycles of fighting, complaining and blaming that only make things worse.

The problem with anger is that it inspires us to take action before we know what the real issue is. Anger is tricky because it's an automatic response to any source of anxiety or stress.

For example, a woman comes is furious when her husband arrives home late from work. True, he should have called her, but the extent of her anger is fueled by the fact that today is the anniversary of her brother's death-a fact she's not even consciously aware of. And she's waiting for test results from her own doctor, kicking the anxiety even higher.

Most of us get angry without even knowing with whom the real issue is. For example, a wife is furious at her dominating, insensitive mother-in-law, when the real issue is a marital problem that never gets addressed. She isn't facing the fact that she's really mad at her "nice-guy" husband who has no voice with his own mother and won't speak up on his wife's behalf.

In sum, anger is a signal that something is not right. But it doesn't tell us specifically what is wrong, or with whom, or how to solve the problem.

Before you march off to battle, make sure you know what the war is about.

It's important to identify the true sources of our anger and to change our own steps in the patterns from which our anger springs. With that in mind, here are a few dos and don'ts.

  1. Do speak up when an issue is important.
    It's an act of maturity to let things go, but it may be a mistake to stay silent if the cost is to feel bitter, resentful, or depressed. We de-self ourselves when we can't talk about things that matter.
  2. Strike when the iron is cold.
    No one thinks clearly in the midst of a tornado, so the worst time to speak up may be when you are feeling angry or intense. Take all the time you need to think about the problem and to clarify your position.
  3. Ask yourself the hard questions.
    "What is the real issue here?" "Where do I stand?" "What do I want to accomplish?" "How can I take a position in a way that will maximize the chances I will be heard?" "How can I lower the intensity in this relationship before bringing up the difficult stuff?" How can I avoid the "below-the-belt tactics that always make things worse (blaming, interpreting, diagnosing, labeling, analyzing, preaching, moralizing, ordering, warning, shaming, lecturing).
  4. Broaden your focus.
    Examine all the sources of anxiety in your life. If you anger is landing in one place like a big thud you need to pay attention to other important issues. (We all have them) How much can you give or do for your elderly mother? Do you know what your goals are for family and work? What is your plan to move forward in the face of a new health diagnosis? Can you figure out how to be in touch with that difficult brother you're cut off from? What other issues need your best thinking.
  5. Identify and change your part in the dance.
    You can't change another person, but you can change your stops in the patterns from which your anger springs. You may need to stop pursuing (or distancing) in a key relationship. Maybe you are doing more than your 50% of giving in and going along. Maybe you need to stop rescuing and bailing out that family member who isn't pulling his weight.
  6. Move slowly and start small.
    Anger propels us into quick action, but it's better to start small. It's the direction of change that matters and not the speed of travel. If you haven't talked to your aunt since your mother's funeral, better to send a chatty card than a long email or letter.

Read The Dance of Anger for specific steps on identifying and changing the patterns that bring you anger and pain.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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