Anger doesn't feel good. It makes our hearts race and our palms sweat. It makes us feel anxious and scared. We grow up in a society driven by the "pleasure principle"—the instinct to seek positive feelings and experiences and to avoid pain. If there's a feeling we don't like, we try to get rid of it. This overwhelming urge to bury our anger—or to let it erupt into intense rage—is terrible for us.
But can emotional discomfort be good for you?
Most of us find anger uncomfortable on several levels: In addition to the uncomfortable physical sensations triggered by our own anger, other people's anger also makes us squirm. Sometimes we assume people are angry with us even when the evidence doesn't point to anger at all. And if someone does get angry with us, we sometimes lie, cheat, or do something worse to alleviate our discomfort and diffuse the threat.
Our own anger can also be frightening. Sometimes the rage we feel at our children can be deeply upsetting and guilt-inducing. Because anger is so uncomfortable, it's incredibly difficult for us to sit with our feelings—to set aside distractions, mindfully examine our sensations and emotions, and find out what our anger might reveal. However, anger is too important and can reveal too much to us for us to dismiss it.
Anger is meant to make us uncomfortable. That's how it gets us to pay attention to it—and we need to pay attention. Each of our emotions, including anger, plays an important role in our lives by providing us with information. To fully experience and tap into the wisdom of our emotions, we must learn how to experience discomfort. Without discomfort, there is no change and no growth.
Here are four reasons why emotional discomfort is good for you:
1. Anger Helps You to Get Your Needs Met
How do you know what your needs are? Listen to your anger. If your insides feel like they've been lit on fire when you're headed home after a long day at work and your partner—who's had a relaxing day—asks you to pick up groceries and make dinner, that's a sign that you feel stretched thin and you need your partner to help out more.
2. Anger Helps You Discover Your Boundaries
Does your stomach twist into a knot every time you see your parents because you know they're going to ask you when you're going to get a better job, settle down with a nice spouse, have a kid, or have another kid? That's a good indication that you need to set a boundary. It's time to say, "Please don't ask me about my career/love life/reproductive plans today/this year/ever."
3. Anger Helps Us Get Things Accomplished
Are you upset because your boss doesn't appreciate all of your hard work? Use that anger to propel you toward a job that's more rewarding. Does it make you mad that there's income inequality in this country, or a gender wage gap, or poor resources for veterans? Let that anger motivate you to become involved in activism or local government.
4. Anger Strengthens Relationships
I'm a marriage and family therapist, and I teach anger management classes all over the country. One of the worst things I ever hear patients say is, "I never fight with my partner." This is terrible because anger strengthens relationships. It's in your conflicts and disagreements that you truly learn about your partner, including their needs and boundaries. Equality in a relationship means working through things together, compromising, and seeing things from the other person's perspective.
When you're afraid of anger or are afraid of people becoming angry with you, you commit to inaction––you stay away from people and experiences that might stir up unwanted emotions.
Is emotional discomfort good for you? The answer is an overwhelming yes! And until you learn to mindfully sit with your anger and listen to it, it will continue to make you feel uncomfortable—and you won't benefit from it. And what a waste of a perfectly good emotion that would be.
To learn more about emotional discomfort, please listen to my interview with Laura Reagan, LCSW-C for her wonderful podcast Therapy Chat. You can also visit my website or join me at one of my upcoming Mindful Anger Workshops.