What Constitutes "Healthy Anger"?
A call for reflection
Posted Aug 17, 2016
The history of psychologists’ understanding and recommendations regarding anger reflects the history of our culture’s ambivalence toward this highly charged emotion (Travis, 1989). At this moment, however, it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize the need for reflection to help us respond to rather than react to a very natural and informative emotion.
Let it All Hang Out!
In the 1970’s many therapists advocated that the healthiest expression of anger was to “Let it all hang out!” – regardless of its impact on others. Perhaps, consistent with the rebelliousness of the 60s and the “me” generation of the 70s, they suggested that doing so – as long as it remained verbal – would provide release for anger’s tension. In ensuing years it was found that doing so actually escalated anger, provoked anger in others and increased one’s stress.
To a great extent, this self-absorbed standard unwittingly encouraged a return to the throes of early childhood – a developmental phase marked by impulsiveness, minimal capacity for self-reflection and uneven consideration of others. Looking through the lens of neuroplasticity, we know now that such actions only increased the likelihood of their being repeated.
While their admonition may not be as direct as “Let it all hang out,” several trends in recent years support its underlying message that feelings should trump reflection. Anti-intellectual sentiments, reduced trust in science, and the heightened encouragement to “trust one’s gut” – collectively form a powerful force against thinking before acting, as a way to address suffering. This mandate calls for trading feelings for thought and is ultimately a petri dish for a culture of destructive anger.
By contrast, “healthy anger” demands reflection. It requires that we take time and exert the effort to empower the rational mind to override the emotional mind. As such, it calls on us to more fully embrace a major aspect of our humanity – our capacities to reason and problem solve.
We live in a time when many people view civility and thoughtful discussion as weakness – and acting out anger, a virtuous example of strength. And some individuals experience a call for civility as yielding to “political correctness.” Certain political leaders who stoke anger – as well as the presence of social aggression and bullying in cyberspace – further reflect this trend. At the same time, much of the media seem to grab for emotion rather than genuine reflection and discussion.
Many people feel totally defenseless against an upsurge of anger. All too often, I hear my clients assert, “My anger just takes over! I don’t feel like I have a choice!” and “I’ve always been this way.” And, all too often, an exploration of their backstory provides clear understanding how they have used anger to evade some inner pain. For this reason, I’ve come to view anger, at its core, as an outgrowth of a need for self-compassion.
When angry, we direct our attention outward – on the person or situation that contributes to our anger. In this way, being caught up in the whirlwind of anger diminishes awareness of our bodies and the inherent tension associated with anger: feelings of threat and other negative feelings that precede it. Such moments are absent of reflection. By contrast “healthy anger” demands reflection, the capacity to pause and assess whether the threat we feel is real and imminent, to determine the urgency of the situation, and to respond appropriately and constructively.
Throughout the years of my work with clients, I have come to observe the very positive aspects of anger and to define specific skills that are essential for the practice of “healthy anger.” These include the following:
1. Healthy anger means observing and experiencing anger without being overwhelmed by it and reacting to it.
2. Healthy anger means recognizing our anger as a signal to explore the feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that precede it.
3. Healthy anger means viewing anger as a signal to direct our attention inward to identify our core desires, needs, and values.
4. Healthy anger calls for developing self-compassion, which includes skills to enhance our sense of safety and connection.
5. Healthy anger includes developing strategies to let go of anger, which may include forgiving others and yourself.
6. Healthy anger encompasses compassionate practices that don’t cause suffering for others or for ourselves.
7. Healthy anger means learning how to communicate assertively with others.
8. Healthy anger enhances our resilience and overall well-being.
My research and clinical practice have informed my view that cultivating healthy anger involves self-reflection, using skills from three broad areas of understanding and practice: mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, compassion (including self-compassion), and self-awareness.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation help you observe your own experiences without reacting to them or becoming overwhelmed by them. It encompasses embracing the curiosity of a child as you view thoughts, feelings and physical reactions as being temporary rather than a fixed part of who you are. This offers expanded freedom to choose how to react to them.
Research regarding self-compassion has shown that self-compassion increases resilience and stability, decreases negative self-evaluations, defensiveness, and the compulsion to see oneself as better than others. Thoughts and actions that support self-compassion provide the soothing essential to sit with tension of our pain.
When practiced together, mindfulness and self-compassion skills “reduce reactivity, strengthen autonomy, promote emotional sensitivity, enhance understanding of historical sources of our hurts, and provide guidelines for safe, effective communication,” says Harvey Aronson, author of Buddhist Practice on Western Ground.
Expanding self-awareness helps us to understand the interplay of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that contribute to anger – and to identify those that help inhibit the trajectory of anger arousal.
By making a commitment to cultivate the practice of healthy anger, we benefit ourselves and others. Mindfulness, self-compassion and self-awareness can expand our compassion for others, as we become more authentic and happy in our relationships. These practices require commitment, effort and patience but they help us to lead a more fulfilling life.
In coming posts I will elaborate on these three approaches for cultivating healthy anger. I will also identify key challenges to doing so and how to overcome them.
Travis, C. (1989). Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.