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How Anger Itself Can Sabotage the Practice of Healthy Anger

We need to explore the reasons we hold on to anger as part of letting it go.

Key points

  • Full commitment to cultivating healthy anger requires addressing anger about engaging in the process.
  • Anger can serve a protective role and, as such, letting it go may arouse tremendous anxiety.
  • An ongoing, conscious commitment to be the better version of oneself can help cultivate a new approach to anger.

Anger itself is often an impediment to cultivating healthy anger—skills and understanding that entail learning how to pause rather than react to potentially anger-arousing events. This is entirely consistent with the understanding that anger arises in reaction to some perceived threat—to our emotional or physical well-being and to our resources, including time, energy, possessions, attention, financial security, and to those we love.

Letting go of anger may feel threatening when it is experienced as protective of our well-being. The anticipation of letting go of anger may arouse fears associated with emotional and physical harm, loss of identity, and general disorientation associated with such change. This may occur even when a part of us seeks to live the best version of ourselves. There are several key reasons why this is the case.

Anger about letting go of control

Letting go of anger may arouse feelings of powerlessness, as anger often works in the short term. Through anger, we may intimidate others to behave in ways consistent with our desires and needs. And, in certain settings, displaying anger may serve as a very powerful protective strategy.

I’ve often heard this concern voiced by discharged prisoners who reported that their anger helped them ward off emotional and physical attacks while incarcerated. Similarly, some of my clients indicate that they embraced anger in a defensive manner while growing up in a neighborhood fraught with violence. In each instance, anger served as a warning for others to stay away.

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Angry man in counseling
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/lenblr

Anger about being accountable

Much of anger directed outward evolves from the perceived failure of the world in general and others to satisfy our needs and desires. In effect, it holds others accountable without having to acknowledge the role we may play, in our behavior, thoughts, or feelings.

Difficulty in accepting even a slight degree of responsibility often stems from the need to “save face" in the eyes of others and oneself. It is a strategy that wards off being in touch with feeling shame, an experience that itself only heightens a sense of shame.

Anger about the need for the time and commitment required to cultivate healthy anger

Anyone angered by the difficulties of learning may resent the commitment and time essential to cultivate more healthy habits in managing anger. In recent years, I’ve increasingly asked those who seek help for anger management, “How much time are you willing to devote each week toward working on your anger?” The answer is very telling.

As with those who don’t want to exert effort to lose weight in order to be more healthy or engage in other acts of self-care, such activities are considered “add-ons” rather than entered into a daily calendar. Such anger may also derive, in part, from a long-standing attitude that change should come easy—when it does not. The capacity for frustration tolerance is a key component for such commitment.

Anger about letting go of past suffering as a justification for anger

It’s not uncommon to hear those with anger problems express resentment about change when they have a history of wounds and suffering related to them. I’ve found that engaging in grieving and mourning about one’s suffering is an essential step toward a commitment to change. Such resentment may be further heightened when comparing themselves to others who do not have to do the work required to effectively manage their anger.

Anger about having to address dependency and discomfort with solitude

Learning anger management ultimately calls for autonomy rather than being dependent on others to take care of us. While classes, counseling, books, and videos may provide the essential skills for help for cultivating healthy anger, doing so ultimately calls for spending time in solitude. This requires facing the discomfort of being more independent, actually relying more on oneself.

Anger regarding the potential for facing shame when letting go of anger

Shame derives from many sources, regarding our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Anger toward learning anger management may be especially powerful when it serves as a distraction from shame regarding anger. Much of cultivating healthy anger involves exercises that highlight recognizing feelings behind one’s anger, including shame. As such, such engagement may easily arouse anxiety.

Anger about the potential loss of connection when cultivating healthy anger

While anger generally leads to a sense of isolation, there are circumstances when maintaining anger may actually foster connection. Whether belonging to a gang, political groups, or terrorist groups, a tendency toward anger may provide common ground and the basis for feeling connection. Letting go of anger may contribute to fears of losing one’s support system, be it a family of choice or one’s family of origin.

Any movement away from the cohesive experience of being part of the group may then arouse fears of ostracism and isolation. As such, embracing healthy anger may require courage and tremendous support in making a break. It is a commitment that can undermine a sense of meaning and camaraderie fulfilled by group membership and unified by anger.

Anger regarding the loss of an identity

As I indicated in a previous post, for some of us, anger is not just an emotion or a trait. In a sense, it could be viewed as one’s identity. The adoption of a cause fueled primarily by anger may be the consequence. Immersed in anger, we no longer direct attention inward for reflection. We no longer have to face our anxieties of choice and responsibility. Rather, we can focus on politics, the other, our neighbors, or even our family members as the dominant cause of our unhappiness.

“If it wasn’t for how they behave, my life would be more fulfilling.” “If only they would behave the way I believe they should, I would feel less anxious.” “If only they agreed with me, I would be happier.” These are the cries of disappointment and disillusionment that can powerfully inhibit the cultivation of healthy anger.

Whether you're working on your own or seeking the support of counseling or psychotherapy, it’s important to recognize how anger itself can become a barrier to your cultivating healthy anger. As such as you learn new habits of anger, it is essential to address those fears and anxieties about letting go of anger. This calls for mindfulness to recognize those competing motivating forces that may undermine your progress. It also entails an ongoing conscious commitment to be the better version of yourself.

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