One of the most difficult emotions to work with in therapy is anger. When my clients are struggling with anger, they usually don't want to be feeling it, or they want to be told it's okay, or they want someone else to acknowledge it, or they want someone else to take responsibility for it. I can relate to all of these scenarios myself.
You might hear different things about anger depending on which therapist you go to or which spiritual tradition you come from. These are my ideas and ones that I have found helpful for myself, and that my clients have shared with me are helpful.
Anger usually happens when our sense of self is threatened in some way. How we view the world is challenged and so this causes us to be fearful or feel threatened. Anger is a form of fear. When our mind becomes unstable and uncomfortable it tries to establish a false sense of order and safety by insisting things be the way it wants.
Generally, most of us can agree that anger is at the root of some of our unhappiness and the root of a great deal of trouble in the world.
Here are some examples of things that commonly make people angry:
We think we are right and others disagree with us
We think we are perfect and we can't own up to the fact that we may have made a mistake or we are unable to be perfect because people are fallible
People have harmed or abused us in some way
People have defeated us either fairly or unfairly
People have stolen from us or taken something from us that we think of as ours
We begin caught up in the idea that we deserve to be treated in a certain way, or our lives should turn out in a certain way
Similar to our attitude with all emotions, we don't have an understanding, or a rule book for what to do with our angry feelings.
So what should we do with anger?
Many of us were raised in homes where we were taught anger was bad. Anger, like any other emotion, is a part of being human. Causes and conditions in our lives will give rise to it. Women, in particular can have some pretty strong rules about how what they are allowed to feel and think when it comes to anger. So for us ( me included) we are likely to try very hard to repress feelings of anger when they show up. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. It isn't a very helpful way to deal with angry feelings, because essentially, we are just ignoring them.
Some therapists think it's good advice once we feel our feelings to share them. Therapists can become very attached to helping clients learn to express anger. I find my clients resist this and I find it's not very successful. Telling someone how we feel when we are angry, or venting our feelings is not necessarily the best way to deal with them. Research shows that this can backfire, making our anger worse. For example, research in companies where employees shared angry feelings, and done among children in elementary school, has shown this only increases hostile feelings between people.
There are situations where sharing your angry thoughts and feelings is helpful but those situations usually require very good communication skills, and would happen in an atmosphere of trust after you have processed your anger and thought through your options.
Activities designed to " get the anger out" have similar results. Hitting a pillow or a punching bag only increase aggression in angry people. We used them forever in the center I worked with for abused children! I can't bear to think back on how I was making the kids worse.
Some ways to work with anger
Working on transforming anger is the best strategy for dealing with your anger. Generally, catching anger when it arises and transforming it before it begins to blossom into anything significant and damaging in your life is a good rule of thumb. However, first you have to feel your anger using gentle strategies. Whether you do this by yourself or with a therapist depends on the depth of your anger, and the amount of anger you have accumulated. Mindfulness strategies such as meditation, practicing RAIN and the self compassion journal are helpful. In general, other strategies such as waiting for your anger to pass, practicing identifying and feeling your anger in your body, learning and practicing antidotes such as patience and compassion and putting yourself in the other persons shoes, can be very powerful.
Self Compassion with Anger
"I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight... I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence." Thich Nhat Hanh
The most important thing to practice is an attitude of friendliness and intimacy with your anger. The better you are at getting to know it and recognizing it, the better able you are to control your response to it. Keep in mind there is no shame to the emotion showing up.
Some questions you might ask yourself are you angry because:
You may be wrong about something?
You didn't do something perfectly?
You feel you are entitled to something?
You feel someone wronged you?
You didn't get what you deserved?
Things didn't go as you planned?
How is this anger helpful to you?
What would it be like to be free from this anger?
What would your mind have to do so this anger doesn't become harmful to you?
Every one us carries different perceptions, backgrounds, that will give rise to anger in different circumstances. Most of us are not right all the time and cannot do things perfectly all of the time. You may need to loosen up on those expectations. They are not serving you. Finding themes with your anger and practice looking at them and how they are impacting you. You may need therapy to process angry thoughts feelings and ideas so that you can skillfully work with your anger with the support of someone who can help you do it compassionately. This is especially the case if you have been a victim of abuse. The more intimate you become with your anger, the easier it will be to transform it and the less damage it will do to your life.
There is a currently discussion about anger and its use for good. Can anger ever be helpful? Yes! Anger that is motivated to protect others from what harms them, and is motivated by courage and love, and not self righteousness has been coined wrathful compassion. This anger is distinct from ordinary anger, and is the kind of anger that motivates social movements against oppression, abuse or inequalities.
Sumanasara, A. (2015). Freedom from anger: understanding it, overcoming it, and finding joy. Boston: Wisdom Publications.