Emotions are Messengers
Anger is an emotion similar to any other feelings such as sadness or happiness. However, it might be the most misunderstood emotion. There are many reasons for this misunderstanding. Perhaps we may have been told while growing up not to be angry, that anger is unhelpful and unhealthy, or we watch movies of people utilizing anger to pursue justice vindictively against those who have wronged them.
Some adults may act out or show anger in front of children simultaneously telling children to not be angry. Anger is an emotion most commonly used to justify negative behaviors. The question is not if we will be angry but how can we learn to manage our anger?
Emotions are messengers. For example, when a person is angry typically it is because they are hurt. As a result, anger becomes a secondary emotion. When anger is a result of being hurt the tendency is to act out in order to get others to stop hurting them. The problem with this response is that anger tends to be misdirected; hurting others in turn only causes more hurt.
Anger is typically a way of letting others know we feel hurt and when we act out in anger we are trying to make them stop what they are doing. It can also be a way to justify behaviors we know are unhealthy. The intensity of anger makes us feel as if we are regaining control over something that is too big to handle. When in reality we are out of control with the illusion of regaining control.
When we are hurt it is instinctive to be angry in order to defend ourselves. Anger is an energetic emotion. It can help us to be safe when we feel imposed and may help us to do something physical that we are not able to do normally. However, the problem is that when we act out with anger thinking we can cause more damage to relationships and end up with more problems than we had in the first place.
There are several things we can identify that cause anger:
- Stress: Stress is a major cause of anger. We may be stuffing our feelings as we continue to feel the stresses of work, school, family, finances, and relationship problems.
- Rejection: We may feel angry and frustrated due to the deep hurt that comes from not feeling loved or cared for.
- Low self-esteem: This is a serious issue that can lead to anger and lashing out at others.
- Hurt: Hurt is the most obvious cause of anger, such as physical hurt but more commonly it is from having our feelings hurt by someone we care about.
- Shame: Shame is a deep held belief that you are inherently bad. Shame is a form of anger that can turn into addictions such as alcohol abuse. Shame can produce anger for one’s self, caregivers or relationships because of this belief of not being a good person. (John Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame That Binds You” is an excellent resource book regarding shame.)
- Past experience or learned behaviors: both of these can also be a source of anger. This is a double message as mentioned previously; a parent in anger tell their child not to be angry.
- Humiliation or embarrassment: When something unexpectedly happens or someone puts you down in front of others.
Anger does have a purpose; it is an emotion that lets us know that something is wrong, alerting us to take action. Anger, in of itself, is a normal and functional feeling. Anger becomes dysfunctional when it results in violence, verbal or other abuse, or when the individual is unable to take action. Repressed anger can cause depression, problems with physical health, or emerge later when released on others in abusive ways.
Anger also causes physiological responses that may be helpful to recognize.
Physiological responses to Anger:
- increased heart rate,
- Rise in pulse,
- rate of respiration,
- blood pressure,
- body temperature,
- muscle tension,
- stomach ache,
- flushed face,
- shaking or tremors,
- and changes in brain wave patterns.
Recognizing the Problem
As previously mentioned, anger may involve other emotions such as hurt, fear, shame, or etc. Anger is a powerful energetic emotion that may be expressed externally as violence or internally as depression.
The expression of anger can be channeled into something positive such as fighting against homelessness or working towards helping others with issues like abuse or domestic violence. There are other things that influence anger and how we react; our childhood experiences, the culture we grew up in, different events that may be triggers, our ability to manage our reactions, our perception, and our own self esteem.
Once you identify your problem with anger you can learn techniques to manage anger in healthy ways. As stated before it is not wrong to feel angry; it is learning how to manage anger in ways that are healthier and productive. The old adage of counting to ten is actually on the right track for managing anger.
Learning to recognize the various signs of anger you can start using techniques like breathing, learning to disengage or walk away from the source that is creating the anger, and taking time to adjust and move towards specific strategies that can defuse the anger. What helps one person work through their anger may not work for another person.
Space between one’s self and the anger is vital. Anger carries with it a high level of emotion; vast amounts of energy can put anger into motion and without thinking or taking time out we can hurt others or cause more problems. For example; lashing out at others, yelling, stomping, and hitting. When we become aggressive it can cause problems in relationships that are difficult to heal.
When Mr. Angry Comes to Visit
When my colleague, Cindy Lee, works with children in therapy she teaches them — What to do when Mr. Angry comes to visit. It is not IF Mr. Angry comes but WHEN he comes. After the child gets a pretty good handle on the subject, she has the child teach their parents. Essentially, children need support and understanding from parents in order for the change to be effective and to maintain the child’s progress made in therapy.
Usually, the child’s anger stems from the dynamics of home life. Mr. Angry comes to visit everyone. In our society, out of control angry feelings have become so common that anger management courses have been created and are often court ordered for those that act out by destroying property, hurting themselves or others. These courses are often the recipient of jokes in the movies or stand-up comedians. For the reason that our actions from anger are irrational and out of control can make for great humor; we laugh at what scares us. Our anger scares us.
Anger can be our friend. Anger is like a warning signal because it lets us know when something is wrong. Usually, the underlying feeling is fear. The energy from anger can propel us into motion to make the situation better; this is a very healthy way to use anger.
A ten year old girl was brought into therapy because she was anxious. The parents were nervous about her safety and the anxiety of the parents spilled over to the young girl.
For instance, she recently had gone on a sleepover with a friend only to call her parents at two in the morning to come and pick her up because she was anxious and afraid. As the parents expressed their concerns for their daughter they also suggested that she baited them into anger with her.
In a therapy session I was having the daughter teach her parents about feeling her feelings and what to do when Mr. Angry comes to visit. The girl described a home life where yelling and anger are in her family’s daily routine. For illustration, the parent recalled an incident from the night before where the dad had become very angry with his daughter. They had been at a soccer game to watch their daughter play. The daughter left with her friend without telling the parents. When she was found the dad had her in the car and yelled at her for over thirty minutes.
The parents were very afraid when they did not know where their daughter was; to them she had just disappeared. For the parents, the underlying emotion was fear. They love their daughter and were fearful that something bad had happened to her. Their anxiety was driven by thoughts of her being harmed, kidnapped, abused, or lost forever.
Even the relief of finding her did not take away the intensity of the fear they had felt. For the dad, the energy of yelling at the daughter relieved the energy of the fear. However, what happened to the relationship in the process of releasing the anger? Did the love for their daughter that fueled the fear get communicated to the daughter? She only understood that anger was the way she received attention from her parents regardless of her behavior.
In my practice, I teach anger management regularly; many clients have trauma or family systems similar where anger seems to be the way fear, hurt, or many other related emotions to anger are handled.