There’s lots of anger out there right now. Perhaps more people are feeling angry or maybe folks are just expressing it more freely. Either way, anger is blooming all around us. When we don’t use anger constructively, it’s hard to get along together.
Most of us don’t like anger – our own or others’. Anger is uncomfortable and physically stressful. It takes a great deal of energy. Because of that, we might pretend we aren’t upset or, worse, blow off steam by lashing out at someone who is not the real cause of our anger. It’s the nature of anger to dominate our attention and perpetuate itself, keeping us revved-up and thinking obsessively about the triggering event.
But anger can also be an ally, showing us when there’s something not quite right in our lives. If we learn to recognize it, anger indicates that a boundary has been crossed, a fear has been awakened, or an injustice has been done. For example, we can get angry when our kids run noisily through our office, when they know better. Or a child angrily shouts, “That’s not fair!”, when his sister gets a bigger bowl of ice cream. If we are afraid that we aren’t good enough to do our job, we can get angry if anyone tries to give us feedback about our work.
All of that angry energy can give us the courage to do what needs to be done. We can stand up to defend our limits against intrusions, or work to ensure that justice is done. Fear converted to anger helps us make the changes needed to be safe.
Sometimes we can have a large reaction to a seemingly small trigger – that’s a good sign that there’s another issue making us upset and we need to address that issue. For example, maybe a driver delays the smooth flow of traffic by not paying attention at the four-way stop, and we lay on the horn and make a rude gesture. That may even trigger other drivers and begin a wave of anger.
It’s important to understand why we’re angry, so we can determine what needs to change. That sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, when we’re upset, we’re not thinking clearly. Our nervous system goes on high alert, so it’s almost impossible to think things through in the moment. As usual, pausing and breathing deeply is a good first step. That helps our system calm so we can access our reasoning powers.
Once we’re calmer, we can ask ourselves why we’re feeling angry. Often, when we take the time to listen, we know the answer. If not, talking things through with a good friend or spouse helps clarify things. When we understand what’s not working, we can begin to come up with possible changes that will improve things.
All of us get angry, and that can be a good thing. We don’t want to get rid of our anger completely, because it carries important messages. We do, however, need to learn how to recognize what’s really going on and use that angry energy to make positive changes in our lives and the lives of others.