Can you understand how a driver might want to ram another car off the roadway in a fit of rage just because he or she was cut off at a light? Maybe that’s even you? If so, you are not alone—more than 16 million people struggle with anger while driving.
Of course, anger rears its ugly head in many different forms—so-called “road rage” is just one. No one is immune to feelings of rage, frustration, anger, or irritation at one time or another. I have been coaching anger-management skills in my private practice over many years in addition to teaching 52-week, mandated domestic violence classes to male offenders and working with high school gang members. I am passionate about teaching pissed-off, posturing individuals why anger is one of the most important emotions they have and how it can be used to serve them.
When I am coaching anger-management skills, I am quick to start the conversation by emphasizing that the goal of what I am teaching is not to help a person never to experience anger. Anger will never go completely away for anyone. A primary goal of anger management is to help the person learn how to control his or her anger, learn from it, and use it appropriately in a given situation. (I am not suggesting that violent acts against others are ever appropriate; I am focusing on the underlying feelings of anger and what it is trying to tell us about ourselves.)
In my work with regular folks, gang members, and domestic violence offenders, I have found many ways that anger serves us, but these five seem to be the most prevalent:
- Anger sets boundaries around us when we feel threatened. When something feels intuitively wrong to us, as when we are being mistreated, we tend to feel anger. This is an internal sign to us that we need to remove ourselves from a situation that is not treating us well.
- Anger covers up an emotion that we are not comfortable feeling. Many times when a person is angry, he or she actually has an underlying feeling going on, such as guilt, sadness, vulnerability, or fear. These feelings are so uncomfortable that the person would rather get angry than feel the underlying emotion. When you feel anger, one of the first questions to ask yourself is: what emotion am I trying to avoid?
- Anger acts like a suit of armor. Anger keeps others away from us and gives us space. Many times this can be an effective defense mechanism if we need space or want to work something out. Teenagers use anger in this way a lot to give themselves space away from a situation that they are not able to handle.
- Anger can prepare you for battle. As anyone who has ever gotten into a physical altercation with someone threatening can tell you, you need to energize yourself and pump up your adrenaline in a way that will be accessible to you in an emergency. Anger can harness your power in order to physically protect you if you are being hurt.
- Anger can point you to unresolved internal issues. If you find yourself having feelings of anger when you think of someone in your life, an issue from your childhood, or a future event that you are dreading, you more than likely have something unresolved going on. Maybe your friend asked you to help host a neighborhood barbecue and you have trouble saying no, when you really don’t want to help. You feel resentment and anger toward your friend, when in fact you are the one who has trouble setting boundaries and saying no. Or maybe you hold anger from a breakup that has left you lacking in trust of the opposite sex, and every time you think of your ex you get angry and bitter. You can use this feeling of anger to realize that you may need to get some closure or process this termination of your relationship so you can learn how to let it go and move on.
In learning how to become a better listener to your feelings of anger as they arise, you can begin to learn things about yourself that you may not have known. You will never be free of anger popping up in your life, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As the above list points out, anger is an incredibly valuable guide to help you gain insight into your true self.
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