The Misunderstood Emotion: Getting to Know Your Anger

person clutching head in angerAnger is a misunderstood emotion.

Some people believe they’re not supposed to get angry. They think they should go to therapy to get rid of it. Often, a partner or parent has told them their anger is a problem.

Anger is something many people feel like they have to control. Yet so much of life is set up to blunt a free expression of feeling—from sitting in a regimented circle in preschool, to not crying too loudly at a funeral—and the only response that often makes sense is to feel angry. Why do we need to control that, too?

Anger can sometimes just be the loudest thing in the room. If there are other issues going on (spoiler alert: there are almost always other issues going on), these can be conveniently drowned out by the destructiveness and imperativeness of the anger. I say “conveniently” because anger is often the easiest emotion to notice and to deal with.

It’s also perhaps the scariest. Anger can lead to uncontrollable, destructive actions. People go to jail or prison for such actions. People stay away from other people because of anger. Actions that typically present as anger are unacceptable in school, in the workplace, in church, and in many other settings.

Anger Can Be Healthy, Too

But anger can also be healthy. There are a lot of things in the world people should be angry about, things worthy of anger. In such cases, we seem to not want to call it anger, though. I remember learning the phrase “righteous indignation” as a child, as if people were so concerned we’d learn to be okay with anger that we had to create a new term to distance ourselves from it.

Anger can emerge in different forms. Some people, the ones sent to anger management, are typically destructive or otherwise problematic with their anger. They may punch walls, kick things, or get in fights. To many of them, their anger feels uncontrollable—they say things such as, “I saw red,” or, “I couldn’t stop myself.”

We often fixate on how negative anger can be—how it can take hold of us, how it can hurt others and ourselves. We talk about wanting to get rid of it. The thing is, it’s not going anywhere.

Others turn their anger inward. They are self-destructive, whether physically or emotionally, and beat themselves up. Depression, among other mental health issues, can look like this.

We often fixate on how negative anger can be—how it can take hold of us, how it can hurt others and ourselves. We talk about wanting to get rid of it. The thing is, it’s not going anywhere.

Anger is here to stay, no matter how happy you are, no matter how much you are in sync with the universe, no matter how much enlightenment has touched you. You are going to get angry.

And thank goodness for that. Because anger can point the way. It can spring us to action; many forces of change are motivated by anger. If it were the only motivation, we’d be like 2-year-olds, but combine anger with a conscience and a sense of justice and you have the makings of a social movement.

It’s especially important to get in touch with your anger if you tend to turn it all inward and it brings about self-hatred. It’s important to find healthier ways to express it if you are someone who physicalizes it. But it is also important to not feed it all the time.

Letting Go of Anger

Anger can be intoxicating. Think of a time you replayed an incident over and over in your mind. Perhaps something happened during your morning commute. You texted your girlfriend about it, called your mom, emailed your friend, and talked about it over lunch, yet you’re still thinking about it as you try to go to sleep. You’re not letting it go. You’re practicing it.

You’re just getting better at being angry. It’s not propelling you to change a social ill. It’s not allowing you to move on by expressing it. It is keeping you stuck, perhaps nursing your own self-righteousness.

You are suddenly at the mercy of a powerful and misunderstood emotion—one that gains more energy the more wood you throw on its fire.

So what does this mean for you? What can you do differently?

The idea is to feel the anger and let it go. Don’t deny it; you need to recognize it within you. (Many people I work with are unaware when they feel anger.) You can also learn to express it in a non-destructive manner—write it out, meditate, cry, draw, let someone know, etc.—and leave it there.

If that seems impossible, it may help to explore the themes stopping you from letting it go. Are you angry when you feel misunderstood or feel like you’re being taken advantage of? Do you respond with anger when you are shamed or when you feel helpless?

Spending some time exploring the themes around your anger, looking deeply at the topics that “get your goat,” will likely be helpful in finding productive ways to express your anger. It won’t stop you from getting angry, but it may help you stop staying there.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lacey

    lacey

    March 9th, 2016 at 8:04 AM

    It can be a healthy thing to let it out but it can also be taken too far as well

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 9th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    Absolutely, lacey. Finding a way to express the emotion in a healthy manner is key. Thanks for writing.

  • me

    me

    March 9th, 2016 at 5:55 PM

    Anger is a tough emotion to navigate. For me, I didn’t even realize how much anger I had inside me until I started picking apart my emotions in therapy. Taking a step back ftom the moment and putting things in perspective is helpful, hard but helpful.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 10th, 2016 at 6:47 AM

    “Me”–That’s not strange to hear. Some people pile lots of emotions on top of the anger so as not to feel it and to protect others from it. I’m glad you’ve found therapy helpful–and thanks for writing!

  • Tucker

    Tucker

    March 10th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    I am willing to work on my anger issues, but I think that there is a part of me that feels so good when I release that anger, like that is the part that makes me feel best, that I don’t want to not have those angry reactions anymore. You see that is what I like, that rush that I get when I finally let it rip. Sick I think and not that I am necessarily directing it toward someone else, it’s just that I would love to just scream at the top of my lungs, but then that is frowned upon in most walks of life.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 10th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    Tucker–the most important part is that you’re willing to work on it. I’m not sure I’d call it “sick”–is my wanting to have five glazed donuts sick? It’ll probably make me sick, but that’s different. Having that much sugar makes me feel great in the moment, but it’s not the healthiest way to feel that sugar high. Looks like you’re searching for some better ways as well. Thanks for your honesty and your comment.

  • Grayson

    Grayson

    March 11th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    While I do think that it is valid to release the anger I think that there are times when people let go of that anger and yet it is totally misdirected. They take it all out on the wrong people in their lives and if you are on the receiving end of that, well chances are it will not be too pleasant. I would just say to make sure that at least if you are in the mood to let it go that you not only have a healthy way to do that but that you are also willing to face the hard truth of where that anger should be focused.

  • Justin L.

    Justin L.

    March 12th, 2016 at 8:32 AM

    Grayson–thanks for writing. I’ve written articles in the past about “displacement” where someone takes out their anger on someone (or something else). Kind of when you’re angry at your boss, but you don’t express that towards her/him so you go home and kick your cat. Not a good setup.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    March 12th, 2016 at 9:00 AM

    There are some people who get to know this emotions all too well… and therefore this is the only one that they can be relied upon to express.

  • Justin L.

    Justin L.

    March 12th, 2016 at 12:33 PM

    Yolanda-Anger, for many people, is the ‘go-to’ emotion. We often call it a “secondary emotion” because it can be easier to show than fear, sadness, or other more vulnerable feelings. Thanks for your comment.

  • julian

    julian

    March 14th, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    I never give much thought that there is a tendency for many people to turn this rage inward and to use it as a way of constantly beating up on themselves. That is a sad scenario indeed, but one that is all too real for numerous people.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 14th, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    Julian–yes, it is sad and unfortunately true. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • geneva

    geneva

    March 15th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    I wonder when it became the norm for us to hide our anger instead of expressing it and then moving on? I honestly think that the people for whom they feel like they cannot honestly express what they are feeling are the ones who will eventually go off the ledge because of all that they have let build up on the inside. You know how good it feels sometimes just to let all of those emotions out. I think that there are more of us who should consider doing more of just that.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    March 15th, 2016 at 11:58 AM

    Geneva-Good question. There are some cultural pieces to this, as well. Some people are afraid to express their emotions because of how they fear they will be received. Some are just afraid of their emotions…It’s different for each person. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Karen S

    Karen S

    March 10th, 2017 at 1:44 AM

    Other ways to work through the emotional energy of anger are:
    *The SILENT INSIDE SCREAM: Bend forward and tighten ALL your muscles, from your toes to your jaw. Then scream silently into your head until all the strong feelings are blasted out … then into your heart … and also your stomach … in between taking deep breaths while relaxing all your muscles. Repeat until you feel empty of the anger (or any other strong emotional energy).
    *EMPTYING OUT AT THE CAMPFIRE: Imagine a cosy campfire meeting – Invite the person you are angry at and imagine someone with super powers whom you trust (e.g. an angel or superhero) commanding and ensuring that this person will stay put and only listen to what you are about to say … then let all your angry, hurt, mad, bad and sad parts say what needs to be heard (even if it is not socially acceptable). Empty out all that needs to be said and heard by all these parts inside yourself, asking yourself repeatedly, “And what else?” … until you feel empty of all those strong feelings … and able to either forgive the other person’s hurting part or able to calmly tell the offending person afterwards that you will not allow them to have any further power over your feelings … then let the campfire go out and the others disappear, basking in the relief. :-)
    *Use TAPPING (an Emotional Freedom Technique/EFT) to tap with your fingers on certain acupressure points around your face and upper body (see demo at youtube.com/watch?v=ml54upTRz74) to reduce the intensity of the emotion and bring you back into emotional balance.
    *KICKING EXERCISE: Lie down on your back on a mattress with your arms straighten beside you, breathe slowly and relax your jaw … then kick for +-200 kicks (or for 15 minutes) at a time – first with straight legs and knees locked, kick your heels into the mattress; then, with knees bent, stamp the soles of your feet into the mattress (alternate between these two ways of kicking until you are physically exhausted and calm).
    * DEEP BREATHING: breathe in only through your nose for +-7 counts … hold your breath for +-7 counts (imagine all the strong feelings climbing into your ‘train of breath’) … and then sigh out slowly for another +-7 counts (repeat until you feel calm).
    Important is to NOT allow your mind to get carried away with the story of what angered you – only focus on the energy of the feeling … and should your mind wander, bring your attention back to your breathing, noticing the cool air entering and the warmer air leaving through your nose, comparing the depth of your in and out breaths and whether you use one or both nostrils equally while breathing).

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