ANU Centre for wellbeing

Anger Management

Anger is a very familiar emotion and when it erupts, we feel it as an uneasy sensation arising in the stomach area, a prickling at the back of the neck and our heart thumping.

We can express anger appropriately and in a healthy way. We are capable of using its energy to address some injustice, to stand our ground or to reprimand where necessary. However, we must do this without bullying, terrorising or shaming others. 

Expressing anger in a constructive way can:

  1. Bring clarity to a relationship 
  2. Move a relationship forward where it might have been stuck 
  3. Improve communications and understanding 
  4. Deepen and create stronger values within ourselves and relationship

When we cannot be comfortable with the emotion of anger, we either explode or implode. Exploding we give hell to others. Imploding we give hell to ourselves which can have both physical and psychological impacts on our mind, body and spirit.

We often feel ashamed of our anger and fear it because we have been a victim of it in childhood. We fear that we will become that same adult that could not control their anger. Shame that we felt after someone being verbally or physically angry with us, that we were less than or that something was inherently wrong with us if this person was so angry with us.

Also, as a child we were told it was unacceptable to feel anger and we needed to control it. We needed to be submissive to others in hope that we might avoid conflict that would lead to an angry exchange. We were never encouraged to feel our anger as a healthy emotion of hurt or pain. 

We have also grown up to accept that to show anger is to aggressively assert oneself and to show tolerance is to exhibit weakness. 

To assert oneself demands that you see the other as another being different from you and that you respect that difference. Also, that you are setting limits that are healthy for you in this relationship. It does not mean that you demand in an angry aggressive way that the other person sees your point of view. This is a control issue. The need to dominate the other to feel secure in yourself is detrimental in a relationship because there is no relating going on. 

To show tolerance is recognising where the other is coming from and shows that we can experience empathy and compassion.

 We need to recognise that anger is a vital part of our survival strategy; we operate from the reptilian brain, fight, or flight. It signals to us that we are under threat, and it stimulates us to mobilise our boundaries and repel the intruder. Our ancestors dug ditches and built walls and fortices to ward off danger. Now we can often only protect ourselves with words or actions that will hurt or annihilate the other. 

We also need to understand that we can store anger and later project it onto another person who may trigger it. We may also internalise our anger and become cranky and annoyed, frustrated, and wander around looking for a situation or a person to download or vent it onto. We might feel that this is getting something off our chest, but we evoke the other defences and therefore are not heard, or we become prisoners of our own anger and not good company for ourselves or others.

When we say or write regretful things out of anger, they cannot be taken back, and we are left alone in our pain which can easily turn to bitterness. 

The word resentment comes from the Latin word “re-senso”, which means to re-feel the same emotion repeatedly. Emily Bronte said that when we let our anger grow into bitterness, “It is a spear pointed at both ends”.

Should we manage anger or embrace it?

There is a lot of thought about anger management today. Certainly, it is important for those with a very short fuse to take responsibility for the way their impulsive tantrums cause incredible pain to others. But it might also suggest that those who feel deeply uncomfortable with anger that they should not express it all, as though it was something that they should not feel and therefore wrong. 

I think it is important that we make the distinction between rage or angry behaviour that is destructive and angry feelings which may be telling us something very important about where we are in our relationship with someone or event that we care about and or the wounds that we have carried inside us for years that have now been triggered.

Angry behaviour can be destructive, but anger as an emotion is a message. It is important to learn to embrace it and value it for what it’s trying to teach us, and find a constructive way in voicing it.

The following are suggestions for how you could work with your anger in a healthy way.

How to embrace anger

“I need to say something, I am hurting about X and it’s eating me up inside.”

This allows you to admit that you are hurt. It takes a lot of courage because you feel afraid that by being so vulnerable, you will only get hurt more. Your suffering is real for you; it might be important to communicate that to give the other person a chance of understanding the tensions that have arisen between you both.

“I’m doing my best with this, and I don’t want to make things worse.”

This lets someone know that you have taken the time to think things over before talking to them. That you are doing what you can to understand how they are feeling and how you may have contributed to the situation, rather than simply blaming them for what they have done. In attempting to explore this with them, you want to learn from this and believe it’s important for the relationship that you bring it up, otherwise you would not put yourself through this uncomfortableness.

“I need your help with this.”

When you are angry with another person, you have the natural tendency to push them away and have nothing to do with them. You avoid them and are passive aggressive or you are overly assertive, for example, “Don’t come near me, I don’t need you. You’re no help to me.” This only pushes the other away or invokes their defences. Opening up the possibility that you need them also to resolve this crisis will appeal to their more empathetic or compassionate side and you are sending a message that there is another side to this event, and you are open to hear it and discuss it with them.

“What do you think we each need from this relationship, at this time?”

Often behind angry hurt feelings, there is usually some need that is not being clearly expressed. Moving beyond anger to the underlying needs that you both have in this relationship allows for clarity and expresses the value you have in the relationship. It also helps to move the relationship forward because you now know where the other is coming from and that they may have different beliefs and wants.

When each person is given a safe place to say what they need or want, the solution to the crises (the way forward) becomes a lot clearer and communication is easier.

Options for dealing with anger 

  • Make contact statements 
  • Acknowledge and validate it 
  • Trace what has triggered it 
  • Note where you feel the experience of anger in your body 
  • Note what the anger wants right now
  • Find out if there is a solution for it externally
  • Consider if anger is how you express other feelings
  • Can you role play how you might communicate this anger or other emotions?

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash