Exploring Emotion: Anger

By Sherry Atanasio, LMSW

Last month we explored guilt, and in this post we will be focusing on anger, which can span anywhere from irritation (say a friend cancels plans last minute), to an all-consuming rage (fist fight outside the bar). Anger can also take the form of frustration, bitterness, crankiness, aggravation, etc. I’ve heard (and seen) various responses to this emotion from, “When I get angry, I see red and lose control of what happens next,” to “I never get angry when things go wrong, just really sad.”

Whether or not we are able to acknowledge or accept our anger, it does inform us if our goals are being thwarted, a situation is not turning out as planned, our values/self-respect are being threatened, or we are experiencing a loss of integrity, status, or power. Some of us externalize anger — we can easily attribute it to the person or situation that has evoked this powerful feeling within us. For others, anger tends to be more internalized or suppressed. This can look like enormous disappointment at ourselves for events out of our control, or the belief that “I shouldn’t be angry…” which can lead to self-blame and guilt. There is no “better” or “correct” way to express anger. Instead, it's more helpful to consider the cost of being “right” versus being “effective.” Here are some things we can do about it:

  • Check the facts: Describe the facts of the situation, instead of your opinion or interpretation of the events. For example, “My roommate just came home, slammed the door, and looks tearful” vs. “I’ve told her a million times, but she is always slamming the door to get under my skin!”

  • Opposite action: Doing the opposite of what our anger generally tells us to do. If your anger tells you to go on the attack, this means trying to gently avoid the confrontation or be a little bit nice instead. To use the example with the roommate, this could look like greeting her with “Rough day? Want a bite of my ice cream?” or simply stepping into the kitchen to give her some space. It sounds counterintuitive, but try it and see how it influences your anger. Ask yourself, “what’s more effective?”

  • Have some empathy: Imagine a really good reason for what just happened. Instead of flipping off your roommate, maybe you can notice that she has been crying and wonder what’s going on in her life. We can definitely recall what it’s like to have a bad day at work.

  • Check in with your body: Stop clenching your jaw and relax your muscles. Half-smile if you can manage it.

  • Take a deep breath (or three) and then decide what comes next.

Anger can be extremely helpful (ie: if we need to protect ourselves or our values), and can even propel us forward towards change.  However, it can also be intoxicating and convince us that what we are doing is right and that there is no other way to see or do things. Remember, we can always buy ourselves time and check in with our anger and decide how we want to act moving forward.

Sherry Atanasio, LMSW is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.