AT some point, we will blow our top. There is more to getting angry than just venting. But anger is frowned upon and the least accepted emotion in the spectrum of human emotions.
Anger gets a bad rap because it’s often erroneously associated with violence. Truth is, though, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10% of the time, according to Anger Management: The Complete Treatment Guidebook for Practitioners (2002) by Kassinove & Tafrate.
The neurobiologist says: Anger is a heightened state of physiological activity in the body’s autonomic nervous system. The body spews a potent cocktail of hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that elevate the blood pressure, gets the heart pumping rapidly, increases the breathing rate and raises the body temperature. These changes leave us physically aroused, hyper vigilant and primed for a fight or flight response.
The psychologist’s view: Anger is a complex arsenal of emotional reactions to a provocation, such as a displeasing person or thing, or an unfair situation. In the short space between an anger trigger and behavioural response, our thinking often gets distorted – when we imagine, for example, that other people’s behaviours are purposely intended to harm us.
The physical expression of anger is how we take action against the injustice.
Unfortunately, how we mobilise in anger is often destructive and creates chaos in our lives and relationships. If we are able to fathom the complexity of this often-misunderstood emotion and harness its energy, we could channel it towards constructive and lasting change that fulfils our needs.
Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
This is particularly pertinent to our distinction between the anger (the emotion) and the behavioural expressions of anger, which is our response.
Could being angry actually be a gift?
Marshall Rosenberg, the psychologist who developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC), urges the shift in thinking that anger is bad and something to be suppressed, to considering it as a gift. An alarm that demands attention, something to be listened to and a catalyst for change.
In the hands of a skilled therapist, anger is indeed a component that can be worked with and analyzed to uncover more vulnerable primary feelings that stem from a person’s unmet needs.
Since much has already been written about anger as a negative emotion, let’s consider how anger can be positive. Let’s consider how your anger can actually be a gift.
This article takes an objective, non-judgmental view of anger as a very human and primal emotion, and then explores the potential of that space in between where one can be taught, in a therapeutic setting, to challenge negative automatic thoughts and beliefs and respond in ways that are more empowering and likely to meet our needs.
Here are three ways:
1. Anger could connect you to your core vulnerable self.
The word emotion basically means “ to move us out”, “to mobilise us” to meet our needs (Rosenberg, 2005). The trouble with anger is that it is triggered by the judgment we have of others and created by focusing on the wrongness of others. This externalises and transfers energy away from getting our need met, into energy designed to blame, condemn and punish other people and situations.
Good therapy facilitates an inner dialogue between you and your vulnerable core self. It helps you gain clarity about what’s really important to you. You are more likely to get your needs met when you communicate from a position of connection to your needs.
The next time you feel angry, delve beneath the surface feeling to identify the deeper primary emotions that your vulnerable self is experiencing quietly.
This is easier said than done as an angry person in their moment of anger is habitually consumed with the desire for revenge, to get even, to defend their pride, and to create the feeling of power and importance. We tend to protect our core self, and hide its vulnerability with avoidance and surface distractors such as the outward display of anger.
We are unable to recognise that beneath the emotional fraud of hostility and anger, what we are really feeling is sad, hurt, scared or frustrated.
If you realise that beneath your anger is a profound hurt, instead of lashing out and yelling at another, you could calmly and clearly communicate your hurt and get closer to having your need met. This kind of communication is connecting and could actually preserve your relationship, instead of sparking a fight and creating emotional distance in your relationship.
2. Anger could give you a creative boost.
Anger can be beneficial in small doses. Angry people are more likely to be creative, say researchers Baas, Dreu, and Nijstad in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
But this advantage doesn’t last for long, as the demanding nature of anger eventually levels out creativity.
Researchers observe that feeling angry is associated with brainstorming in a more unstructured manner, consistent with creative problem solving. Research shows that an angry (compared with a sad or mood-neutral) person tends to have more flexible, unstructured thought processes.
The angry person tends to see the bigger picture and is able to come up with more creative solutions. Anger energises the body and is important for the sustained attention needed for creativity to flourish.
So how do we channel anger into creative expression?
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron devotes an entire chapter on anger as a creative call for action, elaborating on the ability of anger to illuminate hidden aspects of a person’s direction and purpose in life.
Firstly, she says, we need to take the sting out of anger by accepting it as a natural and necessary force for creation. Many children are admonished for expressing their anger since it was deemed as bad. When we welcome anger with all its darkness, we reclaim these disowned parts of ourselves that we have repressed in shame.
Secondly, by bringing awareness to the anger and allowing ourselves to feel it, we have to recognise anger as an agent of change with a message for you. Listening for its message can transform what is holding us back, make the changes that get us back on track and release the possibility for anger to open the doorway to vitality, creativity and wisdom.
3. Anger Transforms
This is anger’s ultimate gift.
The change that may have seemed too arduous to even contemplate becomes possible given the fiery energy and power of anger.
Throughout history, a lot of the changes the world has seen, have been motivated by the passionate life force of anger. If you simply react in anger, you’ll probably end up creating more problems than you solve, but if you explore and examine your anger, both its outer focus and its inner origins, you can make beneficial changes that you might not even have dreamed possible.
History’s significant movers and shakers such as Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, all used the inner message of anger to create transformation. Biographies are littered with examples, where the initial action for peace and justice is motivated by anger against injustice.
Consider great protest singers, such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley and Joan Baez. They used music as a vehicle for expressing social and political injustices in a manner that moved people emotionally and mentally. Angry music can feel uplifting and satisfying, ultimately changing the culture and individuals within it. In their supremacy over anger, walking the path with it as an ally, they unleashed tremendous creativity to achieve their ends, mobilising others and ultimately making an indelible mark on humanity.
So, learn to modulate your anger to good effect.
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Shyla Sreedharan is the founder and senior counselor at Therapy Rocks.