It is normal to feel angry, especially in a world of so much uncertainty and conflict. In this article, I provide a psychological explanation for this common emotion and explore more constructive ways of managing it.
What is anger and why may we experience it?
Anger normally arises if we perceive that someone has acted in a way that we don’t agree with. We may direct this anger at other people, but it may also be directed at ourselves.
There are three main areas in which we can feel violated:
- When you are blocked in some way from achieving an important goal. For example, you were expecting a work promotion, didn’t receive it, and then feel resentful towards your boss. In this situation, you may find yourself saying something along the lines of: ‘How dare he not give me the promotion after all my hard work and loyalty to the company. I’m going to make his life hell from now on’.
- When important personal rules have been violated by others or yourself. For example, you may beat yourself up for not sticking to a new diet or exercise regime. In this situation, you may find yourself saying something along the lines of: ‘What is wrong with me. Why can’t I just exercise some self-restraint like other people?’.
- When your self-esteem seems threated in some way, for example people may say or do things that appear to attack your self-esteem and you verbally lash out in retaliation. This is called ‘ego-defensive anger’. For example, you may pride yourself on never missing a deadline and see this as a core part of your identity. If you find yourself in a situation where it is likely that you are going to miss a deadline (for circumstances in or out of your control), you become angry about the prospect of this part of your identity being challenged.
How does anger present itself?
Well, when a person is feeling angry, they may verbally or physically lash out. However, if this isn’t seen as being appropriate – for example, the anger may be directed at your boss and you know that if you were to say how you felt, you would probably get fired – you may instead displace this aggression onto someone or something else. For example, you may take work frustrations out when you get home on a partner or child, or even become physically violent, for example smashing things or knocking things over.
So, it sounds like it would be easy to tell if someone is angry…
Well, this isn’t always the case. Instead of going into full on attack mode, a person may withdraw from the situation by storming out of a meeting or walking away from a relationship or situation they find challenging.
You may also have heard of passive-aggressive behaviour. This can happen if you don’t want to confront the person you are angry with directly. Instead, you may go behind their back and undermine them, by for example spreading rumours.
Why do some psychologists see anger as being an unhelpful emotion? Isn’t it better to just let out our anger?
Contrary to the view that just letting go and ranting and raving will make you feel better, research suggests that over the long term, anger and hostility can increase the risk of coronary heart disease and other physical complaints.
This release may make you feel better in the short-term, but if you keep on letting your anger out, it will reinforce and strengthen the beliefs underpinning your anger. For example, you may believe that other people are causing you to feel angry and that they need to change their behaviour. However, it is highly unlikely that others will change their behaviour, so you will just keep on getting upset whenever they do something you don’t agree with.
That’s not to say that all anger is bad. It is worth considering whether there are situations where anger could be, or is having, negative consequences. For example, if you can identify anger as having a negative effect on loving relationships, your work performance or social life, then it may be worth considering how you would like to react differently.
If we can’t blame other people, then what is the most effective way of dealing with our anger?
Well, the first step is to get over the idea that other people make you angry and to instead focus on what you do have control over. What you do have control over is how you choose to respond when confronted with a frustrating situation or bad behaviour. For example, if you choose to go along with the unhelpful emotion of anger, you could end up being verbally or physically aggressive and do something that you may later feel embarrassed about. However, if you choose to feel annoyed or irritated by the situation instead of feeling angry, then this will help to prevent you from acting in a way that you may later regret.
If someone’s default setting has always been to get angry, how can they start to change?
Where thought patterns have been ingrained over a very long time – perhaps even over a lifetime – a person will need to put in a lot of effort and practise to change unhelpful thought patterns.
The first step is to establish the cause-and-effect relationship between your thoughts and feelings. The way we think has a direct impact on the way we feel and the way we talk to ourselves determines the way we respond to a situation. For example, imagine you are waiting for a train which is delayed. How you choose to think about the situation will determine the way you feel. For example, you could choose to be irritated by the situation, telling yourself something along the lines of: “It’s a pain having to wait this long, but there isn’t anything I can do about it, so there is no point in getting upset. I might as well use the time to finish listening to my podcast.” Or, you could choose to be angry, for example: “What the hell is wrong this time! I have had it up to here with this service. Do they think I have nothing better to do with my time? I’m going to go and give that staff member a piece of my mind!”.
As you can see from this example, the situation hasn’t changed. In other words, the train is going to be late no matter what you do. Any angry outburst is the result of your thinking about the situation, not the situation itself.
The first step is to identify if there are any situations where you regularly feel angry. Doing this will help you to raise your self-awareness and begin to identify more helpful thinking patterns and behaviours so that you can start to find ways of reducing the feelings of anger in these situations.
Instead of feeling angry, what are the different types of reactions that someone could have that would be more helpful to them in the longer term?
Instead of being angry, you could choose to be more assertive. By assertiveness, I mean standing up for yourself without being angry.
By becoming more self-aware, you can recognise the early warning signs of anger rising within you. For example, you may begin to notice that before you become angry, your muscles tense, or you clench your fists, or you become impatient. If you can learn to defuse this anger before it ‘explodes’ by talking yourself down, doing breathing exercises, or leaving the situation until you feel calmer, this will help.
However, to really get to the bottom of it, you need to be able to identify and then work on changing the beliefs that underpin your anger. For example, if you believe that the world owes you something and you get angry every time things don’t go your way, you would benefit from finding a more constructive way of dealing with life’s inevitable frustrations.
How coaching can help to raise self-awareness and build resilience
During my executive coaching programme for health sector professionals, one of the key areas we focus on is your emotional resilience. Better understanding what builds up your emotional resilience and what chips away at it, so you can cope more effectively with adversity and stressful situations, overcome challenges, and build strategies for success. To find out more contact me to book a discovery call.
Accredited Coach, Coaching Psychologist & Consultant