What we can learn from anger…

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.” (Aristotle)

I often hear from clients they don’t get angry and it strikes me how difficult it is for so many of us to accept anger as part of our chemistry.

Anger is a primary, natural emotion experienced by all humans at times. It is our natural response to threat or frustration. The frustration of our desires or the interruption of current activities is likely to evoke anger. Here I am not referring to the raging and unsafe anger that can lead to physical abuse and violence and which is often the accumulation of anger that has been suppressed over a long period of time.

There is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that the brain is highly threat-sensitive. When the threat or stressor is identified cortisol and adrenaline are produced to bring about the fight or flight response. Anger at this stage is a call to action, a notifier. The jaw tenses, muscles tighten, eyes narrow, we raise our voice.  This natural physical response is to let the other person know to “back off”. However, when threatening or stressful situations become prolonged, when neither flight nor removal of the stressor is possible, we can learn to control signs and symptoms of anger so well that we deny ever feeling angry.

Anger is a powerful energy. As most of us know, stored-up anger can be explosive. It can propel violence. It can be so terrifying and threatening that rather than express it outwardly, we sometimes turn it inward. We learn to shut down or go into our head and rationalise anger away. Addictive behaviours can often deaden our anger but don’t release the physical and emotional tensions. 

The problem is not anger as such. The problem is that we don’t understand the feelings underlying our anger. Perhaps when we were young angry behaviour was punished and frowned upon. If we grew up with a raging father or passive aggressive mother we may fear anger because of the pain and abandonment it caused. As children we learned to hold back and suppress our “punishable“ response and as adults we have often lost the awareness of what is repressed and how we do it.

There is an ambivalence towards what frustrates us. On the one hand we want to remove or even destroy whatever angers us but we also want something from it. Generally within anger there is desire.  There are unmet needs. One of my tasks as counsellor is to assist my clients in becoming aware of the block, identify the feelings and how one is doing it. The aim is to help them better understand how and why anger occurs and what triggers their anger. It is an opportunity for clients to express their feelings in a safe and less frightening way. When we are angry we want the other person to hear the content and strength of our feelings being acknowledged and that is often enough to help us move on.