Anger gets a bad rep - and yet experiencing anger is a pretty unavoidable part of the human experience. It fuels heated exchanges between couples at counselling, we feel it in the resentment of our colleague who has been overlooked for a promotion, and we can even see it in the eyes of our toddler when we refuse their demands for just-one-more sweetie. Worst of all though, is when we feel anger bubbling up within ourselves, afraid that it will pour out, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. So instead, we try (and let’s be honest, mostly fail) to bite our tongues and repress any feelings of anger. But what if we’re misunderstanding anger’s role in our lives? And what if, instead of trying to suppress it, we could find a way to channel it for change?
Anger; the most misunderstood emotion?
Anger is often seen as a destructive force. This dates all the way back to Greek mythology: anger was embodied by the Goddess Lyssa, who was sent to torture earthly souls. Our perception of anger as a ‘bad’ emotion appears to have carried through to the present day: medical researchers have established a link between anger and increased risk of hypertension  and psychology research  warns us that anger can cause irreparable harm to our relationships. So, if we don’t want to end up seething and alone, then suppressing our anger can seem, at the surface level, like a sensible choice, right?
Wrong. Anger is as unavoidable as it is uncomfortable. Anger is our brain’s way of telling us when we need to act to ensure the survival of our body and integrity (our own or other people’s that is), yet knowing that doesn’t make feeling it any easier. As with other less-pleasant emotions (sadness, guilt, worry) the temptation to try and avoid feeling angry can be hard to shake off. Trying to avoid, or suppress, a feeling (such as anger), however, rather than processing it, makes it all the more likely to sneak up on us in unexpected places (on the phone to an insurance company, in the supermarket with our kids, at home with our incontinent cat) and in unlikely of ways (binge eating, over-exercising, drinking to excess) .
When it comes to anger then, it can feel like we’re damned if we do express it and damned if we don’t. Yet, somewhere on the spectrum between howling fits of rage and passive-aggressive post-it-noting, there must be a way of channelling (perhaps even harnessing) it, the question is how?
Feeling angry vs being aggressive.
When we talk about anger we often make the mistake of confusing it with its tempestuous cousin; aggression. Yet this subtle distinction between the two is key: anger is a feeling and aggression is a behaviour. So, whilst we may feel angry (and we do and we will, because we are human and Freddo’s no longer cost a penny), crucially we can still have control over how we choose to express our anger. Interestingly, research  also shows that the more we try to control our internal feelings of anger, the harder it becomes to control our aggressive behavioural response. So whilst we’re busy extolling precious energy on (a pretty futile) attempt to control our feelings, evidence shows that our energy may be better spent focusing on how we can constructively respond to situations which really get on our wick.
Anger can be just as productive as it can be destructive, and if we approach it with a sense of curiosity, as opposed to inner judgement, we can use it to dramatically improve our circumstances. For example, if we were to feel angry in response to a colleague taking credit for our work, we could choose to either; act aggressively (passively or otherwise) with said colleague by complaining about them to our work friends, or by refusing to collaborate with them in future. Alternatively, we could use this anger to establish better boundaries with them, to ensure that this won’t happen again: such as by putting our name on the report, speaking out and making our contribution known, or simply informing our colleague that we feel our role was not fairly recognised. At a micro-level this might seem fairly straightforward, but adopting such an approach to our anger can help prevent resentments from festering, disagreements from exploding into conflicts and relationships from deteriorating. Plus, if you are able to channel your anger in a way that aims towards positive, productive change, you serve as a living example of how your colleagues can benefit from doing the same.
Accept anger in others as the engine of personal change.
When it comes to anger, social expectation can put pressure on us to try and control something which is ultimately a very natural human response to situations we find unfair. This is particularly true for women who face enormous social pressure to suppress anger and increased judgement should they express angry feelings, despite having just as many (if not more) reasons for feeling angry as their male counterparts . We would do better if we recognise that anger is not only a pretty fundamental part of the human experience, but also a critical motivating factor behind personal change.
In sum: Anger tells us what’s up, it’s our body's way of telling us a line has been crossed. Still, we know that, when it does rise up, it’s no picnic in the park trying to figure out the best way to deal with it. We also know that trying to put it away (for a rainy day and a game of Monopoly) makes it all the more likely to grow into an aggressive ogre of a behavioural response. Instead, we’re much better off, acknowledging our feelings and using our angry energy to constructively work through anger-inducing situations. Anger can be a forceful fuel to overcome obstacles you face, when you learn how and where to channel it. Try it, the next time your colleague ‘borrows’ your favourite mug or your cat treats your beige carpet as his litter tray!
Anger expression and Incident Hypertension (1998) The American Society of Psychosomatic Medicine
Mutual cyclical anger in romantic relationships: Moderation by agreeableness and commitment (2018) Journal of Research in Personality
Consequences of Repression of Emotion: Physical Health, Mental Health and General Well Being (2019) International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research
The Effects of Anger on the Brain and Body (2013) National Forum Journal of Counselling and Addiction
Who may frown and who should smile? Dominance, affiliation, and the display of happiness and anger (2010) Cognition and Emotion