Most of us receive societal messages that insist that anger is only the purview of men, who are permitted a range of angry expression, from screaming, to punching drywall, to fistfights. For everyone else, society says, anger is a negative emotion that must be suppressed. Thus, many women and nonbinary people struggle with expressing or even recognizing anger when they first begin therapy. While anger can certainly be unpleasant to feel, it is not a “negative” emotion. It is a neutral emotion, and like any other emotion, it’s a signal to us. The message embedded in anger is, essentially: You can’t treat me that way.
We become angry when we, or someone or something we care about, are on the receiving end of some type of perceived injustice. When an inconsiderate stranger dangerously cuts us off in traffic, an acquaintance gives us a backhanded compliment, or a colleague takes the credit for our idea in the staff meeting, anger flames up in our hearts or burns in our cheeks. You can’t treat me that way. I matter!
We can also experience anger on behalf of others. Say, for example, that we’re watching from the window and see a neighborhood bully push our child down on a sidewalk, where they scrape their knee and cry. Even before we feel concern and rush to our child’s aid, we may feel a flash of anger, because our child is being mistreated. You can’t treat my child that way!
Likewise, many people have consoled a friend who has just been the victim of domestic partner abuse, and the urge to drive over to our friend’s partner’s home with a baseball bat can be nearly overwhelming. Why? Because You can’t treat my friend that way!
In the same light, people who pay too much attention to national and world news may find themselves perpetually angry. If we look at events happening in our society, our anger arises from the harm inflicted to it. For example, when bankers indulge their greed and cause the housing market to collapse, evicting millions of Americans from their homes– and then those same bankers not only face no criminal charges for the suffering they’ve caused but are rewarded with bailouts, which they spend on bonuses and vacations– the anger arises from knowing that people have profited from making society worse for everyone else. You can’t treat people that way.
Do we see a theme? Inherent in anger is a sense of justice and fairness, guiding us like a compass if only we know how to read it. Consider anger your Justice-O-Meter. The term “righteous anger” didn’t emerge out of nowhere!
Far from a “negative” emotion, anger is our flashing red warning siren that someone or something we care about has been violated; it’s a message that asks to be examined so we know what needs to be corrected in our lives or in the world. Like any other emotion, such as sadness or fear, unless it is happening frequently or for long periods of time, it’s nothing to be concerned about. What is more concerning is when someone is treated poorly and they don’t become angry, or the anger immediately shifts into feelings of guilt, shame, defeat and despair. This type of reaction in place of what would otherwise be normal, healthy anger is often a trauma response born from growing up in a dominating household where that person’s needs didn’t matter, or learned from abusive relationships where their needs didn’t matter; it’s often a signal of low self-worth. Rather than You can’t treat me that way, I matter the person is sending themselves the message that Everyone treats me this way, because I don’t matter. If a person is unable to experience healthy anger, they must cultivate the self-esteem necessary to understand and internalize that they are worth being treated fairly.
Ok so anger is a good thing. What can we do about it?
Learn to identify your anger.
Particularly when it comes to women and AFAB nonbinary people, many of us have been told that anger is not appropriate and taught to suppress it. Thus, some of us struggle to even recognize when what we are feeling is anger. When first learning to identify anger, it can be helpful to rely on bodily cues. Are my shoulders raised or tense? Is my jaw clamped? Do I feel hot anywhere in my body? Follow the feeling back to the event that preceded it– when did this start? What happened? We may also just feel grumpy or irritable but can’t put our finger on why.
Become curious about your anger.
What is your anger trying to tell you? Common triggers for anger are boundary crossings, whether those boundaries have been expressed or not. If they haven’t been expressed, consider it a learning experience about yourself– “Hey, turns out I have a boundary there!” Now that you know, you can communicate that boundary so that it doesn’t happen again. If it’s a boundary that has been previously expressed, once you recognize the boundary violation you can address it with the person who crossed it.
Anger can also point to your values and help you to learn about yourself. Are you angry because you feel that someone is acting selfishly to the detriment of those around them? You may value community over self-interest. Are you angry because an oil company is violating a treaty with indigenous people to poison their water with a gas pipeline? You may value the natural environment and tribal sovereignty and health more than you value oil billionaire profits (as I hope we all do!).
Process your anger.
Once you understand the message inherent in your anger, process the anger in a way that feels powerful to you. Perhaps you’d like to go for a run, or expend the energy physically in some way. Due to the way we have been socialized, anger is scary to many people; if you’d like to talk it out with a friend, find a friend who can sit with intense emotion. It can be helpful to ask your chosen friend for consent, through saying “I feel angry about something that happened today and I’m wondering if I can talk about it with you.” Creating a “rage ritual” can also help: put on some emotive music and dance wildly, punch pillows or scream into them, cry, punch the air, roll on the floor, and repeat as many times as necessary to discharge the pent up anger. When most of the charge of anger has been spent, you’re ready to address it.
Address your anger.
Addressing the source of anger is challenging for many people. Some of us have only seen bad things happen as a result of anger; relationships ruined, careers lost, maybe even the police called. Furthermore, we may find that the person we’re actually angry with is ourselves, for making choices in the past that have led to being in a place we’re unhappy with in the present. Addressing anger towards ourselves can be the hardest!
If the anger is personal, and directed toward someone you know, it’s usually best to wait until the flames of anger have died down to address it with the person directly. Tell the person you would like to find a time to talk about what happened, and use “I” statements to express why what happened didn’t work for you. If the anger is less personal and more societal in nature, finding a way to get involved with a cause that rights a societal wrong can help you feel empowered in your anger, because you’ll know you’re one of the people fighting to fix things. If the anger is directed inward at yourself, cultivating a sense of compassion toward yourself is often the first step in resolving it. You’re a human being, just like anyone else, and you’re entitled to make mistakes! The important thing is what you do with the mistake to move forward in a way that feels more fulfilling and fair to yourself in the future.
Working with a therapist can also be a wonderful way to learn to identify and process your anger, no matter who or what it is directed toward. The therapists at Your Healing Begins Here are always for you, to aid and support you in untangling and working through difficult emotions!