The Utility of Anger

Photo by Yogendra Singh / Unsplash

Anger is a dirty five letter word. Vilified in our society, anger is often seen as the mark of a lesser person, who doesn’t have the self-regulation skills to express themselves thoughtfully. What do you conjure up when you think of anger? Most people would imagine yelling, screaming, or maybe even throwing things or punching holes in walls. Typically, when we view anger from the lens of mental health treatment, we think solely of “anger management” classes and those who are mandated to attend.

These assessments aren't entirely wrong, and oftentimes anger comes at a price. But before we jump on the “anger is bad” train, I want to introduce you to two radical concepts surrounding anger.

  1. Your anger isn’t wrong
  2. Your anger is valid as a standalone emotion

Let’s look at number one. Your anger is valid. Anger comes from a real, vulnerable place. Whether that means we’re angry at another person, or that our anger in a situation lies solely with our own anger at the world around us or ourselves. Here’s where people get tripped up: anger is a good thing, it’s our expression of anger that gets us in trouble.

This is what anger management is all about - using tools to calm our nervous systems and the part of us that feels wronged, while allowing ourselves to look objectively at what the anger is trying to teach us. We need anger! It allows us to suss out the ways in which we want to be treated, and teaches us about our own insecurities and points of work.

Now number two: your anger doesn’t need to protect another feeling in order to be valid. There’s an exercise done in anger management circles called “the anger iceberg”. It shows anger at the top of the iceberg, the part that is visible on the surface of the water. The bulk of the iceberg that rests beneath the surface shows feelings such as shame, sadness, insecurity or confusion. The idea of the visualization is to educate people on how anger is often used as a tool to cover up more painful emotions.

The anger iceberg is a perfectly reasonable illustration of how anger often manifests, and has validity. But labeling our anger as a “secondary emotion” often serves to further vilify the experience of anger, and take away its power as a primary emotion. What if I told you your anger not only serves a purpose, but is vital to your healing?

Specifically when looking through the lens of trauma recovery, a key component of healing exists in empowering survivors to claim what they were chronically disempowered to feel. Allowing for the embrace of anger as a valid feeling in knowing our own rights can serve as a transformative healing experience - and doesn’t need to be covering up for any other emotion to be justifiable.

So the question becomes - how do we harness our anger to be a tool for healing?

My first suggestion: establish safety with your anger. We can’t fully embody anger and what it’s trying to teach us until we can manage it effectively. This is where anger management techniques like exercise, taking a break from conversations, and deep breathing play a critical role. De-escalate the urgency of your anger using these techniques so you can develop a healthy relationship with the feeling.

Second: Once safety is established, let yourself feel your anger. Ask yourself questions around the feeling, “What is this trying to teach me?” or “What is this anger representing?”. Journal your responses so you can get to the root of what your anger is trying to tell you. It may be covering up for another feeling, or you may have been justifiably wronged. Either way, getting closer to your anger allows for resolution.

Third: Process out your anger. Allow yourself to feel it and what it is telling you. Go to goodwill and buy a bunch of dishes, then go smash them in your driveway. Punch a pillow. Cry, scream. Allow yourself to build healthy expressions of anger that don’t harm others. Remember - it’s the expression of anger that is often vilified, not anger itself.

Anger serves a vital purpose, allow yourself the space to explore what it means to you.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

You can follow more of Alexa's insight on Instagram @yoursadtherapist

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Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC