Anger is a major factor in most of what goes wrong between human beings. Wars, crime, slander, revenge, legal battles, relationship difficulties…so many atrocities have been committed with anger as the driving force. Historically and currently, the results have been awful. The emotion of anger can be terrifying for the individual who knows they carry a lot of it within, yet doesn’t know what to do about it. Anger has also increasingly been implicated in chronic disease, such as cardiovascular problems and chronic fatigue, cancer, and digestive ailments. The entire body becomes involved in an anger response; and to make things even more challenging, the neural pathways of intense anger tend to override our thinking or logical brain, making it easy to take actions we’ll later regret.
Yet, when properly regulated, anger is our friend. It’s a major component of our physical and emotional vitality. I like to say that it’s just another “flavor” of our life energy, however you choose to define that invisible something that separates us from inanimate objects. Anger is probably the most feared, misused and misunderstood thing that we humans have going for us. So let’s talk about it a little bit.
The best definition of anger I personally have ever encountered is offered to us by Drs. Larry Heller and Aline LaPierre, in their new book, Healing Developmental Trauma. They write, “Anger is a life-supportive response intended to impact an unsupportive environment.” (p. 11)
Read that again. It’s beautiful in its nonjudmental simplicity.
This animal is exerting a self-protective response to something s/he deems a threat. As I look into this cat’s eyes, I see not only the strength of “don’t do that to me!”, I also see a little fear, anger’s close cousin. If you’re familar with cats, you know it’s likely that this cat will back off, as soon as the threat does.
Anger is an intrinsic part of us. It’s an inescapable part of our biology. It’s the “fight” response in fight or flight. Anger wants to protect us from things that would harm us. It helps regulate social interactions between tribe members. I would even go so far to say that we can’t live without it.
So then, how does it go so terribly wrong?
At the risk of oversimplification I will suggest that anger goes wrong when we bottle it.
Properly regulated anger rises up just enough to protect the organism, then it subsides as quickly as it rose. If someone is annoying you, and you say, gently but firmly, “Hey, please don’t do that,” and they stop, and you relax–that is an example of anger. Yes, it can be that mild.
On the other hand, when anger is repressed, it’s likely to become toxic, particularly over a long period of time. Then it is at risk for exploding outwards and causing harm. There are many life experiences and situations that can cause anger to bottle instead of being properly regulated. Anger can also be particularly dangerous when an insult to the person or community is so terrible that the response generated in them is large (e.g., the murder of loved ones). And yet, not everyone in those awful situations responds with violence.
In therapy, we can work to familiarize ourselves with anger, on the levels of the mind, emotions and body. We can learn how to channel that energy safely and appropriately instead of stuffing it or acting out. This can bring an immediate sense of completion and relief. If the person may have difficulty not acting out on it, we create a safety plan, some actions and/or external supports designed to prevent them from acting harmfully.
The end goal is for this vital life energy to be well integrated, not “stuffed”. Depending upon the individual person, this can take some time to accomplish. The ultimate goal is to be able to move through the world with ease and a relaxed manner, comfortable in one’s own skin. That is intrinsically related to confidence in one’s ability to set proper boundraies and protect oneself.
Please remember that nothing posted here is intended as therapeutic advice. Treatment plans are individually designed in the context of therapy. Anger can be a tricky thing to work with, and I believe that people experiencing significant issues in this area should seek professional support and guidance. If you would like to schedule a consultation with me, please feel free to contact me.