Anger gets a bad rap. In our society we are often taught to “be polite,” just “nod and smile,” or better yet: “don’t be so sensitive” or “you’re overreacting.” The truth is, when we feel anger stirring up inside of us, it is telling us something important and we need to learn to listen to it. Anger is an emotion that motivates us to make changes. Anger warns us when we feel threatened, when things are unjust, when boundaries have been crossed, and more importantly, when our needs haven’t been met.
Anger Motivates Us
Why are we born with the ability to feel angry? Why? If it’s such a negative emotion, a bad thing, something we’re supposed to stuff away? It’s not! Anger is a natural, normal emotion. We are supposed to get angry when our loved ones are being threatened; it motivates us to go into protector mode (e.g., ‘mama bear’). We are supposed to get angry when things around us are unjust; it motivates us to take action. Many social movements (e.g., civil rights, LGBT rights, student rights) are sparked by justified anger. In our day to day lives, anger forces us to reflect on our experiences and evaluate our values and goals. We feel angry when our values and goals are not aligned with our experiences. Now there are many things that make us feel angry that are out of our control, or at least out of our immediate control. For example, money (or the lack thereof), work (or the people we work with), and relationships (or the people who know exactly what buttons to push) are usually the trifecta of things that can tick us off. But we cannot force others to change. We have a hard enough time changing ourselves (anyone had a healthy salad for dinner lately?) so we are guaranteed to drive ourselves angry trying to make others change. And unless you win the lotto, you’re also not going to miraculously make all your financial woes go away. So what good is anger? Anger warns us that something is not right, something is off in our lives and we need to change. Whether it is learning to assert ourselves with others, learning to set healthier boundaries in our relationships, learning to make wiser money choices, anger warns us and when listened too, can help motivate us to get up and do something about it. Let focus on just one of those areas for now:
Anger Tells Us When Our Needs Are Not Being Met
Imagine your best friend of 20 years calls you on the phone yet again. You play the role of the good supportive friend, and just when you start to talk about your day, she says “sorry I gotta go!” You feel the heat of anger rise up inside of you, but you quickly stuff it and brush it off, saying “Oh that’s just the way it is.” Only later that same day you find yourself more irritable and generally feeling upset. And you don’t know why… When we learn to listen to the feeling of anger when it first comes up we can stop ourselves and ask “what is the anger telling me?” In this case, we felt angry right when our friend hung up. Instead of immediately stuffing it, we pause and reflect. We are angry because we are feeling unsupported, our friend did not listen to what we are going through. We are feeling disrespected because our friend is sending us the message that our time isn’t as valuable as their time. We are feeling hurt perhaps because this is a pattern that has been going on for a long time. The anger is rearing its head because it’s trying to motivate us to change something. Maybe it’s motivating us to have an honest conversation about this with our friend. Or motivating us to change the circumstances under which we take phone calls from our friend. Or motivating us to come to terms with this type of friendship and accept that they will not be able to provide the type of support we keep hoping for, and thus allow us to truly let go and look for other ways to get that support.
Many times, the feelings of anger are telling you that you are spending too much time taking care of others and not enough time taking care of yourself. It’s telling you that you are not feeling loved and supported in the way that you need to be. It’s telling you that you are going to burn out if you don’t slow down soon! It’s telling you that some of your relationships are more one sided than you thought. It’s telling you that you are feeling disrespected, and more importantly, that you are worthy of respect!
We Need to Listen to Our Anger
When we neglect our own needs we start to resent all the things we do for others. This is when anger starts to become a problem, when we start to feel it too often and for too long. Anger management techniques will help you learn to manage the emotion in the moment, but the anger will not go away until you learn to listen to why it’s there in the first place. A good place to start is by reflecting on what needs you have that are not being met (e.g., health, support, love, validation, time, etc…) and then let that anger motivate you to start making changes!