While most of my clients come to individual therapy to manage their anxiety symptoms, anger is another difficult emotion that tends to come up a lot in our work. Personally, I find anger to be an incredibly uncomfortable feeling to sit with. I recently wrote a blog post about treating feelings like houseguests – let them visit, acknowledge them, then let them go. But anger can be really challenging to “visit” with and let go of.
When something triggers our anger or anxiety (i.e. our fight-or-flight response), we typically respond in one of three ways: Attack, Avoid, or Approach. It might sound like “approach” is the clear positive choice here, but I happen to believe there is a time and place for each of these strategies. Sometimes it is best to let something go and avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Other times it is valid to go on the attack, to stand up for yourself and set firm boundaries. But attacking can sometimes perpetuate a cycle of conflict and ongoing trigger situations, and avoidance can become passive aggression or allow a similar cycle of conflict to continue. In the long run, if something has really wounded us, we have to approach our feelings and the source of that anger, without attacks or avoidance, in order to find a resolution – internally and/or interpersonally – in order to move on.
Here are 5 ways to approach our anger, so we can move on from it:
1. Get curious: investigate the source of your anger. I always describe anger as a secondary emotion, coming after fear, hurt, sadness, longing, or shame. Look for the deeper feeling causing an angry reaction, and see if you can tend directly to the cause. Understanding your feelings is crucial to communicating and resolving them.
2. Take a break: Our logic doesn’t work well when we are furious- our brain is wired so that our instincts will take over rather than our reasoning when we’re in survival mode, and anger triggers that fight-or-flight survival response. Give yourself a time-out to breathe and wait until you’re calm to draw conclusions and make decisions.
3. Blow off steam: Sometimes there is good reason for us to be angry, and that anger is going to stick around for a little while. Help yourself discharge some of that negative energy in a way that won’t result in unwanted consequences : yell into a pillow, go for a long walk or run, write an angry letter then tear it up and throw it away.
4. Communicate your feelings and needs: It’s important to honor your feelings – the anger as well as the underlying feelings. We feel better when we can make sense of our emotions or experiences, and even better when someone close to us understands and validates it or helps makes meaning with us. Talk through the experience that made you angry with someone you’re close with – especially the person who caused the anger – in a way that is direct, authentic, and lets the person know what you need from them (a listening ear, a hug, an apology).
5. Be compassionate towards yourself: Sometimes our anger leads us to other uncomfortable feelings. At times that anger is directed at ourselves – blaming or shaming ourselves for our feelings, our actions or our reactions. Be gentle and imagine what a close, compassionate friend might say to you in these moments.
Anger can really get the better of us at times, and can be very disruptive in relationships. And yet, it is a really important emotion for our growth both personally and in our relationships: if we are gentle with ourselves, look to the deeper hurts beneath our anger, and then communicate in a way that promotes understanding, we can use our anger to strengthen our connections.