• Anger is a normal human emotion with a bad reputation

  • Many of us struggle to process anger in a healthy way

  • Therapy can help us come to terms with anger. If this interests you, find a therapist here 

What makes you angry? Perhaps it’s missing a train or forgetting your phone at home. Maybe there are issues on a global scale that rile, such as climate change or poverty. Whatever ignites your personal fire, there is one thing for sure – anger is a reasonable response to an unmet need.

Yet so often in our culture, anger is given a bad rap. It’s regarded as something to be avoided perhaps because its very nature forces confrontation and this is something we have been conditioned to fear.

But anger can be a positive force for change. Recall the social progressive movements – if civil rights activists had not mobilised their anger at injustice there may never have been any change. In our own times, #MeToo has exposed the dark side of some powerful figures who regarded themselves as unopposable because they underestimated the anger of those they oppressed.

What we can take away from this is that although anger is a deep emotion that can be scary to experience as well as be on the receiving end of, ultimately it is what we do with our anger that counts.

Like fire, anger can be a faithful servant but a terrible master

Is it possible to be angry and not blow away the opposition? 

Yes. If we accept that anger is a legitimate response to an unmet need then we are part-way to using our anger effectively. If we can learn to recognise our needs as they arise and follow through with clear and respectful communication to the right agent who can meet our needs, then we can do much to prevent anger ever rising to difficult proportions.

Being rude to or shouting at the call centre operator when you’ve been waiting for ages to register a repair might make you feel better. But venting your frustration on a convenient foil doesn’t change the situation and probably serves only to make a faceless stranger angry herself – which she might then pass along to her colleagues or at home. This is how anger spreads like a virus and makes communities stressed and unhappy.

Counselling can help us learn to recognise our needs and to honour them by practising effective techniques to deal with our discomfort. Sometimes that may mean identifying the source of power that is blocking the flow – in the above example, the company that doesn’t employ enough staff to deal with callers.

Yeah, but shouting feels better!

Momentarily, yes because you are discharging the build-up of adrenaline that’s been triggered by your angry thoughts. Like the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ survival mechanism with which we’re hardwired to respond to external threat, the adrenaline needs somewhere to go – and a hot tempered rant provides the release, giving physical satisfaction but also leaving a trail of social damage to clear up.

Can anger be learned?

Anger is one of the primary emotions, along with fear, joy, disgust and sadness and has evolutionary purpose so there is no avoiding it. But in some family cultures we may have learned patterns of behaviour around anger which we unconsciously carry forward into our adult relationships. A child raised with an outwardly angry parent may grow to fear anger both in themselves and in others and avoid conflict at all cost because their associations are so painful. But conflict is a fact of life and does not necessarily have to involve angry behaviours that a child would find frightening. Retreating from conflict is an unsatisfactory way to live. Ironically, we may meet partners who either mirror our own reactions or resemble our angry parent in some way. When each partner brings their own subconscious family culture of anger to the new relationship, then patterns can emerge. If we are to break free from this, then learning new ways of working with anger can help us have more satisfactory and fulfilling outcomes.

The anger volcano

This is a useful model used in conflict management, education and in therapy. Just as a volcano has sub-strata between the fiery magma at its core and the vent at the top through which it bubbles over, so we have levels through which our anger rises. The trip which sets off our personal anger may be unique to us but there are common triggers – stress, embarrassment, feeling disrespected, powerlessness or just plain old physical tiredness can all be enough to set the magma rising.

Discovering what your personal triggers are can be extremely helpful in managing your own anger so that it can be used effectively for positive change. A skilled therapist can help you work out ways of healthily using your feelings to meet your needs, without the need for volcanic eruption!

Being on the receiving end of another’s anger

It can be very difficult to witness the anger of another, particularly a loved one. Depending on how far the angry person takes their emotion out – from shouting or swearing to physical manifestation  like lashing out, throwing objects or hitting – you may find out own emotions engaged to respond. Remember – there is no excuse for violence or intimidation and if you feel concerned for your own or another’s safety then remove yourself from the situation if at all possible and call for help.

In the case of non-violent anger it can be helpful to mentally tell yourself ‘this is not about me.’ By recognising that the angry person has triggers of which you are unaware, you can prevent your own emotions becoming engaged in an escalation where anger feeds anger. Dealing with anger is a large part of a therapists’ training and a stance I adopt is one of curiosity and acceptance – why is this person angry? What painful feelings are they holding right now?

It doesn’t help to tell an angry person to calm down. Not only is this patronising but the underlying message that they take away from this is that you are trying to shut them down and that their feelings are invalid – which is likely to make them more angry. A better way is to acknowledge their anger but to set down your own boundary in dealing with any behaviours that you find unacceptable.

‘I can see you are very angry right now. I’d like to help but I can’t do that whilst you are shouting. Please stop shouting and I’d be happy to listen to what you’ve got to say.’ If the person continues to rant then you can play your ‘broken record’ -  calmly repeating this message until you are heard. Eventually a space should emerge from which you can begin to have a dialogue and focus on finding out what that unmet need is and how to meet it in an acceptable manner.

However you currently deal with anger your needs deserve to be met. By finding new ways of expressing them which respects others as well as yourself can lead to more satisfying relationships. Embrace your anger but don’t nurse it.

Further reading

Watch our interview with anger researcher Dr Ryan Martin

Meet the therapist: Rachel Farhi

Group therapy helped me understand my anger

Can you become addicted to anger?

In therapy, I have learnt my anger is healthy

How to manage anger in relationships

Is your anger out of control?