• Anger is not always a negative emotion

  • How our childhood determines our response to angry feelings

  • You can use your anger to make positive changes

Emma Gonzalez was in the auditorium at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida on 14 February 2018 when a young man shot dead 17 fellow students and staff, wounding many more. Amidst the shock and grief, in the aftermath, arose fury. Emma wrote in Harper’s Bazaar a few weeks later: “We are grieving, we are furious, and we are using our words fiercely and desperately because that’s the only thing standing between us and this happening again.” Emma’s passionate determination to fight for children’s rights to attend school without fear of gun violence motivated her to organise March For Our Lives, and to advocate in the media for tighter gun control. Emma harnessed her anger to fight for the protection of future generations.

What is anger?

Anger is an essential part of our feeling self. How do we embrace it so that we can use it as a positive force? I think, to answer this, it is helpful to better understand it. If you observe a new-born, you may notice his frustration developing quickly into rage and despair. Babies are a patchwork of emotions. Whether he is cold, hungry or overstimulated, a baby uses his feelings to communicate through his body. One of his core feelings is anger. He puts his angry feelings into his mother (or care-giver), where they can be felt, thought about and understood, and he experiences his anger as being safely contained by her mind. With continued empathic responses, he grows to accept and integrate his angry feelings into his personality. He is then able to take back this part of himself reshaped with meaning. He can draw healthy boundaries, assert and protect himself and others, and use this part of himself in creative ways.

Think of the activist, the artist, the writer. When we are able to own our anger, we can use it constructively, as Emma Gonzalez has shown. Anger is powerful. It is an inner tool that guides and protects us. Anger empowers us to make positive change.

But anger gets bad press. It tends to hold negative connotations with ‘badness,’ being so often associated with damage, pain and destruction. Unprocessed anger bypasses the conscious mind leading to hurtful behaviour. We see this in a parent becoming violent towards her child, or a young person damaging property in a fit of rage. We witness this on a larger scale when gangs attack rival gangs. When anger incites violence, it can end in tragedy. Naturally, such stories lead us to conflate the feeling with the behaviour. But violence stirred by anger is ignited by raw unregulated feeling, unalleviated by thought, untamed by words.

We do all possess the capacity to hurt and damage both ourselves and others. We can fear attack by our own bad parts, and put them safely outside of ourselves into others. If we have not found a way to process, experience and express our angry feelings, we may equate this part of us with our ‘badness’ and anger may take on an intensity that feels beyond our control. We struggle to distinguish between constructive anger and destructive rage.

When is anger helpful?

Anger is productive when it can be held in mind. Rather than being acted out, it can be acted on. Moderated through thought, anger can be used to set our children safe limits, change work cultures and instigate protests to challenge inequality. In this way, we witness anger as constructive.

The problem with even constructive anger is that is causes discomfort. If we go back to the baby, we can see this makes sense. When a hungry infant’s needs are frustrated, his only means of alleviating his discomfort and getting his needs met is to frustrate his mother. Her discomfort moves her to go to him. She examines her own feelings and, if all is well and she is not overly stressed by her own internal or external world, she intuitively understands her baby and offers him milk. Thus, his frustration is an innate signal ensuring his needs are met.

As adults, when others around us feel angry this mobilises discomfort in ourselves. Depending on our own experiences of integrating anger we may try to appease, argue or cease contact with the person who is angry. If anger bubbles passively beneath the surface, it threatens to erupt with uncontained force. If anger evokes violent or destructive behaviour, it threatens harm. But if anger is verbalised and expressed in safe ways, and we are able to tolerate the discomfort, we may come to a deeper understanding of the other and ourselves.

If we think about anger as a valid, innate emotional part of ourselves, expressing and experiencing anger has the power to promote growth and change. When individuals or groups are in conflict with one another, both may be changed through resolution. Conversely, repressing a part of ourselves halts change and impedes growth. Change involves a loss of the familiar and we may prefer to cling to what we know, inhibiting our anger to maintain the status quo.

When injustices and inequalities are met with collective anger, society is made to feel uncomfortable. While some rally against injustices, others act to shut down voices of dissent that threaten to expose power imbalances and induce new ways of being. The #MeToo movement is a recent example of this. Collective voices moved by anger are perceived to be powerful and provocative. Society resists change and established power doesn’t yield easily, so taking a stand comes with risk of further hurt. We may weigh up the risks and opt to avoid disturbance, silencing our anger to avoid past pain. Depending on our earlier experiences, we may not be able to trust in our anger as a tool for change.

Impact of our childhood experiences

What happens to the baby who is met with a personality unable to contain his angry feelings? These powerful feelings are stripped of meaning and the baby may experience them as an attack on himself. His angry feelings terrify him. His infant mind cannot cope with this intensity and, unable to regulate his feelings, he feels despair. Just as a flightless blackbird chick knows instinctively how to hide from a predator, the developing human mind unconsciously knows how to survive this internal dilemma by hiding his intolerable angry self. When angry parts of the self are hidden, they become disconnected from the growing personality.

This is an effective way for the developing child to cope with frightening parts of himself. But what becomes of this part of him? He cannot really get rid of it. He may find he can place it in others around him. Or it may find expression through his body, in physical symptoms. Other feelings may act like a camouflage in order to protect his angry self from being seen. Parents and teachers may come to describe him as “easy,” “nice,” “always happy.” But we have to ask, at what cost?

He may find it harder to stand up against injustice, or protect himself from abuses, or fulfil his creative potential. Just as our bones are weakened, and our growth stunted, by calcium deficiency, our minds are depleted, and our psychological growth stunted, by the absence of all our emotional states. We may instead experience feelings of depression, emptiness, disempowerment, or simply a vague feeling that we are not quite living life to the full.

This may sound ill-fated but, as adults, our personality has the capacity to continue to develop throughout our lives. Notice what happens when someone treats you badly. Do you challenge their behaviour or do you tend to avoid conflict? Do you pacify others when it would be more appropriate to feel angry yourself? Do you tend to experience physical symptoms when someone upsets you? It can help to begin by noticing what is happening and your emotional responses.

If you don’t find it easy to connect with all your feelings, it is possible to learn to do so in collaboration with another empathic mind. People change and grow, especially through relationships with others. Therapy offers an opportunity to explore all the parts of yourself, with compassion and without judgment. Unencumbered by the expectations and roles you may have come to play in your personal relationships, through the therapeutic relationship you can come to know your emotional self and embrace all your feelings, including your anger, to begin to feel more empowered and whole.

Further reading

Watch our interview with anger researcher Dr Ryan Martin