Anger: The Fierce Protector

Anger typically get’s a bad rap. Aristotle saw things differently, praising the ability “to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way.” What is the secret to harnessing the protective power of anger?

The purpose of anger

Anger protects us from violation and injustice. Feelings of anger are typically elicited by experiencing or witnessing mistreatment, violation of relationship boundaries, injustice, or the blocking of important needs and goals. Anger not only alerts us to the presence of these experiences, it also mobilises us to enforce boundaries, pursue justice, and overcome obstacles. In other words, anger serves as a fierce protector of our needs for justice and non-violation.

The physiology of anger

Anger is accompanied by various physiological changes. Anger is readily identified by characteristic facial expressions including a furrowed brow, penetrating gaze, flared nostrils, clenched jaw, and pursed lips. Our body language may include clenched fists and a defensive stance. These nonverbal cues send a powerful message to “back off or face the consequences!” Additionally, anger is accompanied by a surge of energy and the urge to defend against violation by attacking a perceived perpetrator, either through physical force or verbal aggression.

Judging anger is “bad”

Many individuals, and indeed cultures, view anger as a “bad” emotion that is rarely justified. Such negative evaluations are often unproductive. Anger is an involuntary reaction to perceptions of violation or injustice. The act of judging our anger neither prevents it from surfacing nor removes it once it is present. Such evaluations merely add a layer of guilt or shame around the experience of anger.

So why has anger received such a bad reputation? Perhaps because of the perceived link between anger and violence. In condemning violence, however, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater! The kernel of truth within negative evaluations of anger is that aggression is indeed rarely justified. The emotion of anger, however, can be adaptive when it is uncoupled from aggression.

There is a difference between feeling angry and behaving aggressively. Although anger is typically accompanied by an urge to attack, we can develop the capacity to refrain from acting upon this urge. This enables us to feel angry without behaving aggressively. The initial feeling of anger is largely involuntary. Yet we can learn to control what we do with this anger once it has arisen.

Suppressing anger often backfires

Attempts to suppress or avoid anger are no more productive than negative judgements. While pushing down anger can sometimes limit its intensity, this often gives rise to mounting feelings of resentment. This is particularly so with repeated experiences of violation or injustice. Deep-seated feelings of resentment can damage relationships over time, becoming expressed indirectly through passive aggressive behaviours, or more explicitly through momentary expressions of rage that are disproportionate to the eliciting event.

Habitually suppressing anger also cuts us off from the underlying needs of justice and non-violation that anger serves to protect. The inability to experience and process anger can therefore lead to a pattern of passivity and submissiveness within relationships, making one vulnerable to ongoing mistreatment by others. Such relationships take a large toll upon one’s well-being and are often not sustainable.

Processing anger using mind and heart

The optimal way to manage anger is to combine the wisdom of emotions with the wisdom of intellect. If we ignore our feelings of anger we can miss vital information relevant to our needs for justice and non-violation. Yet if we react to anger impulsively without conscious reflection, we may overact to situations through aggressive behaviours or respond to false alarms where the perceived violation is inaccurate.

Therefore, we need subject the data contained within our anger to conscious reflection in order to determine its meaning and accuracy, and to consider the most effective means of response. This processes can be divided into two key steps. The first step involves processing the meaning of anger. The second step involves channeling the energy of anger.

Step 1: Processing the information contained within anger

Emotions provide data for reflection, not firm conclusions. Therefore, it is important to reflect upon the accuracy and meaning of anger. Recall that anger is like an internal alarm signal that senses and protects against violation and injustice. The following questions can be useful:

    • Is there some violation of boundaries or injustice present?
    • If so, is this based on fact or interpretation?
    • Do my interpretations or assumptions require further investigation?
    • Are any of my important goals or needs being blocked?
    • What additional important information is my anger telling me about the situation/person/myself and my needs in this situation/relationship?

Step 2: Channeling the motivation underlying anger

Anger naturally motivates us to protect our needs for justice and non-violation, and empowers us to overcome blocks to our important needs and goals. Impulsively acting upon these urges, however, is often unhelpful. Instead, it is important to consider more effective methods for responding that are consistent with one’s personal values and cultural norms. When anger is accurately detecting the presence of violation, injustice or restrictions, the following approaches can be helpful:

    • Assertive communication about the behaviours that are of concern and our underlying needs that are being threatened.
    • Boundary setting behaviours such as declining a request, saying “no”, asking someone to stop what they are doing, or removing oneself from the situation.
    • Using problem-solving to overcome boundaries to important needs or goals, or if necessary, having acceptance that these are not achievable right now.
    • Using strategies to down-regulate or tolerate intense and overwhelming feelings and impulses so as to avoid impulsive or aggressive responses while providing adequate time to process the situation.
    • It can be wise to refrain from acting while the emotion is “hot”, allowing oneself time or support to consider the most appropriate course of action.
    • Selective use of force to prevent injury or injustice or to protect rights or life.

Managing false alarms and chronic anger

If, upon reflection, we do not see evidence of actual mistreatment then we can treat our anger like a false alarm. Instead of acting on our impulses to behave aggressively or to avoid our feelings, we can let go of the thoughts that are feeding our anger, make room for any unpleasant bodily sensations, and get in touch with our values regarding how to respond effectively.

Feelings of chronic anger may represent an unhealthy pattern that is more a reaction to previous experiences of injustice and violation than to the current situation. On the one hand, it is important to validate the presence of this anger. There is a legitimate reason, stemming from one’s prior experiences, that such anger is present. On the other hand, the anger ceases to provide useful information or motivation regarding the current situation. Rather, it likely represents an old wound, and as such, may need to be tended to therapeutically in order to provide healing.

The ongoing journey

I hope that I have provided a useful overview of how anger has the potential to be adaptive when one understands how to interpret its message and utilise its energy. Anger does not need to be judged, suppressed, or avoided. Rather, it is calling to be experienced, understood, and thoughtfully expressed. In doing so, anger helps us to protect our needs for justice and non-violation and to overcome blocks that frustrate our important needs and goals. For an overview of the adaptive nature of emotions see this post.

There are various topics that have not been covered sufficiently within this post. These include: techniques for communicating assertively and setting boundaries, problem-solving strategies, tolerating overwhelming feelings and urges, and managing chronically unhealthy emotions. Some of these topics are subtle and detailed. It is my hope that I can elaborate on some of these themes in forthcoming posts. Until then, best of luck on your personal journey!

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About The Author

drgerschman

Dr Elliot Gerschman is a clinical psychologist who consults privately at his Melbourne based practice, Satisfied Mind, focusing on adult clinical psychology, mindfulness, and chronic pain management. He completed a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and his professional interests include emotional intelligence coaching, meaning-centred therapy, and developing smart-phone psychology applications.

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