Anger And Why It's A Problem

Chinese Philosopher(551 BC - 479 BC)

"Speak when you are angry--and you will make the best speech you'll ever regret."
Laurence J. Peter
US educator and writer (1919 - 1988)

There is probably no more problematic human emotion than anger. We hear endless and contradictory advice about how to handle it. For example: "Don't hold it in, express it, get it out." Or, anger is bad for your health. So, don't get angry or you will have a heart attack." Or, we tell children that they are being disrespectful if they are angry, while we parents loudly express our anger at them for some infraction. We also fear that our children will be emotionally scarred if parents argue in front of them.

So, what is to be done? Should we express anger, hold it in, pretend it does not exist? None of these are healthy options.

The problem with anger is not that it exists but how we handle it. There is no doubt that chronic angry outbursts, arguments and flares of temper, are bad for our health. It puts us into the "fight or flight" mode where the adrenalin is flowing and we are on full alert for crisis. When that constantly happens, the full alert mode leads to high blood pressure, clogged arteries and the risk of stroke and heart attack. It is also true that, after having give vent to our rage, we regret many or all the things we said.

Many of us were raised to believe one or more of the following:

1. Expressing anger is mean and harmful to others.
2. We are unacceptable when angry and deserve rejection.
3. We are unacceptable when angry and know that it will cause rejection.
4. We have no right to become angry at others.
5. Anger is weakness.
6. The only way anger is expressed is through loud yelling and violence.
7. Anyone who is angry is a bad person.
8. "If you loved me you would never get angry at me."
9. Husbands and wives should never go to bed angry.
10. A good parent never gets angry at their child.
11. Happily married people never get angry.
12. Explosive anger is a sign of strength.

These items fall into the category of myths and are not helpful to any of us because they describe anger in the most negative terms possible. The fact is that anger can be a very helpful emotion if used properly and in the right context.  In other words anger should not be used as a way to control or annihilate other people.  Anger is not a sign of strength especially when it is explosive.  Used sparingly and in the correct ways anger can clear the air and bring people closer together.

One of the difficulties that some people have with anger is that they suddenly become enraged.  Whether they have an explosive anger disorder or some other mood regulation difficulty when they explode they are not helping themselves or others.  Part of the problem for these people is to allow themselves time to leave the premises so that they can calm down.

Contrary to the stereotype that anger means yelling and throwing things, the healthy expression of anger requires that people verbally but firmly express their displeasure in a controlled manner.  Under these circumstances there is more of an opportunity for people to discuss what one or each of them is angry about.  Of course, in the process of that discussion, it is important that people listen as well as express their frustrations and disappointments.  So many times anger is the result of the frustrated feeling of not being listened to. 

Many years of doing marriage counseling has taught me that couples often spend more time yelling at and interrupting one another instead listening.  The result is an increasing crescendo of negative emotions that threatens to spill into violence.  That is why I ask couples to engage in a variety of exercises that teaches them how to take turns speaking, listening, and paraphrasing what has been said.

In many ways, the healthy way of handling anger includes being respectful of the boundaries of others as well as one's self. Yelling and cursing violate personal boundaries by creating an atmosphere of threat. It is the concept of threat that can and does complicate anger and its expression.

Any attempt to push down and deny one's anger can lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and depression.  How many times have I seen that happen in the context of psychotherapy?  Many psychotherapy patients have difficulty expressing their anger and frustration with their therapist.  This problem parallels the difficulties that they have with others in the outside world.

In learning to cope with one's own anger there are several things to take into consideration before expressing those feelings:

1. How important is it for me to express my anger? If its a minor thing I might be best off letting go of it.

2. If I express my anger, how will the other person respond? Will they feel hurt or will they retaliate? Could it damage the relationship?

3. What is the best way for me to express my disappointment? Yelling is not good for me or anyone else. I know I need to talk about it but in a way that is calm and assertive.

4. Can I express what is on my mind in ways that are firm, assertive and respectful of both my boundaries as well as those of others?

An extremely useful article can be found on our web site that gives instruction on how to prevent sudden and violent outbursts of rage. It's called "Anger Diary and Triggers," and can be found at:

http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=5814&cn=116

In the end, no one is perfect and, therefore, anyone may occasionally lose their temper. However, it is important that moments like those are the exception and not the rule. Everyone is able to listen to and tolerate a complaint when it is expressed in measure terms that are not threatening.

Here is part of a quote that someone sent me. I don't know its origins but I found it to be meaningful:

"I Believe...
That just because two people argue,
It doesn't mean they don't love each other.
And just because they don't argue,
It doesn't mean they do love each other."


What are your experiences with anger? Have you been victimized by another person's anger? How do you handle your own feelings of frustration?

Your comments are encouraged and welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.