Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Anger can be an unpleasant emotion to feel. And what we do when we’re angry can end in negative and sometimes even disastrous consequences. So getting angry doesn’t seem smart, does it?
We get angry when we’re in painful situations, such as when we feel disrespected or insulted, when we are in pain, in conflict or when something important to us is threatened. It’s at these times, in the midst of angry feelings, that people sometimes behave in ways that they later regret. Yelling, threatening others, quitting and malicious talk are all ways that anger can come out.
Because anger is painful and can lead to behavior that causes problems, our focus is often in trying to avoid or reduce it. We don’t view anger as a positive, helpful or useful emotion. Instead we see it as a problem, something to get rid of.
But anger, like all other emotions, is useful. It may not seem like it, but emotional pain, like physical pain, serves an important purpose in our lives. Feeling physical pain, for example a burn on your finger, is a warning that causes you to withdraw from harm and allow your body to heal. Emotional pain, for example the feeling of anger, is also a warning. In the case of anger, it can cause you to stand up for yourself, right a wrong or overcome difficult obstacles.
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So yes, how we act when we’re angry can leave us with regrets. When we act in ways that are aggressive towards others, spiteful or cruel, it can feel as if anger is not smart. But, feeling anger doesn’t have to mean being out-of-control. It is possible to think clearly, understand the situation that is making you angry and to use those angry feelings as motivation to make positive changes.
People often make two very important mistakes when it comes to anger. Either they try to ignore it or they try to be happy in a situation that naturally prompts anger related emotions.
According to an article in the journal Emotion (August, 2012) accepting and even embracing its usefulness can improve your ability think and act while angry. It may seem contradictory, but wanting to feel angry when you’re in conflict makes it more likely that you will understand and be able to manage your emotion.
It’s normal to want to feel good and to avoid feeling bad, but some situations call for unpleasant feelings. Experiencing an emotion that is congruent with your circumstances, even when it’s not pleasant, is an important part of being able to understand your emotion. This ability to understand and manage your emotion is linked to better well-being overall.
The problem with anger is that it is not always useful. Sometimes we hang on to resentments long after we might have effectively asserted ourselves. Or, once angry, find our anger in other situations too easily triggered.
So how do you know when anger is useful and therefore smart? Begin with the assumption that you have a valid reason for feeling angry. Try not to suppress your anger. At the same time, don’t try to hold onto or amplify it. When you are calm, ask yourself if your anger is doing you any good. Is it acting as a warning signal, alerting you to an injustice, disrespect or that you are losing something important? Can your anger motivate you to address painful circumstances, say by asserting yourself or working to keep that something you are losing? This is useful anger. When you stop pushing away your anger, you can make choices about how to respond in ways that improve your life.
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