Is anger really that toxic?

Anger is a really powerful and important emotion. But, in the age of positive thinking and so called enlightenment, it gets a bad wrap. We regularly talk about anger as a toxic or poisonous energy and definitely something to let go of. We have almost become embarrassed and ashamed to speak about our anger, like it’s evidence we are primitive or a bit backwards. So instead we focus on being happy, calm and content humans. We talk about mindfulness and meditation, yoga, love and peace. Now, I think we can all agree that there is a time a place for this and it’s a healthy lifestyle, but surely anger has a purpose too? Especially if we accept depression, anxiety and all other feelings.

So what is anger and why do we have this feeling? Well, anger is a signal that something is wrong, something is unfair, or something is unjust. Depending on what our values are, this could be people lying or breaking the rules. It could also be rudeness, laziness, or irresponsible behaviour. There are of course other things that we all tend to agree are wrong like fraud or murder. So in the face of this, anger gives us the courage to resolve, fix or at least address the issues.

Now this is where it starts to get complicated because what we perceive to be “right” and “wrong” depends a lot on our culture, experiences and beliefs. If we forget this, then we can become forceful or even violent in our attempts to convince people to think or act like us. When we do this, we loose opportunities to appreciate difference and can become quite rigid in the way that we operate. This can breed resentment within our relationships and create space for conflict. A good way of testing this is to talk about politics or religion at a social function. These topics usually trigger anger because any opinion we have is based on a strong value we hold to be “true.” Because of this, we have very little tolerance for different perspectives.

If we are not self-aware, or if we feel particularly righteous, then situations can erupt and people start to use threatening postures and violence to dominate and control. This protects us from being shamed by the other party but also is a way of managing anxiety and fear. If we allow our fight parts to take over, then we don’t have to compromise and we also limit space to be told we are “wrong”.

So how can we learn to embrace this very powerful and important feeling of anger without becoming violent or aggressive? Here are some simple and basic strategies to consider:

  1. Remember that anger signals something is wrong, unfair or unjust. So when you notice the feeling, then start to reflect on your values and what you can learn about yourself. If mess makes you angry, then it probably means that you value order as a way of coping and keeping yourself calm. If conversations about money and profit are triggering, then it probably means that you value social connection or the environment as a matter of priority. By reflecting on this, rather than what the other person is doing for a minute, then you may be in a better position to figure out how you want to move forward.
  2. Get to know your body and how it reacts when you get angry. It can be very subtle (i.e. a change in heart rate or a tingling sensation in the throat) or very intense (i.e. teeth grinding, muscle tension, yelling, or face changes). The better you get at this, the quicker you will pick up on what is happening.
  3. Remember that anger gives you the courage to fix or resolve issues. In saying this, it can be helpful to create space after you have been triggered to ensure your plan is effective. If you do not engage logic and run purely on emotion, you are at greater risk of aggression. Remember, people have different values and no matter how strongly you feel about something, others may still not agree.
  4. Roughly 30% of communication is words. The biggest factors are tone and body language. So if you want to fix something or resolve an issue, be mindful of how you are presenting your case. If your tone or body language is too full on, then people may switch off or discard what you are saying. You might want to practise in front of the mirror or with friends or family to get some feedback on your communication style.
  5. Know when to let things go. In life, there are things in our control and things that are totally out of our control. This is why self-reflection is so important. Sometimes we don’t like certain realities or opinions, but we have to radically accept that they are what they are. This may include certain political agendas or social values at any one time.
  6. Use your words. After self-reflection, you are in a better position to help people understand why you felt angry. We tend to co-operate more when people explain why they feel a certain way. They are then more receptive to changing or remedying the situation.
  7. Remember to BREATHE. If you are a justice person or have a strong sense of right and wrong then you are likely to connect with anger quite often. So you really need to take care of yourself. This can include doing frequent physical exercise and committing to hobbies and people that resonate with you.
  8. Get comfortable with being VULNERABLE. Brene Brown is an excellent researcher and speaker who has done a lot of work on anger and shame. She has some great TED talks and books that focus on ways to be vulnerable.
  9. Make an appointment to see a health professional or psychologist. Sometimes anger can be a very challenging emotion for people to manage and deal with. Professionals are available to support you in understanding yourself and developing healthy ways of coping.

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