How to Understand Anger

by Ryan Berkompas, a Doxa Counselor.

Last year, I wrote about emotions in a general sense—why counselors focus on emotions, and how we get stuck in emotions (parts 1 & 2). Now that I’ve shared about the good and the bad of our emotions, I want to focus on specific emotions, particularly anger. 

Writing about how anger helps us become and stay healthy may seem like a strange choice. Many of us are familiar with the unhealthy parts of anger. We’ve hurt others or been hurt ourselves when anger has flooded our systems. We’ve seen the damage done when anger is allowed to run unchecked. But before we talk about when anger is harmful, I want to share about when it can be helpful. 

Anger’s Role

There’s a reason that we have anger as one of our primary emotions. At it’s core, anger is a response to violation. This is whether anger is in the form of an attack on self, family, possessions, goals, or values. When anger is acknowledged and expressed in a deliberate way, it can help us tend to our health and the health of our closest relationships. In it’s proper role, anger functions like the immune system—protecting ourselves and our bonds with others. 

There are two skills needed to keep the “anger immune system” in check. The first is to recogne anger (awareness). The second is to decide what to do with the anger (expression). If we have unhealthy beliefs about our worth and value, those beliefs can undercut our ability to recognize and express anger in a healthy way. After we recognize our anger, we have a choice of when, how, and to whom we express it. This requires slowing down. As many of us know, anger can come up swiftly, and taking a beat to decide how to act can help us not use anger in a way that will cause harm.

When Anger Is Unhealthy

Staying in Anger

Anger becomes more than a protective response in a variety of circumstances. Like an immune system that starts attacking normal cells, anger can become unhealthy, which is often the expression of anger that we’re most familiar with. 

When we start to ruminate on things that make us angry and tell ourselves stories that fuel the fire of our anger, we keep ourselves in an angry place instead of taking other actions to help us use or move on from the anger.  

Anger as a Response to Past Experience

Sometimes, our anger is not a response to what is happening in the moment. It can be tied to a past experience, whether past trauma or just a negative interaction earlier in the day. Figuring out the root cause of our anger helps us to not take it out on the wrong person like our spouse, children, or coworkers. 

Anger can also be triggered when we misperceive a situation. Checking in with others can help us determine if we’re seeing an actual attack or threat or if we’re misinterpreting the event. 

Using Anger as a Tool

Lastly, anger can cease to be a naturally occurring emotion and start to become a tool—instrumental anger wielded to harm others. When we use anger to manipulate, control, hurt, or exert power over others, anger is no longer something we genuinely feel, but a weapon. 

Develop a Healthy Relationship to Anger

As you may see, learning to have a healthy relationship to anger takes a lot of nuance and skill. To start transforming how you engage with your feelings of anger, it is necessary to understand what it is, how it helps you, and how it may hurt you or others. This is a complex and worthwhile journey, and it can be helpful to have a guide who is familiar with the terrain.

If you’d like to learn more about your emotions and how they impact your life, contact me by calling or using the web form for an appointment.

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