Anger activates the brain’s circuitry for willingness, fueling actions you might otherwise avoid. But you can’t use your anger if you believe it’s bad or scary.
Anger erupts when what you believed should have happened didn’t. If you know what your anger feels like when it’s triggered, you may be able to ask for what you need. If you don’t know how to recognize the physical sensation or what to do with your anger when it bubbles up or bursts, your anger will quickly hide under other emotions, such as bitterness, cynicism, distrust, and contempt. Then you get locked in your story about what is wrong and awful and the feelings you attach to this narrative. The stress from hiding your anger seeps out at inappropriate times, with your co-workers and at home, with the people you love most.
If you didn’t act because you felt powerless, you give up before trying to change anything. Maybe you tried once or twice, but your attempts ended badly. When asked how you feel about the situation, you tell the story, “There is nothing I can do to about it,” or “It’s not my place to say something. I’ll get fired. There will be retaliation. It will hurt my colleagues or my children.” The excuses are never-ending. You put up with hurtful behavior, holding your anger inside and pretending it isn’t there.
On the other hand, you might know there are things you can change, but want to avoid the direct confrontation. You get stuck in a negative loop of complaining. You judge, “They’re jerks.” Then you seek out the people who will agree with your point of view. People often use social media to vent and look for sympathizers, while doing nothing to stand up for the changes they want to see.
Some people go back and forth between lashing out and giving up. They bang their heads against the wall and then say, “Forget it.” As soon as they get their energy back, they look for platforms and people to voice their scorn.
If you don’t identify anger in the moment, it can squeeze you into silence or poison you with cynicism. The damage to your health, productivity, and relationships can be devastating. You have to bring the moment back to know how to use it. You need to relive the story to determine what action you can take now.
Think about somebody who has irritated you for a long time. Go back to a moment when your anger was triggered. Can you remember what you expected to get, but didn’t? Consider your emotional needs, such as your desire for approval, understanding, or respect. What did you most need or want at the moment, and were you surprised or hurt when this didn’t happen?
It helps to write your story down or tell it to a friend or coach who will listen and not tell you what to do. Tell the story, declare the injustice, name the ignorance, and say what is flat-out wrong. Once you begin to feel your anger rising, you have two options. You can keep it and act on it. Or, you can release from the never-ending chatter in your brain.
The intensity of your anger shows you whether it’s worth it to keep it or release it. Sometimes, you recognize that your reaction didn’t match what was intended. Your friend meant to help you, even when it felt demeaning. Your co-worker didn’t steal your promotion and might want to talk it through with you. Your parents did love you; they were doing the best they could with what they knew. If you realize their intentions weren’t hurtful, you might want to release your anger.
Releasing your anger means you choose to feel something else when recalling the triggering event.
Many of my clients work in toxic environments. When they feel their rage or resentment bubble up, they pull out their phones and look at their favorite pictures. It’s impossible to be angry when you are laughing or feeling love.
Go back to the moment you got angry. Can you use humor or love to dissolve your irritation? This is how to release your anger. Fill your heart with gratitude, compassion, or hope. Use the feeling of curiosity to open your mind. You stuff emotions when you try to think about something else. You release emotions when you shift how you feel.
But if what you didn’t get is critical to you, then keep your anger. Use the energy of anger to activate a change.
Can you ask for what you need? Let the person know how the conversation made you feel and what you would like to happen going forward. Or, is there a change you need to make that you’ve been scared to face? Set the date to act, even if you’re afraid. This is how you use anger constructively.
Asking for what you need does not make you weak. It is empowering.
It is possible to catch and choose what to do the moment your anger is triggered. Knowing what anger feels like in your body will help you discern what to do in real time. Is it a punch in your stomach? Do your shoulders tighten into your neck? Some people clench their teeth. Noticing these reactions in the moment takes practice, but it’s worth it to your mental health. Your skill at noticing your reactions is the foundation of emotional intelligence.
If you choose to keep your anger, let the person you are with know what they just said or did that triggered your anger, then request how you would like the conversation to continue. They may get defensive. Breathe and hold your ground. Whether or not they honor your request, you won’t be angry at yourself for not speaking up. The change you want to see may come later, after they have had time to process the interaction.
When you stop and look into your anger, you choose what to do, instead of your emotions choosing for you.
Anger has been a source of energy that has kept me moving in life when my resolve was tested, through rejection, disappointment, sexual harassment, betrayal, and even physical difficulties.
Stop avoiding anger. It’s not inherently ugly or dangerous. Don’t let it fall into resignation or cynicism. When you’re brave enough to stop and look at it, you can better determine whether to release it or use the energy to act. Balance your anger with passion for what you want to achieve, hope for a better future, and the courage to stand for the life you want to create.
How to use your anger for your own good was the topic of my TEDx talk this year. If you’re curious about how I used anger to rebuild my life, please see my talk here.
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