Emotions 1: Anger
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Tricia Johnson MBACP (Senior Accredited)
5th September, 2007
Emotional reactions are unique to any individual, in the sense that no two people will experience the same event in the same way, and will have differing emotional reactions. A gardener following a long period of drought and a head teacher contemplating sport’s day will have very different reactions to a rainy day. For a lot of people, emotions are something to repress, to run away from – unless they make us feel good, of course! Anger, guilt and fear are among those we would much prefer not to experience – and thus will generally do what we can to ignore them. But emotions are like pain. They are unavoidable – we cannot decide not to feel pain when we are ill or injured, and we cannot decide not to feel upset when someone rejects us or lets us down. Furthermore, they can act as warnings, alerting us to the fact that something needs to be attended to. Emotions, as one writer put it when speaking of anger, are our friends, and we do well to listen to them.
Over the next few articles I will seek to explore each of the major emotions to see exactly what we can learn from them. This time we start with perhaps the most misunderstood of them all, anger.
Anger is probably the most difficult emotion for people to experience and accept. There are a number of things that can be said about it. Firstly, as is true of any emotion we cannot choose not to feel anger – it comes whether we like it or not. Secondly, it is not the same as temper. Some might like to think of different degrees of anger, with temper at one extreme and repression/suppression at the other. I find, however, that it is more helpful to separate the feeling of anger from our response to it. We cannot control whether we feel angry or not, but we can control our response – whether we repress and ignore it, let it smoulder and feed it, or erupt with it, we ultimately have a choice, although many may feel that they have no choice or control. Much has been written on how we should manage our anger, but for the purposes of this article I would like to focus on what it is telling us, and there are three things to be said:
1. Anger often comes as the result of a blocked goal: we have wanted something to happen, and it hasn’t and we feel angry. It may be red traffic lights making us late for an important appointment, or simply someone not behaving as we think they should toward us. Thus by exploring that underlying goal we can learn something about our internal views on life.
2. Anger often rides on the back of another emotion; for example we may have been made to feel insignificant and worthless or something has happened to make us feel threatened or insecure, and we feel angry. Thus, again, exploration can result in increased self-awareness and greater psychological strength. It could be argued that this is the same as the first point, that we have a goal of people treating us so that we feel valued and important, or that we are never to feel threatened or insecure; this is true – but I find it valuable separating it out as there is a difference between the two.
3. Suppressed, unexpressed anger often leads to irritability and short-temperedness, usually with someone totally unconnected with the original cause of the anger. It is not uncommon for someone to be angry about something at work or outside the home, and to lash out, physically or verbally, at the children, or dog!
As before, with frustration, I have found that the starting place with anyone who feels anger is to get them to accept it. It is not unusual for someone to say ‘I rarely if ever get angry’, but exploration of those times of irritability, short-temperedness or frustration may indicate otherwise. As said in my article on frustration, we may well experience anger and pain, but the intensity of these feelings will be greater if we resist and deny their presence. The challenge then is to explore what emotion or blocked goal has been the trigger of our anger, and what does that tell us about our values and outlook on life. We may then feel that we want to change things, but that can only come out of this place of initial acceptance.
This is a brief and superficial look at anger. Hopefully, enough has been said to show that in itself it is worthy of our attention, if we are to understand ourselves better and become stronger, more secure people. If you would like to know more, perhaps specifically in the area of anger management, please feel free to contact me. In my next article I will look at the issue of fear.
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