Should we be aiming to be pristine? Thinking differently about anger.
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
I have been thinking about anger; how I’ve come to understand anger. The framework discussed below isn’t based on peer-reviewed evidence, on any particular therapeutic modality, or a dominant source of wisdom. It’s a collection of tidbits I’ve gathered over my life and put together in a way that I think is useful.
I teach communication skills, and every time I do, I am reminded of how large the gap is between understanding communication skills and actually using them when the going gets tough. If I get mad, my communication skills go out the window. What I struggle with, then, is my goal to not get mad? To become unflappable? I love the unflappable people. I hate them too. How do they stay so pristine?
However, I resist the idea of aiming to become pristine. Not only is anger normal, but it is necessary. We can use it. I am grateful for the teachers that have helped me see anger as a source of power, as a normal part of the human experience. In early learning as a feminist counsellor, we were told that “anger [often] is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” This simple phrase has been so useful, shifting the lens from individual to context, and relieving people from the shame of self-blame. Sometimes anger still threatens to make me twisted and bitter, but I also love the role anger plays in my life.
Anger has made me feel connected, alive, energized, motivated, strong, grounded in my worth, bursting with love for others, and clear in my ethics.
I can't claim a fully healthy relationship with anger, but I have been able – sometimes – to de-escalate anger, to take in anger towards me maturely, to validate anger, and to help others move through the shame about their experience of anger. I'm learning that to get to a place where we are using our anger in a regulated manner, we need a better understanding of how it feels in our body, how we tend to express it, how people perceive our anger, and how it functions for us.
There isn’t just one kind of anger. At least for me, it reverberates in my body at multiple frequencies. Each type has different usefulness, different results, and different coping strategies.
DEFENSIVE ANGER: Your protective instinct kicks in when feeling attacked. The attack may be fair or unfair. If unfair, you may successfully protect yourself or experience relief from the attempt. If fair, it often results in you avoiding accountability.
ANXIOUS ANGER: Your anxiety is triggered by an event, and it feels uncomfortable and disempowering. Therefore in 0-10 seconds, you transmute it to anger so that you can feel more comfortable and empowered. This is common in men, who feel safety in performing masculinity - anger being coded as more masculine than anxiety.
RE-DIRECTED ANGER: Under this anger is more anger, but for something or someone else. You feel angry about something you can't control, in a dynamic where you don't feel safe to express your anger. Therefore you find relief by taking out your anger elsewhere.
HIDDEN OR BURIED ANGER: When you don’t understand your anger, you don’t know how to express it, you don’t have access to power, or your environment is unsafe or invalidating, anger gets buried or hides behind something else. Often when you submerge your anger, you are avoiding having to fully feel it or own it. However, you might get some sense of relief and control by being passive-aggressive. When being passive-aggressive, we don't break the rules around aggression but we still express some power.
HURT ANGER: This shows up as sadness, and is often caused by feeling wounded by a comment or action. Sadness can feel safer than anger and we can find relief and sometimes sympathy in tears.
FRUSTRATION – OVERWHELM: This form of anger is a spectrum from slight stress or annoyance to being fully overwhelmed by stimuli or events. It can function to signal you to change something in your environment, to set boundaries, or to leave. It can inflame even more if we have very little control over the source of frustration.
RIGHTEOUS ANGER: This is NOT the pejorative meaning of judgmental, indignant superiority. This is justifiable anger grounded in your sense of right or wrong. This anger is great because it can motivate you to take action, help you feel your self-worth, and inspire passion. It can help you feel connected to or to seek connections with other people and/or to a cause. However, like any other kind of anger, it can overwhelm and be expressed in ways that are harmful or that the very least, unhelpful.
Coping with anger starts with not being scared of it. I am going to keep writing about anger. It's helping me to write - I hope it's helping you to read. Check out my other pieces to read about gender socialization and anger, and coping strategies for when these different kinds of anger come up.