Psychology
24 Apr 2018

Don't fear your anger -- use it

Anger gives us the power to say: “I disagree” and leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Psychologist Danuta Golec explains how to use anger wisely without hurting ourselves or others.

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--The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with psychologist and psychotherapist Danuta Golec. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy”.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Anger often is considered an unpredictable and dangerous feeling that should be rejected or hidden. Is that justified?

Danuta Golec: Certainly not. Anger itself is not dangerous. Like any other emotion, it’s natural. The trouble is that, although natural usually means healthy, it doesn’t always mean pleasant, in the same way as cod liver oil is good for your health but tastes ghastly. Many people dislike anger and would prefer to push it away or not experience it at all. It’s a commonly undervalued emotion.

AJ: What would be a good working definition of anger?

Anger is a state of emotional arousal comprised of feelings like aversion, resentment, and occasionally a desire for revenge. It occurs when our personal boundaries are violated or our vital needs unmet.

Some women are scared of their own anger because “people look ugly when they are angry” or “anger is unbecoming of girls”.

These inner voices are very present in our culture.

Usually we don’t even realize what it is we are actually afraid of and so we fail to notice the energetic and creative potential of anger. In order to exploit it, we must first get to know it. Experience it.

AJ: You mean get angry?

Sure. Try it out. I have a patient who, unlike her daughter, is terrified of her own anger. We discuss that if she overcomes her fear and teaches her daughter to control her temper, the child will have a chance to grow into a strong and charismatic woman, instead of an inhibited one.

I have to say, naughty kids and adults have always been my favorite type of people because anger, if handled correctly, gives us power to say: “I disagree!” or “That’s not what I think’’.’ It also prompts us to make bold strategic moves at work and in private life.

Anger stimulates us to fight. We can use it to a good advantage; learn to recognize it and determine whether to hold it in, express it or wait it out.

It  leads us to a better understanding of ourselves and shows us what makes us angry and suggests how can we prevent it. If in watching ourselves we realize that our anger somtimes hurts those around us, we can begin to make more responsible choices about how and when we express this emtion.

AJ: Sometimes we hurt ourselves with it, though. Angry people tend to seek solace in alcohol or other forms of self destruction.

Some of my patients do that. They turn anger against themselves by means of continuous self-criticism. They constantly tell themsleves “I’m worthless”, “I always fail”, “No one needs me”.

These kinds of thoughts are frequently accompanied by physical self-punishment like self-mutilation, starvation, anorexia, bulimia or severe self-neglect.

These patients' perception of their bodies is distorted and extremely negative.

Repressed anger can also coincide with various types of depression. Working with depressed patients, I regularly notice a persistent inner narrative: “I have no right to be angry”, “I shouldn’t feel this way”, “I’m a bad person’’. Patients who have  such dispiriting thoughts all day simply cannot feel happy.

AJ: How can we use anger constructively, especially in relationships?

People have different ways of doing this in relationships. As couples get to know each other, they also learn what triggers the other and either take it into consideration and wash up or carry on leaving dirty dishes in the sink - often unintentionally - and hope their partner doesn’t snap.

In my experience, arguments over the small things tend to continue happening. Even though a husband knows exactly what annoys his wife, he slips up, or even deliberately drives her mad. They fight, but a moment later they joke about it and start talking.

What’s important here is how we deal with our feelings.

When my husband makes me angry do I hold it in, weep quietly in the kitchen and then “accidentally” trip him up? Or do I tell him “I’m angry with you. You know it pisses me off when you do that”?

AJ: “I’m angry with you” said aloud can be surprisingly effective.

Absolutely. My friend calls it a state of “emotional truth”.

Verbalized feelings are easier to address and work out together.

The worst solution is to suppress our emotions and let them slowly pile up inside us. Sooner or later they will explode and the consequences can be hard to fix.

AJ: Life today seems like a fertile environment for anger. Struggling with the daily chaos of work, stress and politics, people can feel weak and powerless. I asked friends and colleagues what makes them angry. The most common answer was helplessness.

I agree that helplessness escalates anger, but I wouldn’t call it the starting point. Anger alone motivates to action.

We sometimes call this “righteous indignation” - a raging reaction to perceived mistreatment or injustice. It brings people together around a cause, drives them to take to the streets and protest.

All major revolutions and social changes have their origins in nothing less than anger.

However, if we add the feeling of helplessness and a “there’s nothing I can do” attitude, anger reduces its pace, loses power and starts to burn us up from the inside.

AJ: Can you imagine a world without anger?

Only love and kindness? That would be unbearable and unhealthy.

We’re made of strong and violent emotions. Such is our nature. If we try to deny or resist this, we will create hell on Earth. Everything would happen beyond our consciousness awareness.

AJ: With what then?

Disaster. Enough people have died in holy wars already. Let’s not repeat those mistakes.

--translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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