When was the last time you were annoyed? Frustrated? Irritated? Down right angry? Was it sitting in traffic with no end in sight when you were already late for an appointment? Was it taking your brood grocery shopping only to spend most of the time picking items up off the floor rather than putting them in your basket? Or was it when you even shocked yourself at how animated (yeah we’ll go with that word) you became watching the latest sporting event?
Anger is such an interesting emotion. Sometimes our anger is totally warranted and sometimes it stems more from an overreaction. Anger is an emotion that a lot of people dislike to the point of fearing it. They dislike feeling it themselves and seeing it in others. This is probably because they have seen too many displays of destructive anger. Over the years, we’ve heard all sorts of myths and mistruths about anger, which feeds our reluctance to acknowledge and understand our anger. So anger remains this mysterious and scary emotion that most of us try to avoid at all costs.
But when we ignore or avoid our anger, we run the risk of either becoming very quiet or adopting a false voice- a harsh voice, an invulnerable voice, a voice that does not let anyone know us or get close. Understanding the truth about anger helps you live a more authentic, vulnerable, and emotionally honest life. Your self-awareness increases and your relationships benefit. This is the first of a two-part blog post on understanding the truth about anger. Why do we get angry? What is the purpose of anger and what can we learn from our anger?
All of our emotions serve as a signaling system of sorts for our mind. Our feelings let us know how we are experiencing a situation. When we are feeling angry that tells us something has gone wrong, some sort of boundary has been crossed. Often, it means something has happened that goes against how we think the world should work, we should be treated, or we should act.
Anger is an emotion and like any emotion it is natural for us to feel it. It is not wrong to feel angry. Anger is not innately destructive, but it becomes destructive when we don’t understand what triggers it or is at the root of it. In those circumstances, we let our anger get out of control. Anger is not a bad thing, but what we do with anger can be destructive because most of the time when we are angry we are reacting, rather than choosing to act. When we are reactive, we are usually (okay… always) out of control.
It is neither realistic nor human to try and go through life never getting angry. Everyone gets angry. Yes, even the sweetest, most patient peacemakers amongst us get angry. However, it IS realistic to learn what is behind your anger so you can choose your actions and they are under control and non-harmful.
So what does it feel like to be angry? That’s an interesting question. We may not always realize we are angry. What? Yep, you read that correctly. Many of us are so uncomfortable with anger that we stuff away any inkling of anger and redirect that energy to other activities and/or people. But just because we stuff our feelings does not mean that our body is not still experiencing that emotion. If we know and understand how we physically experience anger, we can pay attention to our body’s cues and use that as a signal to say, “Whoa what’s going on here? Let me step away from this situation before I do or say something I’m going to regret.”
For example, if one of your physical symptoms for anger is a racing heart then when you notice your heart is racing let that be a signal that you need to stop the conversation, leave the room, etc. until you are in a more settled state physically and mentally. Let’s be honest, this is hard to do sometimes because when that adrenaline starts pumping you just want to hang in there for the long haul. But to continue in the situation leads to destructive anger, which is never what we want.
As we become more frustrated, we become more stressed and our bodies start experiencing a physical stress response- the whole fight or flight response that has been programmed in us since cave man days when you either had to fight the tiger or run like hell. Except now there is no tiger, but your brain doesn’t know that. There is only your spouse or your child or your boss. (Maybe a tiger would be better!) Your adrenaline is pumping and your brain and body are thinking, “This is it. We’ve got to either run or fight the tiger.”
In an instant, the following things start happening in your body so you can either get ready to fight or get ready to run:
- Increased adrenaline
- Muscles tighten
- Increased alertness
- Digestion stops in order to save energy (you don’t really need to keep digesting that hamburger if you’re about to be “eaten by a tiger”)
- Increased blood sugar
- Increased heartbeat and blood pressure
- Increased breathing
- Pupils dilate and peripheral vision increases
- Increased perspiration
All of this happens in less than two heartbeats! (Side note- isn’t the human body AMAZING?!?) Perhaps some of you can even feel it happening. You can feel your temperature rise and your heart race. You can feel yourself digging your heels in and getting ready to fight. But when we get in this adrenaline pumping fight or flight mode, we don’t think clearly. When your mind is in this mode it has one objective: survival (aka win). Your mind is not in a state where it can reason or think through things. That is why when we are angry or frustrated we say things that we don’t mean, give consequences we have no intention of carrying out, or do things we would never do in a calm state. We are in survival mode and we will do or say anything to survive (a.k.a. win).
OR maybe your experience with anger and the proverbial tiger is different. Maybe you are thinking I really just don’t get angry. I don’t dig in my heels. I actually am fairly calm. Maybe you are not a fighter; maybe you are a withdrawer. Instead of feeling a hot flash on your cheeks, you feel as if a shield is descending, and you can feel yourself pulling inward and tuning everything out.
One thing to note, whether you fight or withdraw when you are angry, you are still angry. Some people do tend to withdraw or freeze when they are angry, and it is easy for those people to think they never get angry or don’t have a problem with anger. This is false. Remember, we said everyone gets angry. Regardless of how you respond externally, you are still angry internally. Stuffed anger always comes out. It may come out a week a later, a month later, or twenty years later. It may come out in the form of depression and anxiety. It may come out on someone or some thing not even related to the original feeling, but it always comes out.
If we want to be the healthiest versions of ourselves and if we want to have productive conflict (this can happen) in our relationships, we have to understand what happens when we’re angry, why we get angry, and how to communicate what is really going on with us. In Part II of this blog post, we’re going to look at what is really behind our anger. Anger is what we call a secondary emotion, which means there are always other emotions that are at the root of our anger. Yes, it’s honest to admit you’re angry, but it is a brave act of emotional honesty and vulnerability to say, “Yes, I’m angry but really I’m scared, I’m anxious.” If we can learn to identify and express those root emotions, then we will have those open, healthy, authentic relationships we long for. Our hearts will thank us, our bodies will thank us, and our loved ones will thank us. Check back in a few days for Part II: The Roots of Our Anger. See you then!