How is anger working for you? I talk to a lot of people who, when they spend time reflecting on it, can allow themselves to be vulnerable and realize that they have got into a chronic pattern of using anger as a defense....as a way to fend off fear or vulnerability. I talked to one woman who said, "I realized that my anger made me feel invincible and strong and able to take on the world. What no one realized was that I was terrified."
Did you know that "anger", called a secondary emotion, is usually a mask for a primary emotion of fear, sadness, loss, rejection? Anger can serve a purpose (not always healthy, and not always unhealthy)….anger can galvanize you to get things done and be dynamic and focused and assertive. It can also destroy you, and others around you, and the relationships that go with it. Anger can make everyone around you feel they have to walk on eggshells.
Anger can serve as a defense against fear or sadness. The trouble with that is, it keeps us, for a time, from feeling the usually more authentic fear and sadness. Ever watch a video of a silverback gorilla, when it feels threatened? It will make a gesture of beating its chest, posturing, making loud noises, baring its teeth. My, it looks scary! But he's really just threatened and needing to make a lot of big noise and movement to make himself look and sound bigger and more threatening.
For humans, we can use anger sometimes in the same way. We sound blustery and big and bad, and yet, we're really just afraid. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong or bad with being afraid. But we need to identify what we are afraid of, or we will always be running away from it, denying it, and puffing our feathers out to mask it.
Some people can become what has been called a "rageholic", in a sense, addicted to anger. Anger becomes their identity. They feel at one with their anger; in fact, their anger is their go-to when they are either numb to other emotions or those other emotions feel too threatening to allow themselves to experience. Anger can also be a way to keep people away, or keep them quiet and submissive. These, however, are sometimes identified more with bullying or aggression.
Anger, per se, is not "bad" or "wrong". It's how we handle anger, and it's also how we allow anger to handle us, and what we are using anger to cover up or substitute, that often needs addressing.
Susanne Slay-Westbrook, LPC-S, LMFT-S, beautifully describes* some pointers about anger – using meditation and visualization, and activities such as deep breathing can get us more focused on our escalating emotions before they get away from us. How many times have you said something that nearly destroyed someone else, in the heat of anger, and later, after cooling off, realized the devastation of it? These tools allow for catching yourself in the moment, recognizing when the escalation starts to build and catching yourself before it’s too late. It is always okay to say, “I’m upset right now. I’m going to go take a break for a little while and I’ll talk with you about this later.” It demonstrates respect to yourself and your needs, and to the other person, by not lambasting them in the heat of the moment.