Anger is a normal reaction in situations where someone believes they have been mistreated. It is an emotion that gets people moving to defend themselves (Barlow, 2011). Provided it doesn’t come along with aggression and violence, anger is usually seen as a fairly understandable and acceptable emotion in many situations. Examples include when you are falsely accused of something, or someone claims credit for one of your achievements.
Emotions are signals
When you see anger this way, it is less likely to be judged a ‘bad’ emotion. In fact, you can argue that good and bad emotions do not exist. Certainly, some emotions (anger, anxiety, etc) can feel pretty horrible. But emotions are signals that it is time to pay attention to a situation. Many of us understandably want to get away from unpleasant emotions asap. But this reduces the probability we will stop, take notice, and try to learn more about what makes us tick. Avoidance therefore hurts our ability to cope more effectively with feelings such as anger.
When anger is not ok
Anger may be an acceptable emotional response in some situations, but what about situations where anger is unacceptable to yourself, or to others? For example, yelling at a child for accidentally spilling their breakfast on the couch, or arguing with someone who has a serious illness. Anger is a ‘social’ emotion, or one which takes place in our relationships with others (Henriques, 2013). When you believe you have inappropriately experienced anger towards someone, you may experience guilt or remorse. This can increase tendencies to turn away from anger, rather than sticking with it in attempt to learn more about ourselves. Feeling remorseful about anger can occur for many reasons, such as when your anger was directed at a vulnerable person (such as in the examples in this paragraph).
How we evaluate our initial emotional response in a given situation is important because it can trigger a bunch of knock-on evaluations that influence our wellbeing. As mentioned above, emotions are important signals, and anger is no different. You can respond to this signal in helpful and unhelpful ways. If you respond to anger by thinking ‘I’m a terrible person’, you are likely to experience additional negative emotions (e.g., guilt, shame, embarrassment), and potentially start to view yourself more unfavourably. In addition to attempts to avoid unpleasant emotions, this is another response to negative emotions which can lead to problems. Instead of negatively evaluating yourself, you can take another direction by considering why you felt angry in the first place. In other words “Anger can be valuable if we use it…to realise we have a need that isn’t being met…” (Rosenberg, 2008).
There is growing awareness that avoidance of our feelings and mental experiences can create psychological distress. Tapping into our emotional experiences more directly, and using them as a source of information, can improve coping with uncomfortable emotions such as anger. Instead of trying to avoid these emotional states, we can try to stick with the discomfort in order to learn more and be better off in the long-run.
So, the take-home message here is that when you experience anger that you later feel guilty or remorseful about, you have at least three choices:
- Try to ignore the anger
- Beat yourself up about getting angry
- Use anger as a signal that you need to investigate the situation further (and use what you learn in future situations)
If you are interested in the last option, here are some questions you could ask to help you better understand your angry reaction:
- In what way do I feel like I am being mistreated/wronged?
- What does this mistreatment lead me to miss out on?
- How could this person have acted differently so that I would not have felt angry in the first place? What does this say about how I think I was treated?
- Why did I feel anger and not another emotion?
- What does my anger tell me about how I see this situation?
- Is my anger out of proportion to the situation? If so, why might that be?
- What other emotions am I experiencing? What does this say about how I saw the situation?
- How do I think the other person is feeling? Does this help me understand why I became angry?
Some of these questions may be useful, others may not be helpful. If you are stuck, try thinking out loud with a sensible and trusted friend or family member. As long as you are sticking with the unpleasant emotion and trying to understand it, you have a good chance of learning something valuable for the future.
Jason offers on-line and in-person sessions, so if yoiu need help with a psychological issue visit: www.jasonspendelow.com
Barlow, D. H, et al. (2011). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders:Workbook (Treatments That Work). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Henriques, G. (2013). Understanding anger-guild splits. Psychology Today. Accessed 9th August 2017 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201305/understandi...
Rosenberg, M. (2008). Nonviolent communication, a language for life. Encinitas: Puddle Dancer Press.