Sunday, June 13, 2010


Did you know that anger brings you gifts you can’t get from any other place? This may sound hard to believe, but all of your emotions bring you specific, irreplaceable gifts; anger is no exception. In fact, because anger helps you set boundaries and take your place in the world, it is one of the most vital emotions you have.

Here’s the problem: We don’t have any permission to listen to or work with our anger! We’ve all been taught to repress, suppress, ignore, violently express, snarkily express, or ridicule anger … and very few of us have been able to break through that conditioning to learn what anger is actually for.

We’ve heard rumors and old wives’ tales about anger, but the emotional truth is this: We feel anger because it has something important to teach us. Each of our emotions has a specific purpose and a specific message, and all of them are absolutely necessary.

We’ve all seem the problems people create with their anger, and after reading the comments from last week’s post, I think we should explore the gifts anger brings you.

The Gifts of Anger

Anger brings you the gifts of healthy self-esteem, well-considered conviction, healthy detachment, the ability to deal with conflict honorably, and the ability to set clear boundaries. Anger is vital, and if you can make good use of it, anger will help you protect yourself and others in healthy ways.

Here’s what anger can teach you: Anger is a sign that your (or someone else’s) boundaries or self-image are being threatened (this is different from fear, which you feel when your physical safety is threatened). If you don’t know why you’re feeling anger, you may repress it and throw its awareness away (this can lead to a loss of your self-image or a stewing resentment that gets in your way), or you may express it rudely or violently and hurt other people. Both choices — the repression and the expression — are injurious, and both stop you from figuring out what the heck happened to you and what you should do about it!

Because our emotional training is so poor, I created specific questions to ask when the anger (or any emotion) comes up (you can find these in my new book, The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You). Asking these questions does three things:

1. It helps you identify your emotions, which is a first step toward emotional maturity
2. It helps you understand what each emotion is for and why it arises
3. It recruits the verbal and rational part of your brain, which supports your emotions and helps you take constructive, emotionally appropriate action

Each of these steps helps calm you down so that you can focus your full intelligence on your emotions. For instance, in the case of anger, you ask yourself: What must be protected? and What must be restored? These questions can help you understand what to do with anger.

If you don’t know what anger is for, you’ll either repress it (which won’t rebuild your boundaries or your self-image), or you’ll express it (in aggression that may hurt other people, but will still not rebuild your boundaries!). And sadly, the next time you feel anger, you still won’t know what it’s for! That’s why I created a third, mindful option, which I call channeling the emotion (which means listening to it and learning what it’s for).

For instance: Let’s take anger. Imagine that you insult me openly: “Karla, you’re acting like an idiot.” There’s no subtlety there; you’re threatening my self image, you’re breaking my boundaries, and I’m going to feel angry about it. What I do with my anger depends on my level of emotional awareness, and on the quality of our relationship.

Repression: I may flush all over and stop what I’m doing, but not say anything to you. Usually, I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about what I should have said. But I won’t learn anything or rebuild my wounded self image. The anger will be wasted, and our relationship will suffer because you won’t have learned how to relate to me in conflict. When people use their anger properly, they can deal with conflict in honorable ways!

Expression: I may tell you to shove off, and you might increase the intensity of your attack: “No, you shove off, you dimwit!” And so forth. We’ll be expressing all over each other and raising our blood pressure and our cortisol, but we won’t be protecting or restoring anything. We’ll just do more damage to each other and our relationship, and again, the anger will be wasted.

Channeling: I will feel the anger and know that my self-image and boundaries are being threatened. Anger will give me the strength I need to let you know you’ve hurt me, but also to listen to what you’re saying, “Ow! That hurts! You know how much I value my intelligence! Are you saying I’m being stupid right now?” When I can access the strength that anger brings me, I can deal with the conflict and be honest about how much you’ve hurt me. And now you’ll know more about me, about yourself, about your approach to conflict, and so forth. My anger, properly channeled, will protect both of us.

You may continue onward with your attack, but I’ll continue to protect and restore not just myself, but you and our relationship. Anger is a wonderfully honorable and social emotion when we can channel it properly.

When you know what each emotion is for, you can act intelligently and express — not the emotion, but the truth of the situation. So go ahead and get angry … just do it right!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tom,

    You're absolutely right, anger is about protecting boundaries and restoring self-esteem. I was trying to do just that recently, by getting angry with a group of young men who repeatedly disturbed our neighbourhood at all hours of the night. Frequent calls to the police had achieved nothing, as had our appeals to them and to their landlord, that they keep the noise down.

    I finally lost it one morning at 3 am, when a taxi-load of them pulled up outside our house and their drunken yelling and foul language woke me up.

    I ran outside in my pyjamas, brandishing a large broom and told them I'd had enough of their waking us up at all hours. I was lucky that they were all quite young and weedy, or I could have been in a dangerous situation, but as it turned out, I think I had them bluffed, because they all dispersed quickly. I don't feel good about the event, though. It feels pretty out-of control to be threatening drunk guys at 3 am, with a broom.

    This is a really quiet neighbourhood and I know from talking to other neighbours, that their behaviour was affecting many people, but it seems that my husband and I were the only ones who have gone to them and their landlord directly to express the effect of their behaviour on us.

    There's nothing worse than being constantly woken at all hours, several nights a week, because of drunken noise, or of realising the ineffectiveness of the police, to control it. It's a really powerless feeling and what's worse, is that the usual modes of expressing anger, in rational conversation, just don't work.

    Thankfully, they haven't done anything like that since and because we made enough complaints to the landlord, it seems that they are being evicted soon. I just wish I had known that the landlord was finally going to act on our appeals about them, because I could have saved myself from the madness of that night, if I'd realised that someone finally was going to help us out.