Learning to Let Your Anger Work for You

Help for Those who Have Trouble Accessing and Expressing Anger as well as for Those Who Feel Angry Much of the Time

by Susan Axtell, Psy.D.

If you are someone who has difficulty letting people know your angry feelings when you are being mistreated or manipulated, it is important that you learn to express your anger assertively. Some people aren’t even aware of being angry; they’ve learned to suppress angry feelings in the service of keeping the peace, pleasing others, or staying “in control.” Suppressed anger can show up as tension headaches, generalized anxiety, or passive-aggressive behaviors like always being late, among other signs. If this sounds like you it will be important for you to get in touch with your anger, get comfortable having the emotion, and learn how to express it appropriately.

On the other hand, if anger is no stranger to you, and in fact, you feel like you have a problem with anger–that it is excessive or destructive–you will need to take a very different approach. If you feel that frequent angry outbursts and constant simmering irritability leave you drained or negatively impact your relationships, the solution is not to express it more, but to change the internal monologue of distorted thinking and mistaken beliefs that exacerbate the anger. This can be accomplished by learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques from a therapist trained in this type of work. CBT will help you understand how distorted thinking like “Black and White Thinking”–seeing something or someone as all good or all bad–is irrational and leads to extreme feelings. Believing that life should be fair or that you are entitled to have things go your way all of the time (low frustration tolerance) are other examples of cognitive distortions that can cause excessive irritability and anger.

Tips for Anger-Suppressors

*Be willing to let go of people-pleasing all the time.
Open your mind to the idea that you don’t have to be “nice” all of the time to be worthwhile. In fact, appropriately communicating anger to people you care about is an indication that you care enough about the relationship to share your true feelings, rather than withdrawing or acting passive-aggressively.

*Concentrate on working through fears that something terrible might happen if you let your anger out.
Pent-up anger can feel frighteningly intense, but it will not cause you to “go crazy” or “do something terrible.” As you begin to express your anger its intensity will begin to diminish. If you’re worried about the initial explosive potential of expressing your anger, practice some of the “how to express anger appropriately” tips below.

* Work through irrational beliefs about anger.
Many people who are afraid of expressing anger experienced violence in their families and associate anger with violent behavior. Anger does not need to be (and should not be) expressed through violence. It is important to learn to be assertive rather than aggressive when communicating angry feelings, which entails communicating in ways that respects the dignity of the person you are talking to. (See tips for expressing anger appropriately” below.)

Tips for Expressing Anger Appropriately (Whether you suppress or overindulge your anger)

*Take a time-out.
If you are really angry, not just mildly frustrated or irritated, it’s best to diffuse some of that energy before facing the person you’re angry at. For example, you can talk to a friend and vent your angry feelings, taking the edge off your anger while organizing your thoughts.
It may also be helpful to write about your angry feelings in a journal to diffuse some of the explosive energy and better ensure that you keep your cool when you confront the person you’re angry with. Similarly, working out at the gym or taking a brisk walk first can make it easier for you to then express your feelings appropriately without losing control.

*Use “I-statements.”
You will be much more effective in communicating your anger (or any strong emotion) when you begin each statement with “I feel” as in “I feel angry when you don’t honor your committments to me.” If you say instead “You make me angry,” you are more likely to elicit defensiveness in your listener. The truth is, other people do not make you angry. Your anger is a reaction to your interpretation of the significance of others’ actions.

*Comment on the other person’s behavior rather than their character.
In other words, it is more appropriate to say “I feel angry when you bail on our plans” than “You are such a flake it really makes me angry!”

Taking the time to learn to experience and express your anger appropriately can only benefit your life, decreasing negative physical effects like headaches in suppressors and sky-high blood pressure in ragers, increasing your sense of effectiveness and control, and contributing to better relationships.

Comments (1)

Beverley Hills PsychologistJune 3rd, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Great article! very enlightening, i enjoyed it very much and agreed with a lot!