Anger has a very bad reputation but if you can learn how to be angry, it can really help you, everyone around you, and the world around you too. It can motivate you to protect yourself, to ask for what you need, and to help others. Just understand the difference between anger and aggression and don’t be angry at people just to make them do what you want.
Why we get angry
Let’s start with what makes people angry. People get angry when they are being treated unfairly, or not being listened to, or their limits are not being respected. Injustice makes people angry. Being lied to makes people angry. Seeing that someone isn’t doing what they should be doing to protect us or other people makes people angry. Being let down by people, organisations, or states makes us angry. Because of world events (racist policing; poor management of Covid-19; wealth, social, and health inequality; lack of action on climate change) a lot of people are angry at the moment. Me too, I’m well angry. What makes you angry?
When you’re growing up, being angry is one of the signs that you are maturing and developing a sense of your own self. It’s the same for sadness. So the ability to feel anger is the ability to be a grown up. To understand how you relate to the world around you and how the world relates to you – look at you, all grown up! Learning to feel angry is vital. But there’s a difference between anger and aggression.
Also read how to worry.
Anger and aggression
If our brain senses a threat to our body then we react. As I’ve talked about recently, our brain and nervous system just takes over to keep us safe. One of the things that our body can do is to go into ‘fight mode’ in order to defend ourselves. The sympathetic nervous system just takes over to keep us safe. If there’s an actual threat this can be useful in these milliseconds, but if there isn’t then it’s not.
This kind of reactive anger can be hard for others to be around, and it can be violent and aggressive. Catching ourselves in the first couple of seconds of having this feeling is important. If we do then we can just give ourselves a few minutes just to de-stress and stop reacting. This is what people mean by anger management. Nipping potentially violent behaviour and aggression in the bud before it harms someone is important.
You can learn ‘time out’ techniques to help manage your anger. Things like: finding space, counting backwards from 10 to 1, having long exhalations of your breath are all very useful. I really like this article by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron about finding that initial softness of hurt feelings before you get angry.
When you’re having any kind of stress it can take up to an hour for your body to recover. So if you’ve snapped, give yourself enough time to calm down before addressing what it is that has made you angry in the heat of the moment.
The important thing about feelings is to feel them even when we’re not in the heat of the moment. Being able to tune into feelings and feel them when we’re not reacting and are pretty chill is an important practice. It gives us useful information about what is going on for us, how we are being treated by others, and how we relate the the world.
I am angry and that’s okay
If when you are pretty calm you are able to assess a situation you are in and say ‘yeah I’m angry’ it gives you vital information. Like I was saying above, we feel anger when we are being treated badly. Being able to stick up for ourselves and say no to them and yes to us. Anger is the feeling that tells us we need to do that.
If, when you are calm, you can say ‘I’m angry at…’ or ‘I’m pissed off with …’ or ‘I’m totally fed up …’ that’s a really great start. You can then talk about what you need ‘I need you to stop ….’ or what you them to hear ‘you let me down and I need you to step up.’ Although the other person might not like to hear it at first (they might ‘react’ as I talked about above) you are giving them useful information.
Anger makes you less stressed about asking for what you want and it makes you more honest about your needs. This is good and useful but that doesn’t give you an excuse to intimidate others with your anger or to use your power over someone to be angry and get what you want the whole time. No-one likes that guy, don’t be that guy. With great power comes great responsibility. Yes I am your wise Uncle.
Using anger for good
Anger is also the feeling that can motivate us to stick up for other people, who we know or don’t know. As I’ve been writing about lately, a lot of people are hurt, stressed, or harmed in the world. Although everyone is affected by Covid-19 or the climate crisis, some people are affected more than others. This is all on top of other issues that affect different people differently – such as racism and transphobia. It’s revealing underlying injustices in the world of the haves and the have nots even more starkly.
Protests use this collective anger to change society. Audre Lorde talks about a symphony of anger in the history of the struggle of black women in America (her essay ‘The Uses of Anger’ is in Sister Outsider). The protests we are seeing are fuelled by anger, but they are peaceful. Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the Climate Strike, all mostly peaceful and absolutely necessary.
Why being angry is hard but necessary
This all sounds very simple doesn’t it. Feel anger, tell people about it, and use it to make the world better. However, we often find being in this kind of emotional state quite difficult. A lot of this depends on what we learnt about anger when we were growing up and our previous experiences of anger. If we were taught that: being assertive; speaking your mind; raised voices; pushing back if you got pushed; were bad then you might not feel so good about being angry.
Also if you experienced anger towards you then you really might not want to feel anger. Remembering those angry times can be traumatising and put you right back to feeling vulnerable and scared. This is also true if someone is angry towards you. So this kind of thing is important to talk about in relationships with people. Giving each other permission to say ‘I’m angry’ means that you can feel this kind of more mid-level anger without anyone feeling at risk.
Not being able to express this anger with the people / situation that has made you angry means that you will get angry at the wrong person. If your teacher bollocks you for something you didn’t do, and then get home and yell at your little brother, that’s not good. Or we might just get angry at ourselves and let our self-critic run wild in our brains. It’s also not good if you never express your anger.
When we get stressed out by something, our body creates more cortisol, which makes us anxious. Allowing ourselves to feel angry and to do something about it actually lowers these cortisol levels. It makes us more able to do something about whatever has made us angry because it reduces our anxiety. If we don’t allow ourselves to get angry at all, if we back away and internalise the anger, then we increase our anxiety and stress levels. If we regularly do that then it can affect our health long term.
Who is allowed to get angry
So anger is not always bad, in fact it’s really valuable and actually good for our health if we can learn to do it. However, everyone gets very different cultural messages about anger at different times. Also some people have the power to be angry and others don’t.
Men are told that they shouldn’t express their emotions at all, but it’s expected that we get angry, because men are told to be tough, hard and confrontational. Women are told that they should be the opposite, to be kind, soft, and conciliatory, which means that we really don’t expect, or allow women to be angry. The (sexist) expectation of women is to keep men calm to stop them getting angry. These sexist expectations of men and women are also difficult for men who don’t want to do anger, and for women that really do.
Anger really overlaps with racism too. There is a racist myth of the ‘angry black man’, which is often used by white society to justify police violence against individuals. The collective anger of black communities, and other people standing with them, is absolutely justified. But then some media, and certain politicians, are quick to denounce it as violent, aggressive and unacceptable. The state doesn’t use the same argument of a ‘few bad apples’ that the state uses to explain state violence when they criticise protests and uprisings. Just sayin’.
As I said earlier, many people’s experience of aggression, hostility, and violence towards them can make it much more difficult for them to express their own anger. Those at the receiving end of injustice, who have the most to feel angry about, are often not able to engage with their own anger, or to have their anger heard from people who contribute to it. You might see here how oppression contributes to that.
Think of anger as a useful emotion that can help you. It can prevent you from being harmed by others and can help you to be assertive with others about your needs. You can also use your anger outwards, with others, to help make the world better. But don’t just go throwing your weight around because if everyone was angry all the time it would be too much. Also society does not fairly distribute the ability to be angry. So, if you’re not careful, you could end up being one of the bad guys with more power. Aim for being consensual, kind, and collaborative with others, but use anger when you need to.
If you would like a more advanced take on anger, check out my podcast and blog with Meg-John over at our website. Also Meg-John has a brilliant zine called ‘Staying With Feelings’ about this stuff. Support their patreon too! Also I found Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain really useful to help me write this.
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.