*This article was inspired by this article by my friend Nick that I reference constantly in my personal and professional life. Nick is a psychologist who focuses on anxiety and sleep issues, and he writes concise, helpful articles weekly that are available through his free newsletter. And now, Five Myths About Anger.
Anger is bad
Anger is one of the core emotions that every human experiences. It is both normal and unavoidable. Despite this, a lot of us can name someone – maybe a grandma, a mom, an aunt- and think, “well, she was never angry. “ In this example, what we’re likely doing is conflating a person’s response to the emotion with the emotion itself. Grandma still felt angry, she was just excellent at recognizing and accepting her anger (as well as her wide, colorful array of secondary emotions), and therefore was able to choose to behave well despite her anger. (Or, as I suspect, she was passive-aggressive AF and it went over your head). Which brings us to myth number 2.
Anger and aggression are the same thing
We often conflate the emotion “anger” with how people deal with their anger, how they react to it. People who have what we think of as “anger management” issues are actually showing aggression, which is a problematic response to the emotion (and is often a reaction to a more complicated mix of guilt, hurt feelings, and sadness, which expresses as anger). Anger is not the enemy in relationships; aggression is. Which brings us to myth number 3.
You have to express anger to “get over” it
When we’re angry, our physiology changes: our heart rates and blood pressure go up, and in a beautiful, potentially dangerous feedback loop, our body tells our mind which reminds our body “you have to act! Do something about this!” It’s evolutionary. It’s basic. It’s human. It’s normal. And it really feels like we have to act.
The problem with this is that anger is just an emotion, and like all emotions, it is temporary. When it passes, however, we’re left with the consequences of how we behaved. When we express our anger in the moment, we often behave in a way that doesn’t line up with our core values. For me, this looks like raising my voice or snapping at my kids with irritation. The anger leaves, and then I feel guilty, sad, and irritated with myself, which compounds the initial suffering.
So, while it feels important in the moment to express anger, you’ll find professionals again and again recommending a few strategies for moving through anger that do not include the immediate expression of anger. They include:
Pausing. Pause in the moment you’re angry. During a pause, you can do other things to help your mind and body calm down, such as breathing (with a long outbreath – I like 4-7-8 breathing).
Validating. Validate your own emotion, to help yourself calm down and move through it. I like RAIN for this.
Waiting. If you can, wait to discuss what you’re angry about until you’re actually very calm (this could be days!). When the heat of anger has left you, you’re more likely to be able to express yourself productively, such as with “I statements”.
Again, anger makes us feel like we have to address “the thing” right now, but usually these things can be tabled for another, calmer moment. It is hard to use these skills. Doing so takes practice, and we’ll make mistakes. As I often tell my daughter, adults make mistakes too. This is why making amends is probably the most important tool in my parenting toolbelt, and it is also a relationship saver for grown-up relationships, too.
Anger is a negative emotion
Anger is considered a positive emotion. It not only activates us physiologically, it also gives our ego a temporary boost. So, while the after-effects of our anger often feel bad, and other people’s anger at us definitely feels bad, being angry (which can also look like disgust, judgment, self-righteousness, indignation), actually gives us a little lift.
The boost we get from feeling angry incentivizes us to lean into rather than move through it. This can look like griping to friends, clicking on another news article about an outrageous politician, or ruminating on something your partner did. When we lean into anger, we perpetuate it, which may temporarily buoy us but also can have negative effects on our long-term relationships and well-being.
Instead of leaning into the anger, you can use RAIN and other strategies to gently recognize and validate your emotion, and decide when you’re calm if you need to address the source of the anger or let it go.
If you’re struggling with mood regulation, such as not responding to anger in a way you feel you have control over, it’s important to know you can get and deserve help with this.
You have to deal with anger alone
While anger is a normal part of being human, more anger than usual or anger you feel is out of control can be a sign of other issues, including depression and anxiety disorders. Anger, irritability, and rage can also be present in perinatal mood disorders, perimenopause, and menopause. Anti-depressant medications, such as SSRI’s, can often provide relief from these symptoms and are safe to take while pregnant and lactating. Talk therapy can build resilience and skills to help you improve emotional regulation.
Your primary care provider or OBGYN will are great people to connect with if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. Please feel free to reach out to us if you need some assistance making other connections.
Thanks for coming along this myth-busting journey. Is there anything surprising to you here? Anything you want to add?
PS: My favorite podcast has a short-and-sweet episode about anger