Anger: Express or Suppress?

Written By: Rachel Zentner, LPC, SAS

In the world of psychology and counseling popular culture, we often talk about expressing your feelings and that it’s important to “get things out” and how we shouldn’t “bottle things up”.  Recently I became curious if there is ever a time when we SHOULDN’T just express something… I wondered if perhaps anger is one of those emotions that might be handled with a different skill set rather than just the old “express your anger” adage.

Anger often comes on swiftly when something happens outside of ourselves: someone says something inappropriate, someone cuts us off in traffic, a rude person on the phone isn’t handling our situation the way we want it to be handled, when we’ve determined someone is wrong and we are right.  Anger can also be built and stored and grown internally if we chose to repeat stories to ourselves of how people and situations have wronged us.   In either case, whether anger is coming on fast or built over time, anger is something we are doing- it is not being done to us.  This is both good and bad news: the good news is we can take responsibility for what we do with anger; the bad news is it’s our responsibility to decide what we do with anger.

Anger is pointing us to something else: always.  I don’t use such definitive statements often but it is true here.  Anger is energy, and often BIG energy.  What am we supposed to do with that big energy?  Do something.  Use it.  It is a motivator for change.  Anger is indicating to you that something in this situation isn’t right and typically there are two options:  change the situation or change your reaction.

If you chose to use anger to change the situation, you can put up boundaries around yourself and always remember you have the right to leave:  the phone call, the relationship, the FaceBook interaction and so on.  You and I do not have the power to change others- ever.  I can say to someone: “I don’t want you to talk about politics around me.”  They have every right to continue to do so.  If their continued behavior causes anger in me, I can leave.  Anger is a motivator for me to take care of myself and boundaries.

If you chose to use anger to change your reaction, you can examine what is actually underneath the anger and work with yourself of what’s actually happening.  In the above example you could ask yourself why political conversation is so upsetting to you.  Do you think you are right and others are wrong?  Are you interested in listening to others or just wanting to make others believe what you do?  Are you actually afraid about what’s happening politically and not angry at all?  If we take responsibility for what’s underneath anger, we can change our reaction.  Perhaps a comment might come then like, “I’m uncomfortable talking about politics because usually people get upset and argue and I don’t like conflict so I tend to avoid political discussions because I’m afraid of them.”

In both case above, the “change your situation” and the “change your reaction” options, some level of suppression of anger is required.  A person skilled in these anger tactics is actually transmuting the energy into motivation.  The energy of anger can absolutely be destructive when expressed without contemplation and discipline.   Allowing a feeling to determine your behavior too risky, fast, and often leaves us with unintended consequences (think of the texts or emails you’ve sent too quickly in a fit of anger and wished you hadn’t for example).  When we slow down, use our mind to determine how to use the angry feelings, we have options and can take responsibility for ourselves.  Anger can no longer control you- you are now in charge of how you use this powerful indicator that change is required.