I was standing in line waiting to order my much-needed coffee on my morning break, when someone cut in front of me – ‘the nerve!’ I thought to myself. I noticed a surge of disbelief and anger come over me, I felt hot and tense. A flurry of angry thoughts came into my mind – ‘How could they be so rude!’, ‘What a jerk!’. I had an urge to passive-aggressively cough or audibly sigh. I noticed that I was not alone in my reaction as I heard people around me doing the same. Tension seemed to build in the line until someone blurted out ‘Hey there’s a line’, to which the person profusely apologized saying ‘I didn’t realize!’. This situation got me thinking about my reaction and how quickly anger came into the piece.
Why Do We Get Angry?
Anger serves a range of functions. It’s the emotion you experience when you have been treated unfairly, provoked, wronged or when your goals have been blocked. Anger works to communicate something important to you, as well as others around you, and to motivate you to act. The intensity of the anger you feel, from mild annoyance to intense rage, depends on several things.
Firstly, your reactivity to an anger-prompting event depends on your emotional vulnerabilities, or as anger researcher Dr Ryan Martin calls it, your ‘pre-anger state’. That is, things that increase your vulnerability to feeling anger at any given moment. This can include significant past experiences or trauma, stress, pain, feeling rushed or pressured, and physiological needs such as hunger and fatigue. For instance, if you are rushing to a job interview and someone is walking slowly in front of you, you’re more likely to get angry than if you were going for a leisurely Sunday stroll.
Identifying Angry Thinking
Secondly, your interpretation of the situation is another significant factor that impacts how angry you feel. In other words, our thoughts. Dr Martin identified five types of thinking that tend to fuel anger: catastrophising, misattributing causation, overgeneralising, demandingness, and inflammatory labelling. You may have heard of a few of these, but if not, here’s a recap:
- Catastrophising: Evaluating the situation as very negative, devastating, and impossible to cope with, e.g., ‘I can’t cope’, ‘What a disaster!’
- Misattributing causation: Jumping to negative conclusions and blame while disregarding other interpretations, e.g., ‘They cut in front of me on purpose’.
- Overgeneralising: Sweeping statements relating to the frequency of occurrence, e.g., ‘This always happens to me’, ‘I never get my way’, ‘Everybody is useless.’
- Demandingness: Placing your own needs and desires above others, e.g., ‘They should have waited for me’.
- Inflammatory labelling: Using offensive and emotive language to describe people and their actions, e.g., ‘They’re stupid, ‘That was dumb’.
Of course, we all have the ability to think like this from time to time, but if you catch yourself engaging in these thoughts regularly, it might be worth assessing if you tend to be an angry thinker.
A third common cause of anger is when the anger-prompting event is avoidable or leads you to feel powerless. This often comes about when your expectations are too high or inconsistent with the people around you. Imagine that you plan a picnic with friends, you don’t check the forecast for the day and yet you expect that the day will be nice and warm. However, when the picnic comes around, it’s blowing a gale and starts raining. You feel frustrated. If you had entered the same situation with an expectation that something might go wrong (e.g., the weather), then you’re probably going to respond to the obstacle differently (e.g., prepare for poor weather).
Similarly, imagine that the light globe blew in your bathroom, and you expect your housemate to fix it while you’re away for the weekend. You return and find it still isn’t fixed. You get annoyed and disappointed. It’s understandable to want the light globe changed, however, if you don’t communicate your expectations to those around you, you can’t be sure that you’re both on the same page.
Therefore, if you can adapt and communicate your expectations ahead of time to acknowledge that life can be messy and things might go wrong, then you’re less likely to feel anger when things don’t go to plan.
Anger can be a raw or primary emotion in its own right, as mentioned above. However, anger can also act as a protector of some of your more vulnerable emotions. The concept of the Anger Iceberg suggests that raw emotions, such as sadness, shame, guilt, or fear, can be hidden under overt anger. Let’s say that your manager at work asks the team who left the heater on all night, and you respond aggressively blaming the confusing heating system. Although annoyance might be what you notice, guilt or shame are possibly lurking under the surface.
Is Anger Bad?
Anger as an emotion, is not inherently bad. In fact, it can be incredibly helpful. It all depends on how you choose to express your anger. Anger can lead to either constructive or destructive urges. Destructive anger tends to dehumanise others and lead to blame, which can result in aggression, threats, or insults. You often don’t feel very clear about why you’re angry with destructive anger. Destructive urges can be due to misplaced anger, high vulnerabilities, or when other emotions are hiding under anger.
However, when anger is constructive, it can alert you to injustice and energise you to confront it, it’s protective. For instance, anger can motivate you to protest for your rights, be assertive, and set healthy boundaries. Constructive anger tends to focus on the problem behaviour or situation, rather than demonising the person. In this podcast, American Researcher, Dr Kristin Neff, explains that you need some clarity or perspective over the situation for anger to be constructive.
How to Manage Anger
Luckily, there are lots of different ways to manage anger better, here are just a few suggestions:
- STOP is an acronym that stands for Stop, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed. First, Stop whatever you’re doing (e.g., if you’re talking with someone, pause the conversation). Take a step back from the situation, by either leaving the space you’re in or just breathing deeply for a few minutes. Observe how you feel inside your body and what’s going on around you to gather information. Once you have a clearer picture, then Proceed mindfully by taking action based on your values.
- Check in with your vulnerabilities. This little self-care game prompts you to think of various factors that may be increasing your emotional vulnerability.
- Start to recognise your angry thinking styles, then try to consider other explanations for the provocation. Ask yourself – ‘What facts (if any) support my interpretation? Can I consider alternative interpretations and even test them out?’ Like in my opening café scenario, if I had paused and considered that the person accidentally cut in the line and possibly didn’t see me, then I probably would have politely notified them, rather than getting angry.
- Try to understand your anger and what it’s communicating to you. Then, channel your anger to be constructive- use it as a motivator to stand up for yourself, write letters, volunteer for a meaningful cause, be assertive, problem-solve, or exercise.
- Although it’s a valid emotion on its own, remember anger can also indicate other emotions that need to be addressed or validated.
Managing anger can be difficult and sometimes requires the support of a professional. Check out some signs here that suggest you may benefit from seeing a psychologist about your anger. If you want to know more about why you feel anger and why it’s helpful, watch Dr Ryan Martin’s Ted Talk. Or, to deep-dive into various subtopics relating to anger, check out his blogs.