Anger is uncomfortable. Period. For many people, it is an emotional state to be avoided. All too often, avoidance comes at great cost to the individual and the relationships in which they participate. But those who struggle with anger issues also need to know that anger can be good. It can be used productively.
Anger is Like a Sign on the Road
Many in the Christian tradition assume that anger is always sinful, and fail to recognize that anger is simply an emotion, a feeling state. Like other feeling states, anger occurs as a response to an internal shift or an external event, such as the actions or lack of action of another person, or to a negative environment. Feelings are responses to what is going on in our personal world. You can liken feelings to the signs on the road as you drive – they tell you where you are.
The kind of anger I am discussing here is not chronic reactive anger or ongoing high level resentment. If you find yourself constantly exploding, or if you cannot control your anger and find that it is causing damage in your life and the lives of those you care for, then you need to consider professional help for chronic anger.
A second caution about anger is to be aware that we often feel shame and guilt after expressing anger. There is shame that comes from allowing the “out of control” inside person to be seen. Our attention turns to soothing and making amends if another person has been offended or harmed. Making amends is OK, and needed. But you can also turn an experience of anger into a growth opportunity if you study your anger well, and turn it to good use.
How Can Anger Help You?
Here is how the emotion and experience of anger can help you.
Anger shows us when our boundaries have been crossed. When it serves as a protective mechanism, which is called forth for either physical or emotional self-defense, our anger is doing its job. It shows us when we are being threatened, or when we need to realize that we are being threatened. Let’s say that a woman sits down on one end of an empty bench in a park. A man sits down, not in the middle but close to her on her side of the bench. She asks him to move over but he ignores her. She asks again, and he moves even closer to her. She is allowed to get angry that he will not move out of her “space.” Since his actions are an obvious cause for concern, her anger, which is based on his abnormal behavior, should immediately alert her to potential danger.
Anger Can Clarify an Issue
Did you ever have a time when you got irritated by a repetitive situation? The repetition caused you to realize that this time you were close to anger and were finally able to name exactly what it was that was bothering you. Your heightened emotionality helped you to clarify what was at stake. It made you ask what you really want or need in the particular situation. In such a case, you can use the experience to sort out what is and is not important to you. Are you just going along with something because it is not worth the hassle of changing and making waves? Do you respect yourself less if you just go along?
Here is a case-in-point: Jan’s three close friends all shared similar opinions on politics. The foursome went out to lunch once each week. The conversation at lunch always revolved around the latest polls and their favorite politicians. Jan, whose opinions differed greatly, felt completely left out and she remained silent during most of the lunchtime get-togethers. After a number of weeks of silence, she found herself angry about the situation. She thought, “What can I do with my anger to stand up for myself and truly feel a part of the social outings with my friends?”
Jan decided to use her anger as a mechanism of self-understanding. The next time she and her friends got together for lunch, the three other ladies continued the topic of conversation. But this time, with the utmost respect for the diversity of opinion at the table, she calmly joined the conversation and freely expressed her opinions.
Jan used her anger as a clarifying and alerting experience. It motivated her to seek inclusion rather than self-determined exclusion.
When we experience a surge of anger, we can do things that are surprisingly out of character and out of our normal range of behavior. And the anger can be very good. Look at Jesus cleansing the temple. He had holy anger at the first century Jewish establishment for what they had allowed to occur in his Father’s house. He took the time in his anger to braid a whip. This took at least 20 minutes, I guess. He overturned tables and pushed people around, whipping them out of the space. His actions show determination and purposefulness, which are both a result of surging anger. Jesus did all this without being wrong or sinning. He demonstrated good healthy anger, showing that healthy anger can move us to good action.
Anger Can Move Us Out of Codependence and Shame
When we attune our actions, feelings, and life in general to another’s actions, feelings, and needs, we are codependent. Codependence wraps our own life up in a knot – a knot that belongs to another person, and not to us. Often we get angry to break the cycle of codependence, that is, to remove ourselves from trying to cure the problems of another person. Like the positive effects of the anger that energizes, so our anger at our own codependence can cause us to work on changing ourselves. As with the example of Jesus and the money changers above, healthy anger moves us to action and results in determination. It is productive and it focuses on improving our own life, while allowing the other person the freedom to choose whether or not to work on their life.
Here is an example of this good use of anger. Jill got angry at Jack for once again ignoring her birthday. For the last five years he had “forgotten” her birthday, and, not wanting to hurt him by being upset, she had convinced herself that it was not that important. Each year he apologized and made many excuses. However, this year she confronted him, and expressed her anger at him. That action of showing her anger was the beginning of her movement out of codependence.
Christian Counseling to Learn How to Use Your Anger
As a Christian counselor, I am convinced that the experience of anger is not a problem in itself. It is what you do with your anger that determines a healthy or unhealthy outcome. If you are experiencing anger issues – whether your own or someone else’s – Christian counseling can help to bring perspective, understanding, and change.
“Clinched Fist,” courtesy of jppi, morguefile.com; “Sign of Anger,” PICT3742.jpg, courtesy of chelle, morguefile.com