What a strange emotion. We have unique and interesting ways of attempting to navigate anger when it arises. Some people don’t know how to acknowledge the existence of anger, others see any expression of anger as negative or shameful, and still others see anger as a helpful tool to promote change.
Anger is frequently misunderstood. It’s not uncommon for clients to ask me how to get rid of their anger (or their spouse’s anger). We tend to have this knee-jerk reaction to anger the moment it arises: eliminate it.
When clients ask me to help them eliminate their anger, my first response is to ask, “where does the anger come from? What’s causing it?” Inevitably, the anger comes from somewhere and is trying to communicate something important to us. If we skip over the root cause of our anger, we are denying a part of our experience. Doing so can cause fallout from feeling invalidated, often leading to shame as a result.
Anger is the emotion of injustice
Anger is an alarm system our bodies have in place to let us know some type of injustice has occurred. If we believe someone has violated our personal space, our emotional space, our property, or our loved ones, we feel angry. We can also become angry when we exercise compassion on others outside of our circles, being upset by the injustices occurring all around the world. We see them as violations of humanity.
As with any alarm system, false alarms can and do occur. I remember in 5th grade my teacher had a large, beautiful photo up on our classroom wall near the door. Once a student ran out of the classroom and slammed the door, dislodging the piece of art, which managed to catch on the fire alarm below it and set off the fire alarm for the entire school. The whole school reacted to this alarm as though there was a fire: we all exited to the blacktop and observed the arrival of fire engines and police, awaiting the “all clear” signal that it was safe to return to our classrooms.
I’m sure most of you have also had experiences of alarms going off for reasons other than their intended purpose. Our anger can similarly get triggered for reasons other than its originally-designed purpose.
When small-scale injustice triggers full-scale alarm
Sometimes there is a genuine violation that’s occurred, but our angry reaction seems to be bigger than we believe the situation merits. Though we can never measure the magnitude of what an injustice is “supposed to” feel like because everyone has their individual way of processing things, we do know that sometimes smaller violations can be triggers for a full-blown alarm.
High school chemistry class seemed to be a breeding ground for all kinds of these pseudo-false alarms. The combination of bunsen burners, chemicals, and hormone-influenced angsty teenagers nearly guaranteed that the fire alarm would go off at some point every year.
Inevitably, during my sophomore year chemistry class, someone briefly set something on fire. I don’t even remember the circumstances, just that at the time I thought it was super cool. My teacher didn’t feel the same way I did, and neither did the school fire alarm system. The smoke from the fire triggered the fire alarm to go off. Once again, the entire student body of 2,000 students emptied out onto the blacktop.
This wasn’t exactly a false alarm. We were indeed playing with fire. Sure, fire is not to be played with, but there was no immediate emergency because we put the fire out right away. If there was a medium-sized alarm system applicable to this situation, this would have been a good time for that alarm to go off.
Sometimes our emotional alarms do the same thing. Something happens that’s worth triggering some anger, but we find that our anger is suddenly at a 10/10 state of rage, simply because someone stole a french fry from our plate.
Insight is the antidote to anger
When anger is triggered, my assumption is that either an injustice has occurred, there has been a false alarm, or our reaction to a genuinely unjust situation has been exaggerated by a full-scale alarm system. Regardless of which of these items is at play, the solution always starts with insight: what caused your anger alarm to go off?
During the fire alarm incident of 5th grade, many students and teachers from other classrooms were freaking out, believing the alarm meant there was a fire somewhere on campus. Once we received the all-clear identifying that the alarm was set off by our classroom picture, everyone’s panic diffused. Insight let everyone know that this was a false alarm, and we could calm down.
Similarly for the chemistry fire of 10th grade, there was some amount of panic around campus regarding what could have set off the alarm. Once everyone knew the cause was a minor fire set off by some unruly teens playing with bunsen burners, the panic reaction could be dialed back down to a lecture on the importance of following safety precautions when “playing with fire.”
What should we do with anger?
Sometimes I meet with clients who are confused why they are entering into a full-blown rage in reaction to incidents that seem relatively small to them. When this is the case, more often than not there have been additional violating incidents in the past that haven’t come to light or been properly validated. When we don’t have the opportunity to acknowledge the source of our anger, it has a way of sitting inside our bodies, just waiting for the next upsetting opportunity to rear its big head.
If you’re having these kinds of experiences but you’re unsure of where your anger is coming from, you may consider whether seeking the services of a professional counselor might be helpful to you.
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.