The Upside of Anger
In the past few decades, we’ve developed some very odd—and rather unhealthy—ideas about anger. As a society, we’ve adopted the idea that anger is a bad thing. That it’s something we should never express. In fact, the underlying message we get is that not only should we not express anger, we probably shouldn’t even feel it, and that if we do then there must be something wrong with us.
Maybe this has something to do with the culture of victimhood we’ve transitioned to over the past several decades. Or maybe it’s the other way around; whether this view is a cause or a symptom is a question best left to sociologists. In any case, today the overwhelming popular viewpoint is that to feel angry—and certainly to act on that anger in any way—is to be unstable in some way.
Which is a load of horse hockey, of course. And although I’m not usually on the side of the shrinks, this is one area where psychology gets it right.
Give yourself permission to be angry
The idea that anger is something we should feel guilty about, something to suppress and to hide, comes not from the mental health community but from popular culture. Mental health professionals will tell you what you probably already know deep down but might—especially if you’re under 40—be ashamed to admit to yourself: getting angry is perfectly normal. And “bottling it up” and pretending it doesn’t exist, as society increasingly asks us to, takes a toll on your health both mentally and physically.
All too often I hear people say things like, “I was so out of control. I was so angry, I wanted to punch someone.” They feel guilty. They beat themselves up. They convince themselves that—no matter how justified that bout of anger was—that they’ve done something wrong. Rather than allowing themselves to simply feel their feelings, they try to beat the feeling into submission and lock it away in a box.
My response to these kinds of comments is always, “Well, did you punch someone?”
The answer, invariably, is “No. No of course not.”
So I have to ask—then why are you beating yourself up? Why are you mentally punching yourself?
The truth is that getting angry is an absolutely normal reaction in a lot of situations. It’s part of being human. And expressing that anger serves a purpose. When you don’t give it an outlet, you carry it around with you.
Sometimes you carry it for a few hours, or a few days. Sometimes you carry it for a lifetime. And carrying that weight around with you impacts your health in a thousand negative ways, from the physiological (chronic exposure to stress hormones) to the physical (tense muscles, chronic disease, and more). Venting your anger acts like a psychological pressure valve, allowing you to return to mental equilibrium. There’s a reason we use the phrase “letting off steam.”
That’s not to say you should give in to the urge to punch someone, of course. And it doesn’t mean you should go on a rampage and break all the dishes in your house. But expressing your anger in a non-destructive way can have a very positive effect on both your psychological and physical health.
How to let off steam without blowing anything up
Venting to a friend or family member might seem like a good idea—and sometimes it is. Simply having someone hear you out and validate your feelings can help diffuse them in a non-destructive way. But take care in choosing who you vent to; venting to the wrong person can go awry if your friend reinforces the anger-is-abnormal lie. The opposite can also be true—you don’t want someone who gets so worked up on your behalf that they feed your anger rather than diffusing it.
Confronting the person or situation that’s the focus of your anger can also be helpful if you do it in a constructive way. The danger is that in this kind of scenario, it’s easy to fall into what I call the “name and blame frame.” When you’re angry, it’s all too easy to resort to name-calling and placing blame rather than being constructive. Take care with your words.
Physically venting anger is helpful for some people—I have a therapist friend who keeps an old overstuffed chair for just this purpose. When she’s feeling frustrated and angry, she pulls out her trusty tennis racket (also kept for this specific purpose) and, to make a pun, beats the stuffing out of the chair. My favorite method, though—is...the “hate letter.”
Now before you jump to conclusions, let me say that I never, ever send them and neither should you. That would be the psychological equivalent of punching someone in the face. But venting on paper lets you say anything and everything you could possibly want to, no holds barred. Even when you’re venting to another person, you’re usually keeping something back. Venting on paper lets you say things you couldn’t say even in front of a friend. It also has the added benefit of helping you clarify your thoughts.
Often, after writing down what you’re angry about and saying all the things you wish you could say aloud, you’ll find that you can step back from the situation and see it more clearly. Once you get that first name-and-blame rush out of your system, you can organize, prioritize, and confront the person or situation that caused the problem with a clear head and a well-organized, non-destructive plan.
Anger isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s part of being human. And expressing your anger doesn’t mean you need a shrink, no matter what society may say. The only question is how you release it.
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