Anger is a common topic of conversation in therapy. We can all get angry, and yet it’s an emotion we would often rather disown. When we reflect on those occasions when we were angry we can feel embarrassed or exposed. We can feel as if we have revealed a part of ourselves that says more about us than we would normally like to show to others. We have shown ourselves perhaps as not being as in control or in charge of ourselves as we would like to think we are.
Anger has been described as a universal defensive experience, preparing us for the self-preserving reaction of either fight or flight. As such it is a natural response to something we see as potentially hurtful or threatening. Coming raw as it does from the inner depths of who we are, it is part of our fundamental survival mechanism. Looked at for what it is, then, anger is an ok emotion. It’s all right to be angry. So why can it sometimes be a problem?
It becomes difficult for us when it is – in counselling speak – a ‘maladaptive response’. In other words, when we get angry in response to things that, looked at in the cold light of day, aren’t really a threat to us but which ‘feel’ like they are. So we might ask ourselves why we get angry about things that others might not, or at worst things that others might just find mildly irritating, without it nagging at them or provoking an extreme response. What can we do about this? As with many behavioural issues that people bring to counselling, there are two fronts on which this can be tackled.
Firstly, we need to keep ourselves and those around us safe by managing our expression of anger. There are various techniques for anger management, like learning what triggers your anger and recognising the warning signs; maybe also trying calming techniques and/or constructive ways of dissipating the energy generated by anger.
Secondly, and more fundamentally, we need to consider what it is that underlies our tendency to tune in to things that trigger our anger, often unconsciously. So it may help us to develop some curiosity about what unwelcome past event has, at some point in our lives, left us emotionally over-watchful and fearful that it might reoccur.
Working in this way can involve both cognitive (thinking) and relational (emotional) approaches and this can take time. But ultimately this can liberate us and enable us to feel more in control, with a deeper understanding of ourselves. In this way we do the very opposite of disowning our anger – we enable ourselves to explore it constructively.