Contrary to what many of us thought growing up expressing anger is not the same as yelling, breaking things or slamming doors. In fact if the person you are interacting with is doing things that trigger your fight or flight system (make you sweat, shake, want to retreat, raise your blood pressure and/or heart beat, etc.) then you are not witnessing someone's anger, you are in the presence of abuse. Yep, that's right! And the normal human response to being abused is to want to hurt the other person back. So we yell, stomp our feet, throw things or say mean hurtful stuff back. Now WE are being abusive as well.
I think this is a very important distinction to make. Anger is actually NOT a damaging emotion. Abuse is damaging treatment. I repeat, anger and abuse are NOT the same. I can sit down calmly and tell you that I am angry because you borrowed my car and ran it out of gas. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, sad or contrite but NOT fearful, nervous, threatened or like you need to yell at me then I have NOT been abusive. I have just been angry. Anger is an indication that our boundaries have been violated. I don't like it when people do not show appropriate respect for my things and so if you use my car and don't put gas in it I am going to be angry. But that's OK. By conveying that I am upset it shows you that you have crossed a boundary and so you will try not to do that in the future.
Many of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes confuse anger and abuse. We think that if someone is red-faced, yelling, shaking mad, throwing things or hurling awful accusations at us they are "angry". I would argue it is much more useful to see this as abuse. That way both people can see how unhelpful and inappropriate this behavior is. Abuse never leads to anything good. Anger, when expressed without turning in to abuse, should ALWAYS lead to something good. It is a communication about what you need to feel respected, cared for and even loved. It is essential for you to communicate this so that you are taking care of yourself and protecting the bond you have with that person. It is important for them to hear this message clearly and take corrective action. That is the purpose of anger. The purpose of abuse is to discharge physical energy and to hurt the other person. That is not anger. The expression of anger is about trying to identify and solve a problem. Venting, which many people mistake for the expression of anger, is about hurting the other person in an effort to make yourself feel better without any regard for the other.
One of the most well-known authors on anger is Harriet Learner, who wrote The Dance of Anger. In an interview on the Relationship Alive podcast Ms. Learner suggested that the worst time to communicate your anger is when you are angry. She recommends calming down first and then discussing your anger. What? Yes! Talk about your anger when you are NOT angry. I know, mind-blowing. It makes me think of when a toddler has a temper tantrum and we tell them to go calm down. Then we ask them to use their words to talk about why they were upset. The same applies to us. When you are activated and angry you need to NOT talk but rather step away briefly and do some deep breathing or other things to get your nervous system regulated. Then you can engage the person who made you angry and explain what they did that was so offensive.
In thinking about positive expressions of anger that are clearly not abuse think about the sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the US. There was plenty of anger on the parts of the protestors who saw the racial oppression and abuses going on. However the play-book of those sit-ins was literally that "not a hair on the head of [the oppressors] would be disturbed". The protestors wanted to convey their anger appropriately and NOT allow it to turn into abuse, which would have spurred an abusive reaction on the part of the authorities. Abuse begets abuse. Anger, if expressed appropriately and without abuse, should beget positive results and heightened mutual understanding.
Anger can teach us things about ourselves and reveal things about our partners or other loved ones. If the anger seems out of proportion to the event (you bring my car back with no gas and I calmly tell you we can no longer be friends) then there is likely some "unfinished business" being triggered from the past. In this example perhaps I had parents who used my property, resources or accomplishments for their own selfish purposes and I felt used and mistreated. I am, therefore, naturally sensitive to feeling that others don't care how they treat me and are going to take advantage of me. So my anger in this situation, if I can see that it is out of proportion, will direct me to look at areas of my past where maybe I have some unresolved wounds. That in turn provides an opportunity for healing.
Understanding the purpose of anger can help us to not suppress or deny it. Understanding the difference between anger and abuse can help us learn to express anger in an appropriate way that can lead to increased knowledge, understanding and harmony for ourselves and in our relationships.
If you find yourself confused about or uncomfortable with anger I encourage you to think about tackling that problem. Anger turned inward/suppressed can lead to depression, loss of motivation, difficulties in achievement, addictions, poor self-care and even self-attack or self-abuse. Anger expressed as abuse can lead to shame, loss of relationships and/or jobs and even legal problems. Therapy can be an excellent tool for learning more about anger and how to comfortably express as well as witness it, as can the 12-step group Adult Children Anonymous (which focuses on people from any type of dysfunctional childhood) or books such as The Dance of Anger. Regular exercise and/or mindfulness mediation can help stabilize the nervous system so that when you feel angry you are better able to prevent it from veering into abuse. Proper sleep and not over-using stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks can also be helpful in keeping one's nervous system stable. Classes on anger management can help you learn the physiological signs of anger and how to manage the feeling when it arises and stay grounded when you see it in others. There are many options for working on this problem and I hope you consider trying some of them.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.