Therapy and the Upside of Anger

I like anger. In fact, I’m a fan of anger.

People I see in therapy hear me say that all the time.

I often see people struggling with anger. And the biggest struggle is that for so many people, anger is unacceptable. They believe it’s wrong. So if they experience anger, they feel they must be somehow doing something wrong, or worse yet, there’s something wrong with them.

Then they think they need to stop that “negative” feeling and either ignore it completely or somehow morph it into something more “positive.” Failure to do so makes it hard to feel good about themselves, sabotages self-acceptance, contributes to depression and anxiety and makes it harder to heal trauma. And self-acceptance is one of the most important things we can learn in therapy.

I saw yet another meme on Facebook this week that said anger is “a punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake.” I also frequently see, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” That one is often falsely attributed to Buddha.

Both of those sentiments are totally misguided. And they fly in the face of self-acceptance and self-compassion that I think are vital to our sense of well being.

Anger has a bad reputation because people equate feeling angry with doing angry things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Feelings are not facts, nor are they a call to action. Feelings are not good or bad. They’re just comfortable, uncomfortable or neutral.

The art of anger is to be so angry that you can hit someone in the head, but you don’t hit anyone, or cause any harm. Instead, you find a healthy way to express your anger, where nobody is harmed, including you. The art of anger is to experience it, and still make good choices.

Some years ago I heard an interview with Victor Villasenor, one of my favorite writers. The publisher of his first novel, Macho, initially planned to print it on cheap paper with cheap binding and then sent to book stores with no marketing, promotion or other distribution resources. Such “trade paperbacks” usually languish on store shelves for a few weeks, before they are sent back to the publishers and never heard of again.

Villasenor said his anger gave him the energy to take on the publishers and advocate for his book. He said his ability to express his anger appropriately helped him negotiate a more acceptable arrangement.

He has since been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His book Rain of Gold is still a national best seller and he has become one of the most acclaimed Mexican-American writers.

Villasenor’s story points to the benefits of anger. And there are a few:

  • First, anger lets us know a boundary has been crossed. It’s a natural reaction to being wronged, hurt or abused.

  • Anger helps us set boundaries: Anger helps know what types of behaviors and situations we are and are not available for and what is unacceptable.

  • Anger gives us energy: Villasenor’s story is a perfect example of how anger can give us energy to achieve positive results. When I was a journalist, an editor would occasionally turn my writing to hash. Anger gave me the energy to confront my editor, while my ability to control my anger helped me get that I wanted without ruffling feathers.

  • Anger can foster optimism: It can encourage us to focus on what we hope to achieve, rather than merely focusing on the pain, insult, or victimization. When we are angry, we often feel positive about our ability to change the situation, empowering us to take action.

  • Anger can help us negotiate: I’ve been self-employed most of the time since the mid 1990s. I’ve negotiated several contracts for writing projects, consulting jobs and other services. Anger has helped me stand up for what I wanted, without damaging those relationships.

  • Anger can help us feel safe: Someone once told me in a therapy session that anger made him feel “like nobody can mess with me.” He had worked hard at learning to keep his control when he was angry and let anger help him stand up for himself.

I had an opportunity to see The Dalai Lama several years ago. Someone asked him, “What about anger and frustration?” He just shrugged and said, “I experience those things,” like it was nothing.

I’m not suggesting that learning a new way to relate to anger is easy. In fact it can be difficult, especially for people who grew up in abusive and angry homes and had years of seeing the harmful affects of uncontrolled anger.

But I am suggesting that it’s a necessary part of learning to be okay with ourselves and how we relate in the world. The thing about feelings is they don’t just go away because we don’t like some of them. In fact, the more we resist some feelings, the longer they last.

The more we learn to accept our difficult feelings, including anger, the easier life becomes and the more we can learn to accept ourselves with compassion and love, which is what all of this is about.

I hope you’ve found this blog helpful. If you’re struggling, I’m here to help. Please call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org