By Kyle Andrew And Bahram Dideban, MD
The duality of anger is a pop culture topic. From classical writers like Plato and Aristotle with their takes on the emotion of anger and its management, to comic book stories of the Hulk’s green rage, to modern-day music by artists with an axe to grind, the taming of anger is a curious subject.
Each human emotion is unique in its own way, but there are few as pure and fundamental as anger. It is special in its physical manifestations, its psychological impacts, its awesome energy, and even its social implications. In psychiatric jargon, sublimation, one of the highest regarded and mature defence mechanisms, is the transformation of unhelpful or socially unacceptable instincts into useful and healthy actions — an aggressive youth becoming a champion boxer, for instance. Not only is sublimation viewed as a virtuous quality, it may even be highly rewarded (think pro athletes).
And while you may not be a philosopher, comic book hero, musician, or sports star, it goes without saying that you do still face trials and tribulations in your daily life, and learning to re-channel the associated anger into a more positive outlet can do you (and your friends and family around you) a world of good. Thanks to the hard work of a wide variety of social, scientific, and cultural icons (like authors and researchers), you can now understand, harness, and channel your anger into healthy behaviours — as long as you have the right attitude and tools, of course.
The Discomfort Caveat
In a perfect world, you’d have unlimited time and resources to evaluate every situation. However, this is not always the case. Modern psychologists view anger as a natural emotion and, in truth, it’s not uncommon to find yourself angry and unable to communicate or express your intentions clearly. But what if there were ways to take some of the sting out of your anger when you’re communicating with someone? Well, it turns out there just might be.
Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of The Upside to Your Dark Side, call this the “discomfort caveat.” It is a simple process in which you inform the person you are dealing with that you are experiencing the sensations of anger and that it may be harder than usual for you to communicate your thoughts or intentions properly. The idea is that by confronting your emotions honestly, you’re able to disarm the situation and reduce your risk of receiving a defensive reaction from the person you’re conversing with. This approach increases the chances of the other person handling you with empathy, which may make it easier for you to express the truth of what you’re feeling, opening yourself up to them, and ultimately strengthening your bond. This is a valuable skill in life and business — in fact, expressing this level of vulnerability is a sign of a mature person who is easy to get along with.
Make The Choice
Learning to recognize the difference between negative events and circumstances you can change (as opposed to those you can’t) is one of the keys to modifying your relationship with anger. So many of the anger-inducing situations are, initially at least, simply beyond your control (think being stuck in traffic). Many people experience rage-like emotions during these helpless situations, but an irrational reaction will do nothing to turn the situation in your favour. That being said, these situations do leave you with a choice: either remove yourself from them entirely (like abandoning the wait for a table at a busy restaurant) or make alternative arrangements to alter the situation and steer you away from your initial anger (using the same restaurant example, having a drink at the bar while you wait). Understanding that the majority of scenarios do involve some level of choice serves as a reminder that everyone is in control of their own behaviours and ultimately their own emotions. Taking just a moment to consider the options and collect yourself may produce clarity of thought, and in that clarity you can find new solutions. In essence, you are activating a delay timer for your emotions.
Discover Delay Timers
By creating a personal delay timer, you teach yourself to press pause for a set period of time, however brief, from 10 seconds to five minutes. This offers you the chance to fully process the situation before you react to it. Too often people only hear and see the factors that make them angry and discount everything else. Anger is a tricky emotion with very little room for logic and reason. But by incorporating a reaction delay timer, you can wrap your head around all the information and dissect it properly, allowing for a more informed reaction or response. Even Google has taken note of this strategy, incorporating an email undo feature, in which you can recall an email you’ve just sent (be it in error, with an irrational response, etc.) for up to 30 seconds after clicking send.
In fact, this is an approach that can be applied to many areas of life, not just anger management. Taking a deep breath and collecting your thoughts before offering a response is a crucial method for maintaining your composure, and is particularly important during problem solving, when anger-associated stress may be at its highest.
Don’t Misunderstand Your Anger
Is it worth it to lash out? What are the benefits to expressing your anger? There are indeed situations in which expressing your anger can be beneficial or necessary. They may involve standing up for yourself, defending others, or protecting your career. But there is a time and a place for expressing that anger. Learning to separate situations that call for showcasing your feelings from those that are better left in silence is one of the biggest hurdles associated with anger management. It’s also important to pick your battles.
Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf. If you are always angry, lashing out, or vocalizing your discontent, how will anyone know when you are truly upset about something meaningful? In short, no one will ever take your anger seriously if it rears its ugly head too often.
Control Your Pride
To help keep your anger at bay, try creating a daily affirmation. One of the most common causes of anger is the perception of being slighted. Whether you were passed over for a promotion, rejected by a loved one, or disappointed by your best friend, it’s very easy to let these negative feelings affect your sense of self-worth. To combat this angst, turn it into something positive — use it as motivation to become a better version of yourself. The best way to do this is by creating a positive daily affirmation. According to Jack Canfield, author of The Success Principles, “An affirmation is a statement that evokes not only a picture, but the experience of already having what you want.” In this scenario, you are actually using your positive daily affirmation as a way of getting out in front of your anger before it affects you. If you were to wake up every morning and repeat to yourself “External stressors cannot affect me. I am focused and I am strong, and my positive energy prepares me for my next great success,” then you have effectively set the tone for your entire day.
While anger is most commonly recognized as a type of emotion, it is important to realize that it’s also an energy. You have every right to be angry, but you also have the ability to channel your anger into something positive instead. Anger is “heavy” energy, so you can either drag it around with you and let it slow you down or you can learn to re-focus it and further your goals.
Anger is also an opportunity for reflecting on and restructuring your thought patterns. The best way to react to anger is not to react at all (which is why it’s so important to recognize situations you can and can’t control, install a reaction delay timer, and decide whether a reaction is worthwhile). The source of your anger is often seeking an uncontrolled, knee-jerk reaction.
Instead, why not take that energy and put it toward a physical pursuit? It is unlikely that you can see through your anger clearly enough to start the next great novel, but the calming effects of physical exertion (that means exercise, people) can centre you, re-introduce logic and reason, and move you through the rage. Some of the best training sessions you’ll ever experience will come on the heels of serious anger. You start off in an angry state, which means you are far from your best, and make the choice to use the created energy to build a better version of yourself. It is a simple but valuable choice.
When all else fails, go ahead and break something! But instead of throwing your cell phone, an antique china plate, or your favourite coffee mug, swipe that gym membership card once again and use your angry energy to break a personal record, whether it be smashing your one-rep max or shaving time off a mile. Some of the greatest athletes of our time were (and are) angry people. They use anger as their power source, an endless well of drive and ambition. Remember: the pursuit of personal excellence is a gift you give yourself, not others, and the anger generated within you can be used as fuel for your personal fire. Go on and get angry — who knows what you could accomplish!