Anger is probably the most misunderstood of all our emotions. We generally think of it as more of a behavior than an emotion. Words like screaming, throwing, intimidating, and even harming, all come to mind. But anger is first of all an emotion (one that we all experience!), and it is important to differentiate between the feeling of anger and the expression or behavior of it!
Anger can certainly be a powerful, controlling, and even dangerous emotion when it is not understood and dealt with through appropriate behaviors. The effect of anger on loving, intimate relationships is especially dangerous. But anger in and of itself is not bad; it is an emotion, and emotions are neither good nor bad.
So what is anger?
Anger is a strong feeling of frustration, irritability, annoyance, or displeasure. It is a secondary emotion experienced in response to the primary emotions of hurt, fear, or frustration. It is an emotion of self-preservation – it is born out of an intent to preserve something about ourselves. Carter and Minirth (1993) relate this attempt at self-preservation to:
Personal worth: a perception of rejection or invalidation; our dignity is demeaned, there is a lack of respect or we feel de-valued.
Essential needs: unmet needs such as affirmation, appreciation, love, or security trigger anger.
Basic conviction: we become upset at imperfections or wrongs in the world around us related to our beliefs, values, and morals.
Are angry behaviors harming your relationship?
One of the most common problems we see in relationships is anger that is expressed in harmful, unsafe behaviors. Many times one person is quick to become angry and is unaware of how damaging their words and behaviors become over time. They may feel that when their angry feeling is over, everything is o.k. They may even apologize and be remorseful. But they don’t understand the long-term effects of their anger. Just because they are over it doesn’t mean their partner is not still feeling the sting and pain of their angry actions and words.
Dangerous, damaging, and angry behaviors are like an atom bomb. When it is first dropped it explodes and levels whatever, or whoever, is close by. Everything in its path is damaged. But once the explosion happens, it is still not over. The damage spreads for a long time, maybe years even, and don’t forget about the (radiation) fall out. What must be understood is that the effects of anger, especially when it happens again and again, can last for years. And each time the hurt goes down deeper into a partner’s heart and soul.
Anger also has definite physiological effects. There are distinct impacts on our physical bodies in response to anger. In Taking Charge of Anger, Robert Nay advises that we look at signs and symptoms of anger:
Heart rate and blood pressure increase to supply more oxygen to brain and muscles.
Breathing rate increases to get more blood to brain and muscles.
Stomach and GI system become upset (queasiness, acid reflux, nausea).
Muscles begin to tighten (especially in the shoulders, neck, forehead, jaw).
Vascular/Skin temperature changes (face feels flushed, warm, or hot).
Senses are more sensitive and magnified (vision, hearing, smell, touch).
Chemicals are released into your blood (Adrenalin).
Whatever area anger comes from, healthy expressions of the emotion are possible and we can choose how we respond. Anger can serve as an alarm for intense feelings that need to be dealt with in healthy ways. It can motivate us and give us mental and physical energy to take actions that are necessary. It can also reveal a need or a growth area in a relationship. Anger does not have to be acted out in inappropriate ways and can actually be a catalyst for healthy change if acknowledged and understood.
The steps to handling anger in a healthy manner are:
Be aware of the emotion. Identify within yourself the hurt, fear, or frustration you feel. Identify the source and cause of the anger and your own behaviors. Do you withhold praise, attention, or affection? Are your words cutting or sarcastic? Do you withdraw or avoid other people for periods of time? Do you show signs of hostility by a raised voice or through aggressive actions such as pushing, shoving, or hitting?
Accept Responsibility for the way you respond. You can choose how you respond to anger. Hesitating or refusing to admit anger will do nothing to change or eliminate it. Communicate your emotions with others in a constructive manner and consider the needs and feelings of others. You can also choose to forget about it, or drop it.
Evaluate the experience so you can discover more about yourself, your emotions, and the underlying issues that may need to be dealt with and resolved. This may take some time, or other resources, and support may need to be added into the process.
Take the “temperature” of your relationship and your own emotions. Evaluate whether anger is a healthy emotion, or if it comes out in harmful, damaging behaviors.