Anger Serves a Purpose
Written by: Leya Worcester, MSW, LCSW
Anger is an emotion word that conjures up distaste. You may be thinking, “I’m not an angry person.” Or, if you are less skilled at managing anger, you may be thinking, “I act like the Incredible Hulk when I’m angry.” What’s interesting about these polar opposite reactions is that in both cases, both individuals feel anger. We can’t avoid it. Anger is an emotion we all feel, and we all feel anger for a reason (Lerner, 1985). The problem with anger is that we don’t use it, and it often ends up using and hurting us. If anger is to serve a useful purpose in our lives, we must understand what it is and then use it in an effective manner.
Feeling angry and then acting out in anger did, at one point in our lives, actually work out. As a small child, if you screamed and banged about for food, you’d get food. If a parent told you to put away your toys before bedtime and you didn’t want to, you might have screamed and cried, “No!” And after some time—or no time at all—your parent may have let it go. Thus, the feeling of anger was actively used for control. More often, however, anger does not result in healthy control. And unchecked anger, even the repressed kind, can make us completely miserable (Dansiger, 2018).
We know that emotions help us function in the world (Linehan, 2015). Strong emotions helped our primal ancestors to overcome obstacles in their environment. We inherited this gift of emotions and, over time, we evolved to develop helpful and less helpful ways to communicate our emotions. If you view emotions from the perspective that they motivate and organize us for action, they communicate to others, and they communicate to ourselves, you will buy into the idea that anger serves a purpose for you.
Despite the knowledge that emotions serve a biological function, we aren’t always aware of our own anger. While it can feel different for everyone, there are universal physical responses that come along with anger, such as rapid heartbeat, tense muscles, feeling hot, feeling agitated, sweating, trembling, numbness, dizziness, and a churning feeling in your stomach (Mind, 2018). For those of you thinking, “I’m really more irritated than angry,” you should know that irritation is somewhere on the lower range of the anger scale. Thus, feeling irritated or angry should not be viewed as negative. You feel angry, and that makes sense because you are human. The critical follow up question is, “Where do I go from here?”; and it’s a valid question because using anger purposefully does not come without challenges.
Consider the biggest challenges. Society may discourage us from the awareness and expression of anger (Lerner, 1985). If we examine our family trees, we may find that our parents and grandparents inadvertently reinforced emotional behavior (Linehan, 2015). Through the lens of trauma, we may have survived stressful life events which imprint memories of those events in the amygdala—the “CEO” of our fear system in the brain. In other words, after trauma, we can get stuck in a state of fear and react emotionally out of anger despite our best intentions.
In addition, anger is prevalent and linked to many psychological challenges. A broad survey of over 34,000 American adults found that anger is associated with a wide range of psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, personality disorders, and if found among individuals using tobacco, alcohol, or illegal substances (Okuda et al., 2015). This study also found that, in its most extreme form, anger can lead to workplace hostility, domestic violence, and criminal behavior. These are some of the important reasons that we need to acknowledge our anger, not let it consume us, and take the first step towards developing tools to use it for change.
If you want your anger to serve a purpose, then start by asking yourself, “What is my anger telling me that I need?” Note that this essential question does not ask, “What does your significant other need to change to make the relationship better?” Nor does it ask, “What does your child/sibling/parent/co-worker/friend have to do to change?” In the context of anger, we have a natural inclination to fixate on the behaviors of others and a tendency to think we have been wronged, infringed upon, or disrespected. Thus, we bypass our needs and go straight to blaming others. What is missing from our thought process is our own sense of agency—a sense of control over ourselves.
If our reaction to anger is a sense of powerlessness, we may begin to feel helpless. How debasing this can be—to feel an important and purposeful emotion such as anger—and to forget our sense of self, our sense of agency, and our own needs. If you feel angry or irritable, ask yourself first:
· Do I have unmet needs? What are they?
· Do I need sleep or rest?
· Do I need to eat?
· Do I need exercise?
· Do I need to see a doctor for my health?
· Do I need closeness or intimacy in an important relationship?
· Do I need independent time apart from loved ones, in which I can get to know myself better?
· Do I need to ask for help from others?
· Do I need to find more effective ways to maintain my self-respect?
The first step in allowing your anger to serve a purpose is to chooseto make it a guide to your unmet needs. Notice how we can begin to use anger in practical ways which immediately takes the focus off others and places value on our needs first. Of course, anger can serve to evoke deeper questions regarding emotional needs. And, ultimately, anger can help us find more self-clarity and more effectiveness in our important relationships (Lerner, 1985).
There will be more work to do in dealing with anger, but this important first step—accepting the anger and addressing our needs—will show us the way to let our anger serve a useful and effective purpose.
Dansiger, S. (2018). Mindfulness for Anger Management: Tarnsformative Skills for Overcoming Anger and Managing Powerful Emotions. Althea Press.
How to cope with anger. (2018). Mind. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anger/anger-symptoms/.
Lerner, H. G. (1985). The Dance of Anger : A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
Linehan, M.M. (2015). Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets. The Guilford Press.
Okuda, M., Picazo, J., Olfson, M., Hasin, D.S., Liu, S., Bernardi, S., and Blanco, C. (2015). Prevalence and correlates of anger in the community: Results from a national survey. CNS Spectrums. 2015 April; 20(2): 130–139. doi:10.1017/S1092852914000182.
Written by: LEYA WORCESTER, MSW, LICENSED CLINICAL SOCIAL WORKER 76163