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The Goodness of Anger

By Charles Russell, Psy.D.

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.  And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” John 2:15-16

Jesus was so angry that he made a whip, used that whip on people, and literally flipped tables…but did Jesus lose his mind? No, not really – we can even say that his response was appropriate! Although Scripture doesn’t tell us the long-term impact of Jesus’ outburst, we can be confident that, at least for that day, he reestablished the Court of the Gentiles as a place of worship for non-Jews. This is one example of how anger, when commensurate with the injustice, can be a good thing.

The Nature of Anger

Anger is one of six universal emotions that all people experience. At the most basic level, anger is the response to a perceived injustice. “Perceived” is a very important word: one may think that the stimulus or cause is unjust, when in fact is it not. Even if that perception is wrong, however, the emotion is still real, and it matters – even when you know on an intellectual level that what happened is not actually unjust.

Mixed Feelings About Anger

The anger we experience in relationship with one another is often viewed as something to be eliminated – it can be unpleasant, even frightening, and it creates conflict. When the interpersonal conflict that results from anger is handled well, however, it can right a wrong or strengthen the relationship by giving voice to points of contention.

Over time, resolved conflict is a good indicator of the quality of a relationship. Anger is only problematic when it is expressed in a maladaptive way.

Handling Anger Well

Managing anger is not easy. Explosions of anger often result when a person has failed to express his or her anger and lets it build up to the point of being unmanageable.

People have all sorts of reasons for not expressing anger. Ultimately anger cannot be managed effectively without also being addressed directly and resolved. It is this process of addressing and talking through the anger that can mend and even strengthen a relationship.

When anger is only managed on a symptom level and not addressed directly, after a while it can diminish in its felt intensity, which satisfies many people enough to move past the issue. The challenge is that in the long term, unresolved anger tends to resurface. When that happens, you’re more likely to overreact.

Mindful Anger Management

The STOP method (Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Linehan, 2015) can help with managing anger symptoms and expressing anger more constructively:

Stop: Do not react at all. Stay in control! If you do anything, you’ll likely make a mistake and lose control.

Take a step back from the situation: Once you’ve stopped and recognized your anger, take a break so that you remain in control of your feelings and your ability to make decisions. Strong emotions can make it difficult to think. If that’s the case, anchor yourself in your physical senses: name five things you can see right where you are, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If that’s not enough, reflect on your opinion of those items you sensed.

Observe without judgment: What is the situation? What are your thoughts and feelings? What are others saying or doing? Why are these factors eliciting anger? Is the intensity of the anger commensurate with the wrong? If your response is too strong, then it’s likely that the present situation is evoking feelings from past experiences. Naming the true cause of any emotion often reduces the intensity of the feeling. If naming the perceived injustice doesn’t alleviate some of the intensity of the anger, keep searching.

Proceed mindfully: Act with awareness and propriety. In crafting a response, consider your own thoughts and feelings, the situation, and others’ thoughts and feelings. Think about your goals for addressing the wrong. Ask yourself: what behavior or responses will make this situation better? Worse? Develop a plan, and do not deviate from it no matter what your emotions tell you. No matter what the wrong was, you’re less likely to succeed in righting that wrong if you’re unable to speak about it without getting upset.

Reference

Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheet, Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press.

Charles Russell, Psy.D., is a therapist on staff at Saint Luke Institute.