What is anger?
Anger is a natural protective reaction to the following experiences:
- Boundary violations
- Frustration of one’s aims
In fact, vulnerability underlies all of these experiences. The more vulnerable we feel, the more we perceive the object of those feelings to be a threat.
The purpose of anger is to protect vulnerability and neutralize threat.
There are two ways of responding to protective anger when it arises:
- Acting it out
- Suppressing it
Acting out protective anger
This is the most visible form of anger.
It’s the emotional equivalent of a spear and shield to block incoming attacks and fight off the source of threat to avoid further pain.
Examples of acting out protective anger include:
- Dismissive comments
- Demanding compliance
- Abrupt limit setting
- Physical aggression / intimidation
What makes this type of anger difficult to manage is that it’s often viewed positively by the person experiencing it because it’s seen as “righting a wrong.”
This perceived justification lets the person off the hook for their inappropriate behavior. In these moments, we often fail to see that there are more effective options for righting wrongs than with aggressive displays of power.
Suppressing protective anger
This is the tug-o-war approach to working with anger – engaged in an urgent fight to win over anger by beating it into submission.
We may occasionally win this battle and appear the picture of calm, but only at a great cost to our livelihood. We can’t keep suppressing anger forever and it will eventually overtake us in our fatigue.
This suppression robs you of the opportunity to learn how to effectively and healthily engage with anger and can even lead to occasional losses of control. It may feel like it helps short term, but ultimately leaves you without a needed skillset and in a chronic cycle of avoidance.
Managing protective anger
Here are 6 points to consider for managing anger more effectively.
1 ~ Understand what the anger is protecting
Protective anger emerges in response to a perceived threat.
This may be a threat to our:
- Belief system
- Public image
- Goals or dreams
- Competence or authority
- Autonomy and independence
- Values, morals, and integrity
- Sense of self-worth and value
- Sense of confidence or security
- Social acceptance and belonging
- Identity (how we see ourselves)
Protective anger that becomes mobilized too quickly, too strongly, and too frequently is a sign that your mind is working on overdrive because it believes there’s something in urgent need of defending (even if there isn’t an actual threat).
Like an iceberg, this is often hidden below the surface with other more sensitive feelings and not seen by others. Nevertheless, it fuels the protective anger.
To better understand what this anger is protecting in your life, consider these questions:
- Do the situations in which I become angry tend to arise out of an effort to protect my beliefs, values, identity, goals, or any of the other preceding domains?
- What feelings tend to lie under the iceberg in these situations that drive this protective response?
2 ~ Understand the influence of biology
Some people are born with a tendency to feel things much more strongly than others.
How much emotion someone feels and how often isn’t a matter of choice, but rather a function of biological predisposition.
The degree to which we feel emotions follows a bell curve like other traits, such as height, weight, or intelligence. This means that the average number of people have average type feelings, and for each person who is insensitive on one tail of the curve, there is a person who is highly sensitive on the other.
What is considered “abnormal” for any trait is simply a reflection of where we draw a line on the continuum and the level of dysfunction it brings.
The degree of self-control we have over emotions is also, in part, biologically determined based on the functioning of different brain regions (Denson, 2014). We differ in how much of it we inherit just like with any other trait.
3 ~ How did you learn to react the way you do?
While scientists have known for decades that aggression is hereditary, we can’t discount the fact that we learn how to manage emotions through social experiences.
Your heart rate, reactivity, and expression of anger are partly influenced by how caregivers modeled their anger and responded to your feelings and needs (Jackson et al., 2011).
If you react to anger urges by acting them out: You may have witnessed similar displays of anger in your family.
If you react to anger by suppressing it: You may have witnessed it being suppressed, learned to keep the peace in an emotionally overwhelmed environment, or learned to protect yourself from aggression by not reciprocating with your own anger.
Being surrounded by rejecting peers, teachers, or coaches also contributes to emotional vulnerabilities that we seek to protect and react with anger when they’re triggered again in adulthood.
Consider the following questions to explore what contributes to how you react to anger:
- How did I learn to to react to anger in the way I do?
- Do these situations and/or feelings relate to my past in some way? How did these sensitivities develop?
4 ~ Let go of mental processes that maintain anger
Without the opportunity to learn how to appropriately manage anger, we depend on others to do what we can’t do for ourselves. We make them responsible for managing our feelings.
This can lead to judgments, resentments, and bitterness when other people are unable or unwilling to do what we need them to do for us.
To better manage strong feelings, then, we must take ownership of our anger and assume personal responsibility for it.
This means letting go of negative judgments, blaming others for our discomfort, and assuming negative intent in their words and actions. Maintaining this bitterness and resentment will keep you desperate to be rescued and vindicated. But the source of help and responsibility begins and ends with you.
For more useful tips on how to let go of these processes that maintain anger, read my post on letting go of resentment.
5 ~ Build mindfulness skills
Mindfulness of anger builds your tolerance for holding it lightly and just being with it. You are in control, not the emotion. No need to suppress and no need to react.
Mental energy isn’t being used insisting that anger go away. It can be there and we can recognize that it’s not as dangerous or threatening as we initially may perceive it to be based on our past experiences or biological influences. This feeling need not dictate what we do.
Mindful thought in response to triggers from others:
“I can’t control what others say or do. Their choice of words and actions are not my responsibility. I can just let the words be without reacting to them.”
Mindful thought in response to feelings:
“The frustration and hurt I feel are my own. I can simply notice what my body is doing here. I can decide not to push the feeling away, but not to use it as fuel for anger. I can just let it be and experience it for what it is” (Eifert, 2006).
For more information on how to manage difficult feelings in relationships without letting anger take over, read my post on how to listen in tough conversations.
6 ~ Build communication skills
From here we will be better prepared to effectively communicate when anger does arise.
But expressing anger, even appropriately, can seem risky because of the potential for conflict. Without skills for managing conflict if it does arise, talking about these feelings can feel too vulnerable.
Start by affirming the following statement to yourself:
“If I need to assert a boundary or get a need met, I can do so without attacking.”
This involves speaking for anger rather than from anger and talking about your own personal experiences and sensitivities.
You can learn more about landmines to avoid when approaching difficult conversations and healthier skills in this post on improving your relationships.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.
Denson, T. F., Dobson-Stone, C., Ronay, R., von Hippel, W., & Schira, M. M. (2014). A functional polymorphism of the MAOA gene is associated with neural responses to induced anger control. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 26(7), 1418-1427. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00592.
Eifert, G. H., McKay, M., & Forsyth, J. P. (2006). ACT on Life Not on Anger: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Problem Anger. New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.
Jackson, J., Kuppens, P., Sheeber, L. B., & Allen, N. B. (2011). Expression of anger in depressed adolescents: the role of the family environment. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 39(3), 463–474. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-010-9473-3