By Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Anger is an emotion that has received a bad rap. As children, many of us were told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While it is true that telling someone he or she is ugly isn’t nice and most definitely should not be expressed, what about wanting to let someone know that what he or she said or did hurt your feelings or made you angry? Most people typically avoid expressing their anger or disappointment to avoid conflict of any kind. Many believe that if they express their angry or hurt feelings, the result could be the loss of a good friend or a romantic relationship or, even worse, receiving the disappointment of a respected and loved family member. What happens to our angry feelings if they are not expressed? Where do you think those feelings go? While a few lucky people can just release the anger by forgiving and forgetting, the majority of us are not able to do that and, instead, carry our angry feelings around in our minds and bodies. When we carry angry feelings in our minds, we tend to relive the details of the situation. We wonder whether we should have handled things differently, and we attempt to understand the feelings and intentions of the other person. All this ruminating typically leads to an increase of angry feelings. When we decide not to think about the situation and to push the thoughts and feelings aside, we are then carrying our angry feelings in our bodies. This can lead to physical discomforts such as headaches or stomachaches, and if prolonged over time, more serious medical issues, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Now imagine that every time you are angry or hurt, instead of expressing your feelings, you continue to hold them in. After weeks, months, and even years, your angry feelings accumulate, and you reach a point at which you are not even sure exactly what you are angry about. What was once a clear issue or situation that caused the anger is now a nebulous dark cloud—with no clear dimensions—that exhibits no distinct connection to the original situation or person. This abstract and diffuse feeling is now difficult to express in words. Our bodies and minds may not be able to hold onto this building up of anger, and at some point, it may overflow. You may be having a difficult day, and someone may do or say something that would usually be no big deal and BAM, you are crying, yelling, or just feeling hurt. And like a volcano that finally explodes, anger that builds up over time can be expressed with physical violence or verbal outbursts. However, if anger is expressed constructively, numerous physical and psychological benefits can be achieved. Anger is an emotion of action. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves, correct injustices, and prompt us to make positive changes in our lives and situations. It can help us go from feeling helpless to feeling empowered. So how does one express one’s anger constructively? Because we tend to avoid expressing our feelings of anger due to the possible negative reaction we may encounter from the other person, it is important that we communicate our feelings about a situation rather than attacking or placing blame. Here’s how. You are at a party and your significant other does not introduce you to his or her friends. If you were to say, “You never introduce me to your friends. You make me so angry,” your significant other may feel attacked. Constructive, less blaming statements would be, “When you didn’t introduce me to your friends, it made me feel bad” or “I felt sad/bad when you didn’t introduce me to your friends.” This tells someone how you feel and what he or she can do in the future to avoid a repeat performance. The focus of your angry feelings is on the situation that made you feel angry, not on the person. What if the person you are angry with has passed away, or you no longer have any contact with him or her? In this case, forgiveness is the key to resolving your anger. While the person is not cleared from wrongdoing, he or she is being forgiven for doing something wrong. Because a face-to-face conversation with this person is either not possible or too painful, an extremely useful technique is to write the person a letter (that you don’t mail) expressing the things he or she did or said that hurt and angered you and for which you are forgiving him or her. This can be extremely therapeutic, as it releases the hurt and anger you have been holding onto for so long. Emotions can place a heavy burden on our minds and bodies, but once released, they can allow us to breathe deeper and feel lighter, healthier, and free. And finally, what if we realize that our feelings of anger are not due to someone else’s mistreatment of us? What if we realize that whom we are in fact angry with is ourselves? This anger can be the result of things we think we should have done, should not have done, or should have done differently. The “shoulda, coulda, woulda” mantra can be incredibly self-destructive. Extending forgiveness to ourselves can help to release the anger we have been carrying around for so long. Anger is an emotion, as are sadness, fear, and happiness. It is when we attempt to avoid anger that it will accumulate inside our minds and bodies until it overflows in an inappropriate outburst or leads to mental and physical illnesses. When acknowledged, accepted, and expressed constructively, it can let others know how we feel, help us to understand ourselves better, and become our ally when we are ready to stand up for ourselves and to make positive changes in our lives.
copyright 2013 Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.