The Gift of Anger
Seven Steps to Uncover the Meaning of Anger and Gain Awareness, True Strength, and Peace
by Marcia Cannon, Ph.D., MFT
Everyone has the capacity to become angry. We’re all born with it. What we are not born with is an understanding of our anger and the positive role it is designed to play in our lives. So here, in answer to the most frequently asked questions, is information about this extremely valuable emotion and what it is designed to do.
What Is Anger?
Anger is an automatic, emotional reaction that is caused by a combination of the following three, key factors:
Anger ranges from mild irritation to rage. When the above three key factors are present and your experience is relatively minor, you might just feel slight irritation. When the three factors are present and your experience is major, you might feel rage.
What Causes Anger?
Looking at the three key factors that cause anger, you can see that your anger isn’t actually caused by the other person or event. Instead, your anger is caused by your interpretation of your capacity to handle what’s happened. Make no mistake, the person or event is certainly a catalyst, and you certainly may have been treated unfairly or even cruelly, but this will not automatically cause you to become angry. You become angry when you define the situation as unfair, hurtful, or in some other way, wrong, and you at least momentarily don’t feel powerful or able enough to easily right the wrong. You can see that this is true by recalling past difficult situations that you handled without anger. Notice that in those situations you felt strong and capable in spite of the difficulty. Now, recall some relatively minor situations that resulted in your becoming angry and notice that, at least in the moment, the situation took over and you felt lacking in capacity and at least temporarily overwhelmed.
So what caused the difference? Why were you able to remain calm in some difficult situations and yet became angry in some relatively minor ones? The answer highlights anger’s gift.
Where Is the Gift in Anger?
You’ve undoubtedly already experienced how your anger immediately provides you with a power boost (The Gift of Anger labels this “Stage One”). What is less well-known is that your anger is designed to lead you to your emotional wounds, to those tender, painful places that we all have. It’s that inner pain that causes us to feel at least temporarily lacking in power and capacity. Your anger can be an unerring guide to these places. Then, the power of your anger can fuel your healing and strengthening in those areas, so that you develop more of the true empowerment and well-being that we all seek (The Gift of Anger labels this “Stage Two). This is important emotional growth and strengthening, and it’s what your anger is designed to provide.
If you simply suppress or act out your anger whenever you feel it, your emotion will act like a hammer that’s used carelessly and will possibly cause pain either to yourself or to someone else. If you learn to understand your anger and use it as a pathway to know yourself more deeply, then, like an expertly-used hammer, your anger will help you to build something beautiful – a stronger, more aware, happier, and peaceful YOU. That’s the gift of anger.
How Do You Distinguish Between Healthy and Unhealthy Anger?
Anger is a signal to pay attention. It comes when you have a situation that is upsetting you. Your anger indicates that this is a situation you can learn from and grow from. So, anger is an important emotion and a very healthy one. What would make it unhealthy is if you used your anger in a way that caused harm to either yourself or to someone else. It’s important to add that when you stay angry rather than working with your anger as an emotional guide and healing tool, you’re actually causing harm to yourself. We have so many studies that show how harmful anger can be if we don’t work through it and move beyond it. That’s one reason why the gift-of-anger process is so helpful.