How Your Anger Can Be a Powerful Tool, According to a Clinical Psychologist
You may believe anger is a negative emotion to be avoided, but it can be more useful than you think.
In fact, clinical psychologist Camila Williams of Living Well CBT believes that listening to your anger can be one key to a happier, less stressful life. We asked Dr. Williams a few questions about the role of anger and the surprising and insightful things it can teach us. Keep reading to discover more.
Sweety High: You've mentioned that some women are socialized not to be angry. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Camila Williams: A lot of the time, girls and women are raised to always act nice and be polite. When we get angry, we're labeled as hysterical or too sensitive and we're told to calm down. This might seem harmless at first, but when it's done over and over again throughout your life, you start believing that it's not okay to get upset—that you need to swallow your feelings, slap on a smile and make sure that everyone else around you is happy. That's not good because it teaches you to bury your anger. Anger is a warning sign. It's a tool that lets us know when there's something wrong that we need to work to change.
SH: What does anger tell us?
CW: Anger is almost always a signal that there's a need that's not being met. It's often the surface-level emotion, while the deeper emotion is feeling hurt or scared. Sometimes it's about respect. When someone crosses boundaries or doesn't listen, we can feel disrespected, and that riles up our anger. We all have a need for support. If we're being a helpful, supportive friend who's always willing to listen, but then we never get help when we ask for it, that might also bring about that emotion. We might be scared that someone is going to leave us, or that we're going to fail.
Another common source of anger is hurt. When someone hurts your feelings and you take their words to heart, it can be hard to acknowledge your feelings because it feels like weakness. You might say something mean back, and get defensive and maybe even aggressive because it feels like you're protecting yourself, when really you're only burying your feelings.
When you find yourself getting angry, stop and ask yourself what this anger is telling you. They're usually vulnerable emotions, and we don't like to feel that way, so it can seem easier to feel angry instead of tapping into the source. Anger can feel empowering. Sometimes when people get angry, they feel more confident, or more in control. But over time it can actually become a habit to turn to anger and aggression first.
SH: What's the difference between anger and aggression?
CW: A lot of time, we confuse the two. When someone is yelling or having an outburst, we say they're angry when we really mean that they're being aggressive. Anger is the emotion we feel in our bodies, and you can process it in a healthy way without ever turning to aggression.
SH: When we're feeling angry, how can we channel that emotion into something productive?
CW: Let's say you have a big group project and a looming deadline, and you're really worried about it. You're scared of getting a bad grade and not passing the class. You might find yourself becoming angry and frustrated with your group members, snapping at them for every little thing because that worry is weighing heavily on your mind. People can be defensive when they're angry, which can create even more conflict.
That's not productive. But if you realize what's happening, you can turn the situation into a positive. If you come right out and apologize, and let everyone know how important the project is to you because you depend on the grade, people will be more receptive and willing to listen. So take a moment to ask yourself about the source of your anger. Give yourself permission to feel and explore it a bit so you can understand what you need and work toward a resolution.
SH: What can happen when we don't properly address our anger?
CW: When you bury anger and you always try to slap on a smile and pretend everything is okay, it's going to come back around later. In a lot of cases, this anger gets turned inward. If you feel that you're not in control, it can be very frustrating. You might be self-critical about how you look, and how you act, and wanting to be perfect. That's one of the biggest challenges of life. There are so many things that are out of your control. While adults get to run the show, you're still trying to find your own voice and your own way and try to take control of your mind.
That struggle can create a lot of stress, but if you never speak up and your voice is never heard, that anger can turn to self-loathing and self-hatred. Instead of letting your emotions harm you, embrace them and learn to process them in a healthy way. How you respond to your frustration when those situations arise can have a really big impact on your mental wellbeing. Learning to listen to anger earlier on will set you up for better handling other stressful situations in the future.
For even more from Dr. Camila Williams on anger, click HERE to find out what she has to say about venting.