RSNG’s emotions expert, Toby Ingham, says that locking a lid on your anger is the wrong approach – here he reveals the ways you can engage with it, and funnel it into positive energy instead
1. Realise Anger Isn’t Always A Villain
Most of us agree on what is or isn’t appropriate, and while channeling a silver-backed gorilla certainly isn’t healthy, we can end up agreeing on some very black and white notions, such as ‘anger is always negative’. As John Lydon said: ‘Anger is an energy.’ For psychotherapist Toby Ingham Toby Ingham, anger is a part of our emotional response system. ‘It keeps us alert and vigilant. Anger is part of our evolutionary response to danger and predators. It helps us to spot and identify when something is hurting us, or when we need to become motivated to address something. Anger is only a problem if it’s hurting you or people around you,’ he says.
‘I believe that we are becoming scared of anger, we don’t know quite what to make of it’
2. Don’t Bottle Up Your Rage
The usual response to feeling angry is to bottle it up, even though that never feels good. ‘It is thought that people who experience long-term unresolved anger issues are more likely to develop problems associated with blood pressure and digestion issues,’ Ingham points out, adding that in a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 32% of people said they had a close friend or family member who had trouble controlling their anger.
In fact, bottling up anger isn’t controlling it at all because all that caged rage just increases the chances that you’ll blow a fuse. ‘I believe that we are becoming scared of anger, we don’t know quite what to make of it, and by and large see it as negative. By avoiding anger, we risk bottling it up, risk it bursting out from us for the slightest provocation and at inappropriate times.’
3. Don’t Unleash Anger – Engage With It Instead
Just as we shouldn’t bottle up our anger like a purple-faced genie, we shouldn’t let it run riot either. The trick is to see anger coming and engage with it, says Ingham. ‘Ideally, we don’t want to express anger through violence and aggression, we want to be able to recognise we are feeling anger and engage with it, use it and channel it into a constructive response.’ Sounds reasonable, but how can we do that? It turns out accepting anger as a human emotion, rather than just trying to keep it away from us, is key.
‘Anger can be a very fast emotion, and generally it goes as quickly as it comes, like a flash flood. If we can accept that anger is part of our emotional range, we can feel it come and go without being alarmed. We can recognise that it is part of us and develop a greater emotional range, because responding appropriately to our anger can help us to grow.’
4. Learn How To Handle Anger While Negotiating
Picture the scene: you’re negotiating a salary or fee and your boss or client has questioned the value of your work. For you, this pushes several psychological buttons at once, including pride, self-worth and status, so you can’t cave in here. ‘Some difficult situations, like negotiating at work, require us to be able to show a serious steely determination,’ says Ingham.
Equally, you can’t go off the deep end and start acting petulant when all your client or boss is trying to do is secure value for their investment. ‘When we are trying to work out how a contract is going to work, we can quickly run into confusion and that can lead to anger. But, if we stand our ground and keep the conversation and negotiating going, despite the fact that it’s getting heated, then it becomes possible to break through into real gains.’ Once you’ve survived an angry moment like this once, it becomes much easier to work through future negotiations without anger escalating and becoming destructive.
5. Stand Your Ground Without Being A Dick
When it comes to personal relationships there’s no quicker way to lose a disagreement, possibly permanently, than to unleash your anger, even if it’s perfectly normal to feel it. ‘The question is: how do you stand your ground without the tension escalating into an outburst of anger?’ asks Ingham. Part of the answer is to own your anger: ‘However much a partner or child has done something to provoke your anger, it’s up to you to find a way to recognise that the anger is yours, and to find a way to deal with it as constructively as possible.’
Use Ingham’s checklist to avoid pointless, shouty ding dongs as well as childish sulks:
• ‘Count to 10 while taking deep breaths.’
• ‘Maintain a bit of mind in which you can consider and think your reactions over – we can often start projecting ideas into things that aren’t as bad as we think.’
• ‘Keep your cool and don’t start shouting.’
• ‘Don’t interrupt, let the other party make their point.’
• ‘Avoid provocative or belittling facial expressions.’
• ‘Don’t walk out unless things are starting to feel unsafe, in which case you may need to step away to let things cool down.’
6. Spot Signs You’re Overheating
If we regularly struggle with feelings of anger then we may need to consider if past ways of thinking are affecting us. ‘If we endlessly repress our anger it may flare up suddenly. You may have grown up in a family in which feelings were repressed and any expression of them discouraged. This is likely to mean your emotional development has lagged behind other sides of you,’ says Ingham.
If this is the case then there’s no shame in asking for help. ‘If you know you’re repressing anger, if you can feel it wanting to jump out of you at inappropriate moments then you should discuss it with a therapist, and learn how to engage and work on it constructively before it surprises you.’
7. Don’t Shy Away From Angry Entertainment
You might expect Ed Sheeran devotees to be generally less angry people than headbanging fans of death metal – interestingly, science says the opposite. A University of Queensland study found that fans of extreme music actually felt calm, positive and inspired while listening to it. ‘Listening to extreme music may represent a healthy way of processing anger for these listeners,’ concluded the researchers.
So, if you imagine that swapping kung-fu flicks for rom-coms is going to chill you out, then you might be mistaken. As Ingham says: ‘It may be that being prepared to experience louder, angrier music, theatre, or art means that we maintain a healthy and open relationship with feelings like anger.’
8. Learn From Your Shadow
If you remember Peter Pan then you’ll recall him not even knowing he had a shadow until Wendy showed it to him. Ingham says it’s the same with anger. ‘It’s essential that we develop a relationship with the emotional sides of ourselves that we otherwise try to deny and reject.’
‘If we deny them they have a nasty habit of catching us out by surprise when we aren’t prepared. Something happens to trigger our anger and we suddenly become an angry parent or partner. By being open to our shadow sides we embrace the feelings we normally try to deny, such as anger. We recognise the range of emotions we experience – this is how we mature emotionally.’
WHAT NEXT? Want another view on the upsides of anger? Dan Moshavi’s Ted Talk on this is a good place to start...