Getting mad never helped anyone, right? Wrong, says psychologist Dr Ryan Martin – you just need to learn how to channel it constructively
Anger has an unnecessarily bad reputation. Because people find it difficult to differentiate it from violence, they don’t recognise that it’s just another emotion – like sadness, fear or happiness. Yes, anger can destroy lives and end relationships. But it doesn’t have to. Anger can be used for good: motivating you to solve problems, inspiring you to confront injustice and create meaningful social change. What matters most is not how mad you are, but what you do with that anger.
As head of a university psychology department, I teach courses in emotions – including anger – and have been researching it for more than 20 years. To me, it is not something we should quell or push away. Anger – the sort that most of us experience daily that doesn’t result in damage, substance abuse, domestic violence or mental-health issues – serves an important purpose.
What makes us mad?
Anger can be caused by a bad driver, by a colleague being late to a meeting or your partner not putting something back where it belongs. But any angry episode has three different components: the catalyst that sparks everything, your pre-anger state and your assessment of the situation.
This is the provocation – usually an external situation, such as hitting a sequence of red traffic lights while driving to work, or your spouse forgetting to put away the milk. Pretty much everything that makes us angry – from sexism and racism to queue-jumpers – tends to fall into three broad, overlapping categories: injustice, poor treatment and goal-blocking.
The Pre-Anger State
You’re sure to remember occasions when you’ve let something go that might normally have angered you. That might have been for any number of reasons. But I’d wager that the times that the same catalyst has made you really angry have been when you’ve been in one – or more – of the following physical and psychological states: tired, hungry, physically uncomfortable, anxious, stressed, sad or already frustrated. This is why driving can be an angering experience, for it activates states such as stress and anxiety.
Together, the catalyst and our pre-anger state feed into our assessment process. This is how we evaluate all the different things we experience every day. When we face provocation – be it a colleague failing to meet their responsibilities, a fellow parent not adhering to school drop-off rules, or being honked at on the road – we must decide what it means. If we judge the provocation as intentional, preventable, unjustified and/or blameworthy and punishable, we’re more likely to be angered.
Our assessment can be put into two categories. Primary assessment, which looks at whether we think someone has done something wrong, and the secondary assessment, focusing on the consequences.
For example, if someone cuts you up in traffic, that’s the catalyst. If your pre-anger state is that you’re not in a hurry and feeling charitable, you might decide the other driver made a mistake and there’s no harm done. But if you’re late or stressed, you might assess things differently and decide the other driver had acted deliberately, disrespecting you, because they thought they were more important than you. As a result, you get angry.
The people who are most angry tend to be those more likely to evaluate situations and other people negatively. They’re more likely to blame others when things go wrong. And they are more likely to evaluate negative situations as catastrophic and decide that they simply cannot cope.
How angry are you?
Some people are more prone to anger. If you are one of them, your assessment of a situation is more likely to include five specific types of thoughts…
1 Over-generalising This means you tend to use words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘every’ and ‘nobody’. So you’re prone to saying things such as, ‘You never put the milk back in the fridge’; ‘I always get cut up’; ‘Nobody listens to me’.
2 Being demanding or prioritising ourselves over others. So you might think, ‘This driver needs to speed up so I can get to work.’ Or, when queuing in a shop you might think, ‘This store needs more staff so I don’t have to wait so long.’
3 Misattributing causation This is when we think of ourselves as persecuted or a victim. So when someone goes in front of you in a queue, you assume they did so deliberately, even if they didn’t.
4 Catastrophising We have all been guilty of blowing things out of proportion – even small actions such as assuming your dinner will be ruined because your partner forgot to buy potatoes.
5 Inflammatory labelling When we reckon people are ‘total idiots’ or ‘utterly incompetent’.
Is your anger justified?
1 Was I treated poorly or unfairly?
2 Is someone/something blocking my goals?
3 What may I have done to contribute to this?
Question three is particularly important. You might think that if you discover you’re partly responsible, it could make you feel guilty or sad. However, recognising the role you’ve played in getting angry can be very helpful because that is the part of the situation you can change. You might, for example, admit that you’re catastrophising – the other driver was behaving like an idiot, but realistically you’re not going to lose your job for being five minutes late.
Or you were guilty of over-generalising – yes, your partner left the milk out of the fridge again but, while it is annoying, they were probably distracted and didn’t do so because they see you as a housemaid.
There are longer-term ways of taking responsibility for how likely you are to get angry. For example, if you regularly get angry on the way to work, might it be because you’re hungry? If so, the answer may be to get up earlier and have breakfast at home rather than at work. Or rearrange your schedule to travel when the roads are quieter. In truth, we have a lot of power over our own circumstances to help minimise the chances of us getting angry.
Use your anger wisely
If you conclude that your anger is justified, you shouldn’t ignore it. There are occasions when we absolutely can, and should, feel anger. Anger served our ancestors well. It helped not just to keep them alive, but also to thrive. Harnessed properly, it can serve that same purpose for all of us now. If you accept a negative situation in the belief there’s nothing you can do, the anger will not abate – it will lead to additional stress and sadness. Instead, think of your anger as providing you with the energy and power necessary to change things that need addressing. Here are some ways it can be channelled…
★ Problem-solving Anger alerts you to a problem, so use it to identify and solve the issue. Maybe you’ve had a leaky tap and one day it frustrates you to the point that you drop everything and fix it.
★ Seeking broader change Some problems really are huge, such as climate destruction, sexual harassment or online bullying. It’s not surprising they may make you livid. This is when anger can help create a better community and world – by impelling you to donate to or volunteer for important causes, write letters or even run for political office.
★ Asserting yourself It is possible (though sometimes uncomfortable) to have meaningful conversations when angry.
Start by telling people, in an assertive way, if they have wronged you. Sometimes, when we try to suppress anger, we end up stewing for days. But often it’s not too late to revisit a conversation, to say to someone, ‘The other day when [something happened], I felt angry and didn’t say anything.’ You may still not get the outcome you want, but you’ll probably feel better about how you handled things.
★ Creating art, literature, poetry and music Many beautiful and powerful works have been motivated by anger or serve as a powerful expression of anger.
★ Seeking support Sometimes, when you’re angry, the thing you need most is a person who will listen and hear you out, especially when the goal is less about venting and more about processing the frustrations. My advice is: choose your listener carefully, and ensure they understand they’re being used as a sounding board rather than a punchbag.
And talking of punchbags, people often operate under the mistaken assumption that a good way to deal with unwanted anger is by ‘letting it out’ – for example, by punching a pillow. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work in alleviating unwanted anger. Instead, it does the opposite.
When to take a deep breath
If you find you’re angry but you don’t really need to be, there are some exercises that can help.
I think of anger as fuel. Like any fuel, it can get too hot. So we need to find ways to lower the temperature. That is what happens when we embrace relaxation or distraction. It is what we do when we find ways to re-evaluate our thoughts or avoid cues.
You can try ‘triangle breathing’ where you inhale for three seconds, hold the breath for three seconds, exhale for three seconds. Or you might want to find a quiet spot away from others and do some deep breathing there.
Adapted by Claire Coleman from Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change by Dr Ryan Martin (Watkins Media, £12.99). To order a copy for £11.43 until 31 January, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.