Anger. Healthy and Unhealthy Expressions
Anger in ourselves or others can be experienced as frightening, stressful, triggering in lots of ways, but expressed in a healthy way it doesn't necessarily need to be a negative experience.
Unhealthy Anger Is an action or behaviour, it is not a feeling or emotion. It crosses boundaries, is acted out without permission and is intended to control or harm others. When it is expressed inwardly it becomes depression and other associated experiences. It is the pushing down of feelings that are too painful to bare, and it becomes a coping mechanism from a childhood environment where feelings were not ok to feel, because those feelings (anger) would threaten the attachment (to the parent), learning to survive by pushing the feelings down (depression).
Unhealthy anger expressed outwardly can become violence. Violence is the crossing of a person’s boundaries without informed consent or choice, with the intent to control or harm them.
Our experience of anger in childhood shapes our relationship with it in our adult lives. For example a child may have been shouted at, hit and told they were useless. They may have felt angry, embarrassed and fearful at the time. The child may have developed a defensive behaviour of silence and agreement that they were useless believing the narrative imposed and deserving of being punished. Creating a belief that anger equals fear and pain, being flawed, and having issues with people similar to the perpetrator. Experiencing anger and criticism in adult life may manifest in gut tension, go quiet rather than speak up in a responsible manner, and a belief that anger is power, provides safety and control but inwardly believing they are useless, unlovable and struggling with authority.
A further example a child with an alcoholic parent being assaulted and left alone. The feelings experienced then may have been fear and hurt, and trapped. Creating a defence of being numb, and creating beliefs that anger is dangerous and to be avoided becoming ‘good’ and compliant, finding comforting behaviours, feelings that no one could care or protect them. Experiencing anger in adult life triggers ignoring or denying feelings and internalising problems. A belief that anger is likely to be violent, employ placating and rescuing behaviours rather than dealing with conflict, internalising inner pain and not reaching out for or accepting help
Healthy Anger is experienced as an internal feeling which becomes an emotion when expressed, it respects boundaries, is expressed only once permission is received and it is not intended to control or harm anyone.
To express anger in a healthy way, it is done by clearly stating one’s intention. Asking for and receiving the permission of another. Being direct and honest. Respecting known boundaries and staying present to deal with any resulting issues afterwards, through dialogue.
In healthy anger we take responsibility, are self-reliant and accountable for our choices and actions and accepting the consequences. Being self-reliant we are open to information, are aware and accepting of our own thoughts and feelings, being conscious, responsive and not reactive. Making considered choices rather than acting solely on impulse or in accordance with accepted norms or personal default patterns.
A positive expression of anger has benefits, it can engage aggress energy which is a passionate life force energy that enables us to step forward in our own truth in a bold and energetic manner. Enables us to meet, stand up to and handle stress. We can stand forth in our own self in the face of immobilisation, helplessness or loss. It is a passionate, assertive energy, and it accompanies anger expression at a body level.
The stages of healthy anger expression
Source – identify the situation or person that triggers the feeling of anger. Explore the trigger before taking action or any behavioural release. Ask, is this familiar, what is it about, why am I suddenly reactive, what do I want to do, if I do it what are the consequences?
Trigger - is an automatic unconscious response to an adult situation which brings up feelings from unresolved childhood trauma.
Arousal – Becoming aware of heightened tension and accept it for what it is i.e. a passionate state of arousal, including muscle tension, hot or cold body sensations, boost of adrenaline etc.
Release – Choosing responsible anger expressions to release the tension while exploring the internal experience of anger, rather than simply allowing the impulsive and automatic reactions.
To disrupt the automatic cycle a slowing down of the sequence from trigger to release can be practiced until it becomes a natural process.
Elements of healthy anger expression
Intention – motivation for choice of behaviour. Express one’s feelings clearly and be in direct and responsible contact
Permission – is a prerequisite for non-violent expression of anger. Clearly and effectively requested, and granted, the role of permission is to acknowledge and slow down reactivity
Boundary limits – guidelines for the safe* expression of anger. I.e. no throwing, hitting, threats, damage to property, agreed timeout words, time limits, and debrief when done.
Form – chosen mode of expression, voice, breath, often vulnerability, or to contain the feeling while remaining curious and maintaining a state of tension.
Focus – our experience of self and others. A willingness to engage and relate in a personal manner is characteristic of the focus in a non-violent anger expression.
Energy – non violent passion. Interactive, connecting and spontaneous.
*Safety is not a feeling; it is a series of qualities, behaviours and actions defined by an individual as ‘safety’. Once these are in place, it is possible to say ‘I am safe’.
Process of clearing anger in a relationship
Clearing is not a solution. There is no solving, it is the process of sharing.
1 - Determine the reason for sharing a negative i.e. to clear the air etc.
2 - Ask for and receive permission – respect ‘no’. ('no' is a full sentence)
3 - Share the intention
4 - Agree on a time frame, and method, and a reconnection
5 - Full breath, maintain eye contact and stay present
6 - I statements ‘I felt angry not you made me angry’
7 - Separate thinking and feeling (there is an important difference between thinking and feeling that something is happening (your interpretation based on your perceptions) and feeling sad or angry as a result.
8 - Invite feedback
9 - Continue dialogue until feelings are clear, a limit is met or you agree to disagree. (or time limit is met…. agree a time to return to it)
10 - Awareness, Acknowledgement, Acceptance, Action and Appreciation
There are various safe processes that can be engaged with individually in order to process the bodily feelings / letting off steam without impacting others. For example
Write a letter (send it, don't send it), tantrum, hitting pillows, twisting towels, tug of war or shouting 'mine' over a toy with a consenting person.
Where anger has had a debilitating or sedative impact, the use of energisers can be useful, such as
Dance, focused breathing, bioenergetics, tug of war, leg wrestle, thumb wrestle, walk, run, swim, tantrum, stomp, tear paper / magazines, shout, scream, growl, kick or hit a pillow.
Push hip to hip, back to back or hand to hand (keeping constant pressure, no knocking over).
Being triggered and experiencing anger need not be met with shame, it is an acknowledgement that we have suffered pain, and this is deeply rooted in our childhood. Acknowledging this can set us free of that unresolved childhood pain and the resulting triggers and anger that we experience. Our feelings are the language of the body and in essence is showing us clearly what requires healing, we can choose whether or not to listen, but it will keep telling us!