Anger has a bad reputation — especially for women. The first sign of aggravation on our faces, and we’re immediately told to “calm down,” reminded to “relax” and instructed to smile. We’re raised to be kind and polite and not ruffle any feathers so as not to disrupt the status quo or upset anyone. For Black women especially, the intersection of sexism and racism — through the offensive and reductive “angry Black woman” caricature — can make anger particularly difficult to embrace.
Except it’s all total bullshit. Not only are all women entitled to our anger, but by embracing it, we have the drive to actually do something about whatever or whoever is the cause. To understand this better (and get some ideas), here is some background on the emotion and how to deal with it effectively.
What is anger, exactly?
Yes, of course we all know what anger is and looks like, but given its bad rap, it’s probably not a bad idea to focus on separating the emotion from the behavior.
“When we think of anger, we often think of the behavior rather than the emotion,” Scott Dehorty, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director at Maryland House Detox at Delphi Behavioral Health, tells SheKnows. “The behavior is aggression — the feeling is anger. Anger is a natural and normal response to a variety of stimuli. People tend to feel angry when threatened, wronged, persecuted or witness to injustice.”
And while anger is a healthy emotion, it’s only so to an extent, John Hamilton, chief clinical outreach officer at Mountainside Treatment Center, tells SheKnows.
“Anger begets anger, so you don’t want to provoke someone to be angry, but when someone is feeling anger, they need to be able to process it as an opportunity to learn about and make peace with themselves,” he explains.
Furthermore, Dehorty reminds us that although anger can be a very useful emotion, if left unchecked or unexamined, it can take on a life of its own and turn into aggression.
“Anger can help to motivate and focus but can also lead to violence and hostility,” he explains. “The key is to recognize anger and the feelings under the anger.”
How do we use anger as a tool for productivity & change?
Now that we have a better idea of what anger actually is (and why it’s not always a bad thing), let’s take a look at how, exactly, we can use it as motivation.
Figure out the underlying issue. Not only is anger a valid, healthy emotion, it’s also a helpful clue into what motivates us. Dehorty recommends figuring out what is driving the anger and whether it’s also tied to hurt, fear or sadness. Then, once the source is identified, the issues can be addressed, he says. But if he underlying issues are ignored and you only focus on getting the angry feeling to end, it’s most likely to lead to even more anger.
Use it to gather information. Even if you’ve pinpointed the underlying issue, try to take that one step further and determine why a certain person or situation made you so angry.
“I think the best way to look at anger is to see it as information that can help you by allowing you to recognize that what your expectation of the situation is might not be a match for what is currently happening, and that’s an issue only you can resolve,” Hamilton explains.
Learn from your anger. Like most things, anger can be a learning experience and give you a better understanding of what’s going on in your life. If you figure out that the underlying issue causing your anger stems from hurt and loss, the next step may be to accept and/or forgive the person(s) responsible, Hamilton says, adding that as soon as you’re able to do that, it will allow you to accept and forgive yourself.
“This is actually the litmus test for those in recovery,” he says. “For a person who has a stable recovery, they have a lot of gratitude, but if they’re in relapse, it’s a lot of resentment. Having resentment is not functional and is where anger can get you in trouble. As someone once told me, you can be bitter, or you can get better.”
Don’t make it about you if it isn’t. Oftentimes, when people get angry, they are personalizing a particular situation in a way that makes it about them — even if it’s not.
“In order to avoid this, try to reframe the situation and figure out why you’re really upset,” Hamilton suggests. “Are you having a bad day, or did it trigger a flashback to a bad relationship from the past? Figure out where you can take responsibility and learn from the situation.”
Understand that you can’t control everything. As frustrating as it is to admit, a key part to harnessing your anger for good is to make peace with the fact that there are certain things that are outside your control, Hamilton explains.
“This realization allows you to channel anger in a more productive way and be able to diffuse the anger much more quickly by taking responsibility for feeling that emotion,” he says. “If you’re not taking responsibility for it, it ends up with this insidious process of having resentment.”
Take action. Sometimes, figuring out what’s causing your anger isn’t hard at all. For example, if you don’t agree with how a certain politician or political party is handling an issue — say, reproductive health — then it’s natural to get angry, knowing that a specific policy could negatively impact yourself or many others. You know what you’re angry about, and because you had that emotional response, you’re ready to start getting stuff done.
“Use anger as motivation for change,” Dehorty advises. “If you are angry, do something. Make a change, become active. Otherwise it will turn to vengeance or apathy.”
A version of this story was published May 2018.
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