Anger is a negative emotion—that’s what we’ve been taught and what our culture believes. But is it true? Is anger “bad”?
Years ago, in the midst of divorce, I came to the surprising realization that I had been angry for a very, very long time. Because I had considered anger an “unacceptable” emotion, I had denied and repressed it. Acknowledging my anger allowed me to write about it, and writing about it helped me to understand that my anger was a protective mechanism, and that I could use the energy of that anger to change my life for the better. As a result of that experience, I’ve learned to be grateful for my anger. It has become, for me, a red flag signaling that some fundamental need is not being met.
When you consider that anger is often a response to emotional or physical pain, and also consider possible secondary emotions, such as depression, anguish, sadness, fear, and desperation, anger begins to seem like a positive response. Anger, as opposed to depression, is full of energy—your pulse quickens, your body heats up, and you want to do something, anything. When all that energy is directed positively, good things can come of it. It’s the unbridled, undisciplined anger energy that causes the problems we associate with this emotion. That’s why we talk about dealing with, letting go of, and managing anger.
Although there are various degrees of anger, as I see it, there are basically two kinds: the quick, in the moment response, that makes you want to scream or yell or hit something, barely containing the frustrated energy in your body; then there’s the long, slow boil, a deeper anger born of repeated pain. This second form of anger, when it goes unrecognized and unexpressed, can become toxic, causing health and relationship problems and eventually escalating to rage. Both types of anger can be destructive, or—yes, even the slow-boil kind—can have positive, constructive outcomes.
But how do we move to the constructive side of anger? Writing about anger is one of the most effective ways to understand, express, learn from, and take positive action by guiding your anger. Through writing, you process the reasons for your anger. Once you know why you’re angry, you have more control: you can examine your responses and choose different ones. You can learn from your anger and take positive action to protect yourself from further disappointment or harm. Anger, as in my experience, becomes an emotion that wakes you up and makes you pay attention to yourself.
It’s difficult to write when you’re in the throes of immediate anger, so I advise waiting until you can sit still. Then, while you’re still feeling the anger, bring it to the page. Here are a few writing prompts to help you get started.
- Express your anger: put on paper every negative thought, wish, and destructive impulse. Write about wishing your ex would jump off a cliff or get into a car accident; write out those murder fantasies; scrawl all the names you’d like to call that coworker or situation. Slash the pencil across the page. It’s okay. No one will see what you write, and you can always shred it when you’re done. Write until you feel the anger seeping out through your fingers onto the page. Until you’re exhausted or, better yet, you can laugh at yourself, just a little.
- What are you angry about? What happened to hurt you? Was it an act by someone else? A situation out of your control? Freewrite for ten minutes, beginning with, “I’m angry because …”
- What does your anger tell you about your life? What does it tell you about yourself?
- Write a conversation with your anger. Ask it why it exists and what positive action it wants you to take to feel better.
- Write several concrete steps you can take, along with how you will accomplish them. How can you respond differently or what do you need to do to protect yourself from being hurt again? For example, if, after writing, you decide your response was due to something that happened long ago—in other words, the recent behavior or event didn’t actually cause, but triggered your anger—you may decide to spend several sessions writing about the original event, or you may decide to seek therapy. If you decide that you need to remove yourself from a harmful situation, write down the actions you need to take.
- Freewrite for ten minutes about all the ways your anger empowers you to change your life, beginning with, “My anger empowers me to …”
The bottom line? Anger can be a negative, destructive emotion, but it doesn’t need to be. When you use writing to process and learn about your anger, you’ll have the power to choose what you want to do with it.
What do you do with yours?
Image credit: Elena Lagaria