A lot of the people I see view anger as being a wholly negative emotion, because they think it somehow shows them as weak or lacking self-control. The truth of course is that feeling angry, which is perfectly healthy and natural, is in itself absolutely neutral – it’s how you express your anger that can be damaging to yourself and those around you.
A recent Mental Health Foundation study found that a third of people had a friend or relative who struggled with their anger management; a quarter worried about their own feelings of anger; and a fifth had ended a relationship or friendship because of the other person’s anger. Whether you think that as a society we’re becoming angrier, or just more willing to express it, the fact is that poor anger management is a very real problem for people today.
The two classic responses to anger are “blowing up” or “bottling up”, and I’m often asked which is the best – normally by people who want me to say that it’s the one that they’ve chosen. Let’s take a quick further look at the two responses though before I give you my answer.
Normally it’s the people who see anger as negative that bottle it up, and who think that they’re absorbing their anger without anybody being able to tell. However, even if other people were somehow unaware of the ensuing sarcasm, criticism, stone-walling, and pettiness the fact is that the people who bottle it up can never ultimately fool themselves.
This is because the long term effects of anger can be make themselves known through increased blood pressure, hypertension, strokes, and even heart disease; lowered immune responses leading to more frequent colds, flu, and infections; and in responses such as social withdrawal, substance and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and depression.
It’s these that people who “blow up” often cite as a reason for expressing their anger, in the belief that it frees them from the effects of long term anger. What they aren’t aware of is that expressing anger and confrontation trigger the release of dopamine. What they see as the reward for “standing up for themselves”, “drawing a line in the sand”, or “making a point of principle” is in fact the pleasurable response to the dopamine.
People very quickly start to chase dopamine responses because of how enjoyable they can be – and when they come from expressing anger people not only develop the habit of being angry but need to be angry more often, and then angrier, to get the same effect. “Blowing up” then eventually leads to the same physical and behavioural problems as “bottling up” anger.
So my response is that neither is the right habit, because the question is a classic false choice. The answer is to look at your anger and ask yourself (i) whether you’re right, and (ii) whether your anger is doing you any good – will blowing up or bottling it up actually be of any real benefit to you? The skills around this are imagining how the situation and your actions may have looked to the other person; real honesty about what you would have done in their place; really listening to what the other person says before reacting; and mindfulness and the ability to let go of thoughts and reactions.
If you struggle with anger management, if you’ve overcome it, or if something I’ve said has made your blood boil then please leave a comment.