Are You Expressing Your Anger Constructively or Destructively?
By Georgia Shaffer
(Excerpt from Taking Out Your Emotional Trash, chapter 5, by Georgia Shaffer, Harvest House Publishers)
I grew up in a home where I never learned how to express my anger in a healthy way. In fact, I believed anger was a bad thing. If someone hinted that I might be angry I would say, “I’m not angry. I’m just upset.”
Many years later I finally understood that the real issue isn’t whether I get angry but what I do with that anger. As the Apostle Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin.”
The first step in expressing your anger constructively is to recognize when you are angry and realize how you usually handle this emotion. Do you tend to hold your anger inside or do you dump your feelings on others in a destructive way? Here are at least six ways we can express our anger in a harmful manner. Do you recognize yourself in any of following descriptions?
Aggression is the outward expression we most often identify with anger. Shoving, slapping, hitting, and kicking are common physical responses. We may throw things or break items that belong to us or others. We can be verbally aggressive by yelling, name-calling, insulting, or cursing.
Criticism, as a destructive expression of anger, is finding fault or expressing disapproval of another person. Verbal attacks and being critical may seem similar, but criticism isn’t always as obvious. Delivered politely without using a loud voice or foul language can make it very subtle. Some experienced criticizers deliver their verbal jabs while smiling and end by saying, “I’m only telling you this for your own good.”
“I’ll get even with him,” Abby said after her husband left her to be with someone else. “He’s not going to get away with this.”
The desire to get back at someone is a common reaction when we’ve been hurt or violated. The huge downside to this style of anger is that as long as we focus on getting even our unresolved anger and hostility can take root in our hearts and grow quickly in bitterness.
As one man said to me, “It’s only in looking back that I realize how much all my relationships were poisoned because of the bitterness I held toward my ex-wife.”
“I was only kidding” is a comment we often hear after someone has made a cutting remark and we are pulling out the knife and tending to our emotional wound. Sarcastic people seem to enjoy embarrassing others. They may even tell us we are too sensitive if we respond to their jabs. They may defend themselves by saying, “I didn’t mean anything by it. Can’t you take a joke?”
Making a joke at the expense of others or poking fun at others’ sensitive areas—such as age, weight, or hair loss—is using anger to impact others negatively. Sarcastic comments and putdowns do nothing to improve relationships. In fact, they can destroy one, whether quickly or slowly.
Temporarily leaving the scene of a heated argument can be a good thing. In the midst of conflict it can give both parties an opportunity to calm down and think the issue through. But distancing ourselves becomes destructive when we do it to avoid communicating with someone. People who withdraw often refuse to answer emails or calls—sometimes for days, weeks, or years.
One couple I knew could best be described as icebergs silently passing each other. They communicated only about essential things and never talked about any of the issues that infuriated them. The silence, of course, never resolved anything. Eventually they divorced.
After I gave a talk about anger and “the silent treatment,” one woman came up and thanked me. She said, “You know, I’ve been married for 32 years, and I never thought of myself as being angry when I refuse to talk to my husband or son. I realize now that’s exactly how I am feeling. I guess I just didn’t want to think of myself as ever getting angry.”
Maybe we don’t give someone the silent treatment, but we get stingy with our time, attention, money, and other resources. We hold back the very thing we know someone wants or needs.
Cayden is extremely giving of his time and money. Whenever possible he finds ways to help his stay-at-home wife. However, she always knows when he is upset with her. She says, “He’ll ‘forget’ to do something like replace the burned-out brake light on my car. But he’ll never admit he is angry. This upsets me, and then I’ll withhold my affection and attention in other ways.”
I once asked a group at a women’s conference which destructive expression of anger they resorted to the most. One of the girls laughed and responded, “All of them!” Whether we tend to use sarcasm, criticism, or give the silent treatment, we want to intentionally learn ways we can use those potentially toxic feelings for good. The goal is not to get rid of anger but to take that raw energy and turn it into something new and constructive.
Converting our anger into a positive force is a lot like recycling plastic containers. Once our recycled plastics are cleaned and compressed at a recycling center they are shipped to another location where the plastic is shredded and melted into small pellets. These pellets are sent to different manufacturers who make new plastic products. The plastic pellets become different plastic containers, warm fleece jackets, and plastic parts—something new and different. The plastic, however, is the same raw material from the beginning of the recycling process to the end.
In the same way, we can take the energy of our anger and channel it into new, healthy directions. I’ve found it helpful to do something physical like take a walk, garden, or clean my home. Journaling is another way I process my anger. On more than one day my journal has become a trash can where I dump my emotional junk.
You may choose to express your anger constructively by talking to a friend or counselor, addressing a relational issue, working broadly to right society’s wrongs, or finding new solutions to old problems. Anger is a God-given emotion. Just as God gets angry but does not sin (Exodus 34:6), you too want to accept your anger and control it rather than allowing it to control you. After all, why would you want to waste all that valuable energy?
Related article: Taking Out Your Emotional Trash
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Georgia Shaffer, author of Taking Out Your Emotional Trash: Face Your Feelings and Build Healthy Relationships, is a licensed psychologist in PA and certified life coach who speaks frequently about relationships. Take the free Dump Your Junk or Trash Your Relationships assessment at www.GeorgiaShaffer.com.
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