As I work to become a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have about 8-10 weekly therapy sessions with clients. I see a wide variety of presenting problems and people with no one case being the same as another. However, some themes start sticking out the more individuals I work with. One particular theme that I have heard and worked hard to fight against is the idea, “I cannot or should not feel angry.”
Every one of us has eight primary emotions. Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are the five identified in Disney Pixar’s Inside Out, but we also experience interest (sometimes called anticipation), surprise, and shame. Every person is born with these emotions wired into their brain. That wiring causes our bodies to react in certain ways and to awaken certain urges when the emotion arises. This is nature. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way many of us learned that only seven of these emotions are safe to feel, while one needs to be squashed and eliminated.
On the one hand, it’s not hard to see why anger is scary; when you feel angry, your entire body is flooded and put on alert. The sensation is purposefully unpleasant as your body is trying to prepare to fight off whatever threat has upset it, something that can’t be as effectively done if you’re relaxed. We have also all been witness to what happens when someone allows their emotion to lead to inappropriate behavior. Anger can be at the base of physical altercations, verbal tirades, or vandalism, and was likely a part of the punishments we received as children.
With all that showing us how bad anger is, why on earth would we want to experience it? Here are some of the ways that anger serves a purpose, and how it benefits us.
Just as physical pain indicates to us that there is something awry in our bodies, anger indicates that there’s a problem somewhere that needs to be addressed. Anger tells you that someone or something has violated your personal values or boundaries and you are feeling motivated to fix or defend things. Feeling anger allows you to know where your boundaries are, whether physical or emotional, and keeps yourself protected from danger.
Within your relationships, anger can also be a helpful indicator of what your partner’s needs are, and how you can help them. Anger throws up a red flag to warn us that there is dangerous territory ahead, and establishing what those boundaries are allow both partners to respect and honor the other’s needs.
One of the primary purposes of emotions is to help evaluate our experiences. Just as we cannot know light without darkness, we cannot know joy without anger. We also cannot know what personally matters to us. While my husband becomes furious over unfounded statements in politics, parents who name their children things like Hashtag gets me seeing red. Although these seem like small issues, they define a lot of who we are as people – my husband is more politically minded, while parenting issues matter a lot to me.
Due to the uncomfortable nature of anger, many of us will do whatever it is we can to avoid it. While it is not beneficial to trample your feelings down until they implode, noting where change needs to occur in order for the anger to subside can make a world of difference. If there are small things that make you angry that you cannot avoid, it may be time to sit down and work to discover what it is that is making you so angry. Often there are troubling memories or small traumas in our pasts that have made that topic difficult to process, and so anger takes over to protect.
Realizing that emotions are real, natural, and unavoidable is an important thing for everyone to do. There is a time and a place for anger, and acknowledging that allows you to honor both yourself, and the emotions of others. Anger can help couples soften towards one another as they are reminded that relationships and people are not perfect. Angry outbursts and conflicts are not inherently damaging, rather the inability to resolve them is. Allowing your partner and yourself to experience and express anger promotes a sense of honesty and vulnerability, two things that can, in the long run, help the relationship grow.
This said, the benefits of experiencing anger does not forgive any form of abuse. Angry tirades, name calling, physical aggression, or sexual coercion have no benefits and no place in a marriage or any other relationship. While we cannot control the emotions that we experience, we can control our behaviors, and work to find appropriate and healing expressions of anger, rather than destructive ones.
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Written by Melece, Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, PhD.