Your Rage Is an Opportunity

A therapist’s advice for feeling energized, not exhausted, by anger

Angry dog barking.
Photo: Russell Monk/Getty Images

For many of us, 2020 has been a long journey from fear to rage. We’ve watched our anxiety about the pandemic and the election transform into a primal scream of anger. We’re angry at our neighbors for not taking the same precautions as us, our leaders for their unreliable responses, even ourselves for not being as resilient as we thought we were.

Anger is an uncomfortable but necessary emotion. We use it to act quickly when we sense danger and to defend our personal boundaries and the rights and safety of others. But I often tell my therapy clients that while anger can energize you, it can also leave you feeling burnt out and powerless. It can send you careening toward hopelessness.

But you can turn all that rage into energy that promotes good and brings out your best self. Here’s how.

Root your anger in reality

I suggest that my clients ask themselves two questions when they experience anger. First: Is my anger rooted in reality or in my imagination?

When we’re angry, it’s difficult to stay objective. Instead, we can become reactive — we jump to conclusions, disregard our own mental health, act without thinking strategically, and ignore others’ points of view. Reactive anger might look like assuming the worst about a friend ignoring your texts or consuming a horrifying news article without stopping to verify its accuracy.

If you want your anger to be useful, you owe it to yourself and others to grasp for reality when you become physiologically activated. That means allowing yourself to see the big picture, gathering facts, staying responsible for your own mental health, and thinking critically about where to direct your energy.

Use I-focused responses

The second question I encourage my clients to ask themselves: Am I using my anger to direct myself or to control others?

Sometimes our reactions to anger are more about relieving the intensity of the emotion than about solving the problems making us angry. Often, that looks like trying to control the person who upset us. When we feel bad, we want others to feel bad too, which can mean we try to shame them into apologizing or behaving better. We might chew them out on social media or demand a very specific penance.

This can achieve a temporary fix, but very rarely does anyone become a better person through shame or coercion. What feels good may not create good. More often, it complicates things. For example, screaming your political opinions over a family Zoom call can encourage a loved one to cling to their disturbing beliefs.

Rather than trying to control others, you can use anger as an opportunity to get clearer about your own response. What behaviors will you put up with or not put up with? How would you like to respond when someone hurts you or another person? This is what I call shifting from a “you” focus to an “I” focus. Because when you’re angry, the only variable you can control is yourself.

You-focused response: You need to stop interrupting me when I talk.

I-focused response: I will not have a conversation with you if you keep interrupting me.

You-focused response: You cannot continue to believe in this harmful policy.

I-focused response: I will educate others, voice my protest, and vote you out if you support this policy.

You-focused response: You can’t keep going out without wearing a mask.

I-focused response: I will not see you unless you regularly wear a mask.

To shift to an “I” focus, it can help to ask yourself: How would I like to respond to this situation? Anger can make us feel powerful, but it doesn’t provide us with an action plan. If we don’t direct our energy toward our own response, we’re likely to end up feeling powerless in the end. Trying to force others into maturity is almost always futile.

This also means you should avoid shaming yourself when you feel angry. Anger is a normal reaction when your world feels unaligned or unfair. Your job isn’t to banish the feeling; it’s to figure out whether that feeling is rooted in reality or not. If you find that it isn’t, then it’s likely misplaced anxiety. Find a way to calm yourself down instead of mentally beating yourself up for experiencing the emotion.

If you decide your anger is justified, then figure out how you’d like to respond to it. A thoughtful anger response should clarify the problem and its complexities instead of obscuring them. It requires putting up with the discomfort of sitting with your anger while you determine your next steps: Can you lead with your beliefs and principles and not with what feels good in the moment? Can you focus on yourself and not trying to bully others into behaving better?

When you lead with solid thinking and solid action, anger can help you solve problems of any size. Stay angry, but never lose sight of yourself.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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