“Good” Vs “Bad” Anger

Anger has a bad reputation in our culture. It’s considered toxic by some, for others it brings up bad memories of family shit, for others it is entangled with violence. But anger has a purpose, and — when expressed appropriately — has an important place in relationships.

First, let’s differentiate between anger that is a core emotion and anger that is a defensive feeling. A defensive emotion is one that is used to keep other people away, and to cover up a different core emotion that feels too vulnerable to show. For example, you feel hurt by something your partner said, but rather than feeling that emotion, you feel angry and find yourself wanting to lash out with an angry comment of your own. That’s defensive anger — it’s covering up the true feeling (hurt) and serves the purpose of pushing your partner away so you can have some space in an attempt to feel safe again.

When anger is a core emotion, it looks and feels different. Core emotions (anger is one, the others are joy, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust) are crucial to our survival as human beings, that’s why evolution has kept them around. Core emotions give us important authentic information and deliver that info fast, much faster than our rational brains take to come to logical conclusions. All core emotions have an “adaptive action tendency” — which means they inspire some action that is beneficial to you. For example, fear tells you to fight or flee. Sadness causes you to seek out others for comfort. And anger fuels you to assert your boundaries. If your boss orders you to stay late despite your previous agreement about ending your work day in time to pick up your kid, you might feel anger rise up to let you know that something is not right and you want to stand up for yourself.

This brings me to the second important point about anger: feeling is different than expressing. The anger you feel towards your boss contains wisdom about what is good for you, and can fuel adaptive, productive action to help you get your needs met — provided you express that anger appropriately. There is nothing wise nor productive about punching your boss in the face in this example. Nor hurling insults or making passive aggressive comments. An example of an adaptive action would be breathing through the first intense wave of anger, composing yourself, and then using all the energy and fire of that anger to give you the courage to calmly and assertively remind your boss of your agreement about your hours. In this case, anger is not covering up another emotion, and it is not trying to push someone away. The anger is expressing a survival need — to take care of yourself — and is trying to keep you in relationship with your boss by asserting or negotiating your needs.

Getting to know yourself and your experience of anger takes some time and practice. It helps to build a regular habit of having one “foot” in observing your emotions while your other “foot” is experiencing the feelings. Using your observing self, notice everything you can about what is happening right now. What body sensations come with this anger? What thoughts? And — very important — what other feelings are there? If you stay with your anger for a moment, just feeling without acting on it, are there other feelings just under the surface of the anger? Do you feel sadness, or grief? Hurt? Something else?

With a regular practice of observing yourself, you can get to know yourself and your anger. You can start to detect very quickly when you are feeling a wave of core anger that you should listen to, and when you are feeling a wall of defensive anger that you need to look beyond.