Because of display rules, many of us have internalized the idea that any show of anger is unacceptable. In the United States, this holds true especially for women and people of color. Yet unexpressed anger often turns into resentment, which is a quick route to soured connections.
Resentment increases the risk of what Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, calls “emotional leakage,” such as smothered anger that comes out in a snide comment; this is one way repressed anger harms relationships.
“Love, connection, vulnerability, and emotions are the relational glue,” she says. “If you start thinking, I’m angry with this person, but I’m just not going to say anything because I’m not allowed to feel this, then you’re still feeling angry but you’re not bringing that anger in a constructive and effective way to the relationship.”
When we shrink our anger to fit what we think a relationship can handle, what we think we deserve, or what we think we’re allowed to feel, we’re cutting ourselves off from the chance to repair issues that need attention.
“When you take the time to accurately name your emotion, you reduce it to a finite experience with boundaries.”
But when we accept and express anger constructively, it becomes a tool that allows us to address injustices and attend to unmet needs. (For more on the power of anger, see “The Upside of Anger.“)
For many of us, learning to express anger can be scary: We might fear that once we open the floodgates, everything will come tumbling out and we’ll lose control. Yet consciously choosing to accept our anger gives us other choices. We can decide when, how, and to whom we will express it. (See “Healthy Emotional Expression” further down.)
When you notice you’re feeling anger, David says, first create some distance between yourself and the feeling, which is different from burying or denying it.
She recommends these steps:
- Name your anger precisely, even if you’re speaking only to yourself. Other feelings can fall under the umbrella of anger, she says: You might observe that you’re frustrated, grumpy, annoyed, defensive, irritated, disgusted, offended, or spiteful. “When you take the time to accurately name your emotion, you reduce it to a finite experience with boundaries.”
- Put space between yourself and your anger linguistically, shifting from “I am angry” to “I feel angry” (or frustrated, irritated, or defensive). “When you say, ‘I am angry,’ what you’re saying is that all of me, 100 percent of me, is defined by anger,” David explains. But we are always more than just one feeling.
- Take a break — even if it’s just three deep breaths — to witness your angry feelings before you express or act on them. This allows you to shift from feeling flooded by anger to observing it. “You open the door to it and to what it suggests,” she says. “But you’re not letting the emotion run the show.”
This was excerpted from “6 Difficult Emotions and How to Deal With Them” which was published in Experience Life magazine.
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