Feeling stuck? Releasing rage could be the key to clarity and empowerment
When Jenny* began counselling, she felt stuck. She used to know what she wanted from life, but now found herself feeling lost and unsure of herself. Mike* entered therapy with an anxiety that kept him up at night. During the day, he felt invisible, overworked, and teetered on the edge of burnout. Samira* had a sense of hopelessness about the world. She often talked about oppressive social systems that left her with fewer opportunities than her husband, but felt as though there was nothing she could do about her future.
All of these clients came to therapy with different symptoms, histories, and relationships. What they had in common was that concealed anger was underlying their presenting issues. They each wanted to feel more alive, empowered, and capable of living the lives they wanted. Perhaps surprisingly, the key to this is learning how to access and use anger to solve our problems and achieve empowerment.
What is anger?
Anger is a natural and appropriate emotional response to something external that is in conflict with our personal values. It arises when our boundaries have been crossed, when someone does something we disagree with, or treats us in a way we dislike. Anger is a powerful sign that our needs are not being met.
Yet, anger is perhaps the most misunderstood and frequently denied emotion. I hear many clients make statements such as “I’m not really an angry person,” suggesting a cultural misperception that feeling anger is a fixed and inescapable part of our identity, rather than a transient emotional experience.
In reality, if we acknowledge anger and express it appropriately, it will resolve, like any other emotion. It is actually when we disavow anger that it becomes detrimental to our wellbeing.
Why do we push anger away?
Expressing anger often involves confrontation with others. If we are in any doubt that the relationship can withstand such a rupture, denying our anger becomes a way to avoid relationship breakdown. In the moment, it seems far simpler and less frightening to pretend we are not angry, so we turn anger inward, hoping it will subside. However, this only internalises the conflict; creating anxiety, low mood and a sense of being stuck.
What is the difference between anger and violence?
Another reason anger is denied, particularly in men, is because it is confused with violence. However, whereas anger motivates us to problem-solve, violence is actually a passive behaviour. When people are unable to express anger in a safe, healthy, and productive way, they are more likely to discharge angry energy with violence. This may feel like a temporary release, but it fails to address the problem which created the anger in the first place. Expressing anger healthily is about active problem-solving, not violence.
How can we recognise repressed anger?
Anger is a powerful emotion that, when left unexpressed, takes up a lot of energy. Physically, it can leave us feeling drained and exhausted, but sleep does not help, because anger is not relieved by rest. Restoring our capacity requires an appropriate release of the pent-up angry energy.
Clues that anger might be underlying our behaviour include being short-tempered and passive-aggressive with others. For example, we may expect others to know what we need without telling them, then feel short-changed when they don’t comply with our unspoken wishes. Alternatively, we might over-adapt to others. As humans, we push each other’s boundaries frequently, so it’s natural to feel angry sometimes. If we ignore these feelings, it’s likely that we are ignoring our own needs and, instead, prioritising the needs of others.
Emotionally, feelings of being stuck, low self-worth, and helplessness as a result of not asserting your own needs and boundaries can be a sign of chronic repressed anger.
How can anger be positive?
When expressed healthily, anger can be an empowering and protective force which improves confidence, self-esteem, and personal agency. When we allow ourselves to feel anger and express it appropriately, we are communicating that our boundaries deserve to be respected. This is empowering and becomes strong evidence that we can meet our own needs and protect ourselves. Over time, this will translate into increased confidence and a sense of self-worth. Anger is a signal from the body that we need to act on something to achieve justice. When we consider anger this way, it becomes an important part of our individual empowerment.
5 ways to turn anger into empowerment:
1. Own your anger
Expressing anger is all about ownership. Anger is your feeling in response to something that has happened. When we project it externally and make blaming statements such as “You made me feel…”, we create a battle of defences that rarely helps us solve our problem. Try using ‘I’ statements to communicate your feelings, followed by what you would like to happen, e.g. “I felt angry when you overlooked my contributions in the meeting last week, and I would like to discuss my suggestions on this project.”
2. Release anger physically
Anger produces highly physical charges within the body, which are often felt in the arms and chest – a sign the ‘fight’ part of the nervous system’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response has been activated. This is why ‘calming down’ is often unhelpful in releasing anger. Expressing anger through movements involving the upper body is a great way to discharge this pent-up energy. Book a boxing class at your gym, throw tree branches around in a woodland, or even take a red felt-tip pen and scribble swear words into a notebook.
3. Don’t minimise anger
Often we minimise our anger by saying things like “I’m not angry, I’m just annoyed.” If we think of anger as a scale, ranging from slight irritation to full-blown rage, then frustration, annoyance, and agitation are all derivatives of anger. It’s OK to allow yourself to recognise anger for what it is, and not minimise your experience by giving it a softer label.
4. Investigate the cause of your anger
Try reflecting on events surrounding your anger to better understand your triggers. E.g., if you felt incensed when a car cut you up on the motorway, question what evoked your rage? It might be feeling like someone else has put you in danger, or that the world is not safe for you, suggesting fear lies beneath your anger.
5. Consider therapy
Connecting with anger might be difficult if you grew up in an unsafe environment, perhaps featuring domestic abuse, or a parent with an addiction. A counsellor can allow you to safely explore your relationship with anger and how to respond appropriately, unlocking a greater connection with yourself and others.
*All client examples are fictional accounts based on a collection of the author’s experiences
If you would like support with anger management, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.