The Function of Anger
How do you feel about your feelings? Feelings can be overwhelming, problematic, or inconvenient, and they can also be important tools to help us navigate our experience and relationships. This article will focus on the function of anger, how to communicate it in a healthy way, and how to hold space for someone else's anger.
My lens is informed by social and evolutionary psychology with a firm grounding in attachment theory. Based on these I approach emotions as sensations that serve a purpose. Generally, if a behavior isn't useful we tend to stop doing it (*discussion of maladaptive behaviors to follow). Specifically, emotions are meant to elicit a response from others so that we get the care we need.
Anger is an incredibly important emotion - it is how we know that a boundary has been crossed or that we are being blocked from something important to us. Now I want to be very clear here: the emotion of anger is very different from the behavior we then use to communicate our distress. People are often afraid to feel into their anger because they have conflated the emotion with harmful behaviors like becoming emotionally or physically violent, or withdrawing/shutting down. Even though there may be good reasons to be wary of behaviors related to anger, the emotion itself is simply information communicating that we need to protect or advocate for ourselves, and that is an incredibly life-affirming human experience. Moving through anger ideally gets us to a place of safety; suppressing anger leaves us unsupported and vulnerable to further harm.
So if the function of anger is to help us protect ourselves, how do we use that responsibly? Here we will focus on accidental harm within an established relationship. The first step is to give the benefit of the doubt. Likely that person did not mean to hurt you and they care about your well-being; you can first give them a chance to help you make it right without blaming or shaming them. If they then display a lack responsiveness or compassion, it may be time to remove yourself from that situation. Hurting them to 'show them what it feels like' just loops you into an alternating victim-perpetrator dynamic and, trust me, that is a no-win situation for everyone involved.
An example of a healthy way to express anger might be, "I'm hurt and angry that you chose to spend time with your friends instead of me on our anniversary." It can be helpful to focus on what you do want: "I really want to feel like a priority to you, especially on special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries."
Unhealthy examples would be attacking the other person's character (e.g. "you're a selfish jerk for forgetting about me") or playing the victim (e.g. "you always leave me behind/you never prioritize me"). Even if those are things that you are actively thinking, expressing those sentiments would be feeding into a cycle of harm and it's our job to regulate ourselves so we can communicate compassionately. If you aren't in a place where you can communicate nonviolently, reach out for support - ask a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional to hold space for your anger so you can process and metabolize it to a point where it becomes constructive instead of destructive. While you are receiving this support it may be helpful to focus on identifying your unmet needs rather than rehashing what the other party did or did not do. Ultimately, we do not have control over them or their behavior; we can only ever truly have control over ourselves.
What about when the roles are reversed? Knowing how to respond when someone is (responsibly) expressing anger about something we did can be tricky. We often want to immediately jump to defending or explaining ourselves - stop. Remember this phrase: Impact before intent. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, but communicating our intention must be put on hold until we've dealt with the impact of our actions. If they are angry that means that they are hurting and need our help. Our job is to reestablish safety first, to express remorse for harming them - regardless of whether or not we meant to - and to offer repair. If after all that they are open to hearing why we did the thing that was ultimately harmful, we are then free to share. However, focusing on intent before impact often comes across as minimizing or dismissing the other person's experience. Even if you're not saying, "it's not a big deal, you're overreacting, I didn't mean it" they will likely still hear some form of, "your reality is less valid than mine and therefore your feelings about this are wrong."
Another very important thing to understand is that anger is not a primary emotion, meaning it shows up in response to feeling hurt, scared, unsafe, abandoned, or otherwise insecure. Anger's job is to protect us when we are distress. The whole point of reestablishing safety through remorse and repair is to get at whatever vulnerable wound is underneath the anger; once we are able to understand and attend to that, we can begin to heal.
Many of us were taught that we had to be convenient in order to be loved. In fact, a lot of folks feel like they don't "get" to be angry, that if they display anger they will be unlovable, unwanted. These are usually people who grew up in homes where it wasn't safe to have boundaries, and those of us who grew up like that usually have a hard time expressing anger in a healthy way, usually alternating between collapse/shame for having needs and feelings, resentment about those unmet needs, and the occasional throwing of barbs in response to the pain of neglect, self-inflicted or otherwise. For these folks, I want to encourage practicing advocating for your needs way before they become a problem. You deserve to be cared for and protected. The way you teach people how to love and protect you is by letting them know what feels good, what doesn't feel good, and why.
In healthy relationships, boundaries are not a threat. Rather, they are an important road map showing others how you need to be loved and cared for. I hope that someday the response to anger within your relationships - in both directions - is gratitude for the communication and empathy for the distress.