Do you think anger is always a negative emotion? Something to be avoided or ignored? Discover how constructive anger can actually be good for you.
- Posted on Mar 23, 2016
Many of us are taught that anger is an emotion best kept inside. Anger is negative and dangerous, we are told. Be kind. Practice forgiveness. But anger has purpose and value, and when it’s processed and expressed in a healthy way, it can actually improve several areas of your life.
Read on for five ways what psychologists call “constructive anger” can be considered one of your most important tools for strong emotional health.
Understanding “Constructive Anger”
Before you can put “constructive anger” to work in your life, you need to understand how it differs from its toxic cousin, “destructive anger.” Destructive anger is aggressive, impulsive, and explosive, often marked by shouting, verbal and physical abuse, or self-destructive acts.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
Constructive anger is none of those things; it is solution-oriented, proportionate to the perceived wrong, and marked by self-examination, curiosity, and respect for yourself and others.
“Constructive anger is anger that heals,” says Lisa Najavits, a Boston-based psychology professor and author of the trauma and substance abuse treatment manual Seeking Safety, in which she coined the term “constructive anger.” This healthy type of anger, she says, “is a source of important learning that leads to growth.”
Anger Can Motivate Us to Break Bad Habits
“Anger can be a very motivating force for bringing about positive change,” says Janet Pfeiffer, an anger management coach and the author of The Secret Side of Anger. If you have a bad habit, from mindless eating to too much time on Facebook, it can take getting angry at the habit’s negative effects on your life to inspire you to do something about it.
Pfeiffer, who is a survivor of bulimia, says she used the emotional energy anger brought her to replace her bad habits with healthy ones. “I directed my anger at the bulimia,” she says, “and with great determination, freed myself from what was holding me back from fully embracing life.”
Anger Can Strengthen Your Career
Whether you are observing unfair practices by your company, feel unvalued by colleagues, or are tired of a coworker swiping your snacks, anger often shows up at work. If possible, advises Pfeiffer, address concerns directly with the colleague you’re struggling with, unless involving HR is in your best interest.
To have a productive conversation, particularly with a superior, be honest with yourself about whether hurt, frustration, or anxiety is a bigger culprit than anger in the situation. “Address the underlying cause of the anger rather than the anger itself,” says Pfeiffer.
Is it truly a workplace issue, or does the situation make you angry because it reminds you of something from your past? Once you identify the reason for your anger, if it’s work-related, you can discuss it calmly, which increases your chances of being heard and respected at work.
Anger Can Change the World
Seeing a homeless person struggling on the street, witnessing prejudice or injustice, or simply scanning ever-worsening news headlines provokes many emotions, including anger. Channeling those feelings into concrete, constructive action is a long-held principle among those who advocate for social change.
“When I am angry, I can pray well and preach well,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. When you put your anger to work for a cause you believe in, you’ll feel energized and inspired, and you just might make the world a better place.
Anger Can Improve Relationships
In love and friendship, anger is inevitable, and how you confront it can have lasting consequences. Consider anger an “alert,” says Pfeiffer. Screaming, blaming, or acting out physically can destroy your relationship, but expressing anger constructively can save it.
Imagine an emergency room doctor, she says. “If the EMTs bring somebody in on a stretcher, the doctors don’t get emotionally wrapped up.” They stay calm, rational, and focused—and so should you when working through a relationship challenge. Give yourself time to calm down, set goals, and approach your partner with respect, as neutral a tone of voice as possible, and an open desire to move forward together.
Anger Can Foster Healing
Anger is a natural part of healing from traumatic life events. Najavits says, “You may feel angry at people who hurt you, at the world, at God, at yourself, at life, at family, at strangers.” Acknowledging and exploring that anger constructively, with the guidance of a trained professional, is crucial to the recovery process.
“In recovery,” says Najavits, “the goal is to use your anger as a way to learn about yourself and grow. The task is to face your anger without letting it destroy you or others.”
To those who worry their anger is too strong to contain or channel in a healthy direction, she reassures: “It is never too late, no matter how long you’ve had a problem with anger. Mainly, it requires really listening to others’ feedback about your anger, ‘owning’ your feelings rather than acting them out, expressing anger in healthy ways, and learning to tolerate the painful feelings behind the anger.”