Not all aggression looks the same. Any act, word, or gesture that pierces through into someone else’s personal space and causes the other to feel unsafe, threatened, or hurt is considered aggression. That could be a look, shouting, pulling a gun, or ignoring someone.
We have many unclear and inaccurate views about anger, causing long-term conflicts, stress, and illnesses. Many of us believe that aggression always includes violence, that all aggression comes from anger, and that all anger is aggressive. On its own, anger is not necessarily aggression. Let’s take a look at anger from different angles.
All religions, therapists, doctors, and many others have something to say about anger. Looking at history, you can see how it has played a role in human events. It seems to be something that we all encounter—that we all have within us—and that we all need to either overcome or embrace. Most of us will agree that unchecked, unbridled anger is destructive and should be overcome. The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Anger
There is healthy anger and unhealthy anger. Anger is only aggressive when it explodes or seeps out unconsciously and harms, violates, or disempowers others. When anger does not influence another in a harmful way, it is simply a healthy expression of your deeper feelings and passions. Expressing anger in a healthy way can lead to creativity, motivate you to take action, and help you access your personal power. Early twentieth-century, American Congregationalist theologian and author Lyman Abbot said, “Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry well.”
Because we were not encouraged to express our anger in a healthy way, we were taught to hold it in and not express it. Over the years, as this tension builds in the body, we get cut off from our creativity, power, and ability to connect in an openhearted way. The human body and psyche can only take so much tension, anxiety, and blocked energy before it somehow needs to be released.
When you choose to express anger consciously in an environment that is therapeutic or safe, you let off necessary steam as a way to avoid it exploding or leaking out at inappropriate moments. By doing so, you avoid the reactive outbursts that you oftentimes regret afterwards.
Think of a balloon. If it has too much air, it will eventually explode. If you let the air out without holding on to the opening, it can get out of your hands and fly all over the place. However, if you have a strong hold on the opening and choose to let it out in small amounts, you maintain control of how much air is released. Like the balloon, if you are in control of releasing your anger instead of letting the emotions take control of you, no one gets hurt.
Constructive Ways to Release Anger
You may be the type who can easily express anger, someone who has never expressed anger, or maybe somewhere in between. Not expressing anger doesn’t mean you don’t get angry.
There are many constructive ways to release your anger and old, unresolved pains and experiences that may be blocking your natural flow of energy. Grab a pillow and bang your bed. Go to the beach or the woods by yourself and scream as loud as you can. Do some rigorous physical activities, like gardening or shoveling snow. These are some examples of how to release pent-up energy.
As a preventative strategy, you are taking responsibility for your own actions and state of mind. You are learning how to be angry in a healthy way if you can teach yourself to recognize when anger is rising and then find a way to express it that doesn’t feel aggressive to another. The important point here is to train yourself to not direct your anger towards someone else. Anger in itself is not harmful. How we use our anger is.
Another way to view anger is to see it as a signpost for what is happening internally with you or someone else. Using anger to gauge the state of being of someone is a skillful way to succeed when you are confronting challenging issues. In my observations with people from around the world, people generally get angry when they feel helpless, powerless, or that they are not being understood.
Take a look at past moments when you or someone else was angry. Usually you will discover that under all the confusion and heated emotions, the person who was angry somehow felt that they had no way out. They felt trapped, powerless, paralyzed, or frustrated that no one was listening to what they were saying or needing.
Don't Be Afraid of Anger
When you view anger in this way, you will be more likely to succeed in avoiding conflict, reactive behavior, and separation. Instead of engaging with the anger, stay centered and don’t take it personally. This higher approach to anger and aggression will transform your life and your relationships. It is the anger that is harmful, not the person. Show compassion and understanding to the one who is angry and ask yourself, “Why is that person feeling powerless, helpless, or misunderstood?” When you find an answer, make an effort to listen more and let him know that you are there to support him, hear him, and help him find his way back to empowerment.
Don’t be afraid of anger! See it as a rich and powerful way to express yourself. Like other emotions that we tend to avoid, like fear and sorrow, anger is part of our human condition and something we all have in common. In the process of respectful confrontation, it is your task to examine all of who you are, even the unpleasant parts of you. By doing so, you free yourself of the patterns that cause you to be reactive and aggressive. You integrate all of who you are leading to wholeness, balance, depth, and freedom.
Excerpted from Mastering Respectful Confrontation by Joe Weston. Copyright © 2012 by Joe Weston.