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After two years of navigating a global pandemic, tensions are high. While conducting research for our book Big Feelings, we heard from readers who told us that they'd recently lost their cool over all kinds of seemingly small triggers: inconsistent WiFi, an email from their boss that just read "?," or a coworker pinging them at 4:45 pm asking for a "quick favor."
When we face chronic stress or trauma, our brain "rewires the rage circuits," explains neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields. In other words, the sustained level of stress and fear you experience every day when you're under pressure depletes your emotional resources, making you much more likely to get mad, even at minor provocations.
Our emotional outbursts can be upsetting, especially because we often receive messages that anger is harmful, irrational and should be suppressed. But anger isn't inherently bad, and suppressing it isn't good for you or the people around you. In fact, if you know how to channel it, it can serve you. "Anger is pain's bodyguard," writes author David Kessler.
Take Pixar executive Brad Bird, who intentionally recruited frustrated animators to work on a new film because he believed they were more likely to change things for the better. The result? The Incredibles, a movie that broke box office records.
If you want to channel your anger in more positive ways, here are six things you can do:
Acknowledge that a violation took place.
We often try to immediately stamp out our feelings to avoid appearing upset. But if you're hurt because of an unfair decision or made to feel unworthy because someone continuously excludes you (or worse), you're allowed to feel unapologetically angry. Don't immediately take your emotions out on another person, but acknowledge what you're feeling. In fact, research shows that, when it's justified, anger is a much healthier response than fear because it triggers feelings of certainty and control, which are less likely to lead to the adverse effects of stress like high blood pressure or high stress hormone secretion.
Even if the event that triggered your anger seems minor on the surface, the sparks that cause us to internally explode usually have kindling. For example, maybe the co-worker we mentioned earlier asking for a "quick favor" at the end of the day has a history of handing their work off to others or unnecessarily emailing during off-hours.
Avoid excessive venting.
Blowing off steam is not as productive as you might think, even though it's long been presented as a cathartic activity. (Take, for example, the proliferation of "anger rooms," where you can pay to smash TVs and dinner plates with a baseball bat.) Research shows that this type of "destruction therapy" causes your anger to escalate rather than diminish. Psychologist Brad J. Bushman studied people who used a punching bag to let out their anger, and found that "doing nothing at all was more effective" at diffusing rage.
Similarly, chronic venting, where you rehash the same problems without trying to understand or solve them, has also been shown to make both you and the people listening to you feel worse. One of our readers, Paula, told us, "I finally had to put a limit on how much I trash-talked with co-workers. I found that using the time to instead focus on how I could learn or improve made me feel a lot better."
Identify the specific needs behind your emotion.
Research shows that focusing your attention on the need behind what you feel allows you to take a more objective, detached look at the situation — and to better protect your emotional well-being.
A few questions that might help you clarify the reason(s) you're mad:
- What triggered my anger?
- What feelings are underneath my anger? Perhaps fear or powerlessness?
- What do I need to be okay right now?
- What longer-term outcome would make me feel better?
- What steps can I take towards that outcome?
- For each of those steps, what do I risk and what do I gain?
For many people, the emotion behind anger is fear. You might be afraid of being powerless or having something you care about taken away or go wrong. In fact, philosopher Martha Nussbaum even argues that the most common political emotion is fear, which politicians pray on to stoke anger and action.
If you can, talk about your emotions—without getting emotional.
We recommend first giving yourself time to calm down before you make any major moves. When we're upset, we're less able to think strategically. If your heart is racing or your fists are clenched, pause for a few minutes. Liz has learned to evaluate her anger on a scale from 1 (irritated) to 10 (enraged), and aims to wait until she's settled down to a 3 or 4 before taking action.
If your anger was triggered by someone else's anger, you may want to share how their actions affected you. To prepare for that conversation, clarify your goal, what you'd like to say and when you'll say it. This simple formula can be helpful: "When you_____, I feel _______."
While we were leading a corporate workshop in early 2020, a woman asked what to do when her boss yelled at her. Another participant spoke up. "I'm an executive assistant, and my boss used to frequently yell at me, even when he wasn't angry at me but was angry about something else," she told the group. "It would make me flustered, and then frustrated that he was making me flustered. One day I finally said to him, 'I know that you're upset right now, but when you yell at me, I'm not able to focus on my work.'" Her boss apologized and realized that he was inadvertently hurting her performance. His outbursts became much less frequent.
If you can't communicate your anger, indirectly address your needs.
Sometimes, you'll have to face the ugly truth that you're angry because of something you can't change. In those instances, look for ways to remove yourself from the situation or, if you can't walk away, to indirectly address your needs (e.g., by seeking out support from friends or a therapist).
Rachel, one of our readers we spoke with last year as part of our research, felt powerless in the face of a difficult boss, but couldn't quit their job right away. "His unrealistic expectations and authoritarian leadership style left me in a constant cycle of stress and inadequacy," they told us. Rachel started to take small steps to boost their self-confidence and feel more valued at work. First, they reduced how much they interacted with their boss. "I also built a network of mentors and colleagues who knew me and appreciated me in ways my boss didn't," Rachel said. "That helped me prevent his feedback from sabotaging my self-worth."
Channel your anger energy strategically.
For a long time, Rutgers professor Dr. Brittney Cooper thought she needed to be in control of her emotions to be respected — and to avoid being labeled as an "angry Black woman." But that changed when one of her students told her, "I love to listen to you lecture because your lectures [are filled with…] the most eloquent rage." The authenticity of Dr. Cooper's emotion made her students pay attention. Now she thinks of anger as a superpower that can give Black women the strength to fight injustice.
Research backs Cooper up. If we tap into it, anger can actually increase our confidence and make us certain that we are capable and strong. Researchers found that people who are angry also hold the belief that they will prevail under any circumstances. During U.S. Navy SEAL training, new recruits learn that they can use the intense emotions and adrenaline that come from rage to give them energy when they face dangerous circumstances.
You can use this same strategy and use anger as the motivation to effectively advocate for yourself. Say you feel you deserve a promotion but have been scared to ask. Think to yourself: What would I do if I were the type of person who got angry about this? Or what would I suggest a friend do in this situation if I were angry on their behalf?
Most of us are raised to equate anger with out-of-control meltdowns. But this emotion is an important signal that something is wrong. And, harnessed effectively, it can give us the strength we need to make things right.
Liz Fosslien is the head of content and communications at Humu. Mollie West Duffy is an organizational development expert and consultant.
This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.